Fruits, vegetables, wine grapes and more
You know your farm is a success as an ag tourism destination when you begin hiring people such as a marketing director, supervisors for specific activities, cooks for the café and police to keep an eye on the 10,000 people who come to the farm to listen to bluegrass music. That’s the position the Huber family is in, and it’s a good place to be.
Huber’s Orchard & Winery in Starlight, Ind., is a 600-acre farm that grows fruit, vegetables and wine grapes. It’s also a farm that aims to market all of its produce on the property, as well as increase the value of its produce and operate the farm as an attraction through most of the year.
The Hubers’ major crops are 150 acres of vegetables such as green beans and sweet corn, 75 acres of apples, 65 acres of wine grapes, 25 acres of peaches and 20 acres of strawberries. A good part of the property is taken up by a winery, a produce market and crafts shop, a café and bakery, a wine and cheese shop, a brandy distillery, a family park and lake, an ice cream and cheese shop and a pedal cart track for kids.
“We also have You-Cut Christmas trees. We offer an agricultural experience for the public from May through December,” says Dana Huber, the marketing and public relations director for this dynamic enterprise. She’s also the wife of Ted Huber, co-owner of the farm with his cousin Greg, and is one of eight Huber relatives working on the farm with 25 full-time and 125 seasonal employees.
Huber explains that this farm was started in 1843 as a dairy operation, and now has employed seven generations of the family. Family is important to them, which is one reason why they have so many activities. “The philosophy of the ownership is to provide a family experience,” she says.
The winery, distillery, farm market and café were developed by the family over the decades as ways to achieve vertical integration of produce by turning it into more valuable products, then selling them on the farm. They are also means of attracting enthused customers to the farm, providing a broad client base. Huber estimates that in 2009 the farm attracted about 480,000 visitors and quadrupled the value of the farm’s produce over what it would have sold for in the wholesale market.
The winery is a good example of how this transpired. A previous generation of Hubers foresaw that value-added was the future and opened a winery in 1978—that was even before the farm grew grapes.
“Our first wine was a strawberry wine,” she says. Strawberries were a traditional crop on the farm, but once the winery was established, the possibilities increased. Wine grapes were planted, both whites and reds. Over the years, the plantings changed as varieties succeeded or failed, and now the farm bottles 18 varieties, either as varietals or blends. Among the grapes grown are Seyval Blanc and Catawba Rose, in addition to fruit-based spirits like strawberry wine and blackberry port, which make use of the farm’s numerous berry crops. The vineyard is now moving toward plantings of more German-heritage dry red grapes such as Cabernet Franc and Blau Frankisch, Huber says.
In the meantime, the winery has grown to be the biggest in Indiana, producing 24,000 cases in 2008. Over 90 percent of the wine was sold on the farm, some of it by the glass to visitors to sip it overlooking the rolling landscape. A wine club formed in 2008 already has 500 members and requires a full-time staffer to facilitate activities and wine sales. Huber notes that more and more of the wine is being sold off-farm in three states, but it is primarily as a branding tool to introduce wine drinkers to the label and encourage them to visit the farm. Accordingly, she says the farm may increase its acreage of wine grapes in the future to meet demand.
An offshoot of the winery is the farm’s Starlight Distillery. In the late ’90s the family researched what could be done with the leftover fruit from the orchards, and found they could follow the example of other orchards that were making spirits from it. Now their distillery has its own bonded space beside the winery (necessary by law) and produces eight drinks, which range from applejack made from surplus apples to grappa made from the grape skins left over from the winemaking process.
“We developed with our state legislators a law where we could have a farm, a winery and a brandy distillery,” Huber says. The Starlight Café started in a different way. The family had a facility where they made sandwiches for their own employees, and as visitors came to the farm to sample the wine and buy vegetables, they also asked for something to eat. Now the café serves appetizers, sandwiches and pizza, handling up to 150 orders on weekdays and double that on a Saturday or Sunday during the season.
The diversification on the farm is almost too varied to enumerate (visit www.huberwinery.com ). There are tours for wine aficionados and school groups, most of which are provided for a fee, and in 1998, the Hubers built a 1,200-seat event center on the farm where weddings, reunions, employee picnics and other events can be scheduled. The Hubers also cater the food for the groups meeting in Plantation Hall.
The same rationale is behind providing free music to farm visitors on a patio near the winery. Scheduled on Saturdays during certain seasons, the bands or singers are local artists and provide music for the people who come out to enjoy the ambience and a glass of wine. As a result, the farm does a “tremendous amount” of business in open bottles of wine, which are legal to drink on-site.
Ted says that diversifying and providing value-added products and indoor services contributes much more than meets the eye. In addition to providing public entertainment for eight months of the year, for example, the farm also generates income even during bad weather when most farm activities are forced to stop.
“You take that peach and turn it into peach brandy, peach wine, peach cobbler and peach bread,” he says, noting it requires a lot of investment and infrastructure, but provides a lot of control, something a farmer often has very little of. In a vertically integrated business like this, the grower can keep a handle on all levels from planting to sale, and that includes one important element: the price. As long as the Hubers are within market limits, they can price their products and services to suit their profit needs.
Also, the farm is profitable, Ted says, but it is also a complex business, incorporated, with various entities to satisfy state and federal laws and tax requirements. Any time alcoholic beverages are being produced, the requirements become more stringent. Even local county ordinances change over time and must be complied with.
However, he points out it is gratifying to be able to provide employment for so many family members. The farm also has many long-term employees who are skilled and part of the extraordinary team. Thus, it is easier to pass down the skills required for such an operation from one generation to another. He also notes that during this economic downturn, the farm’s business has actually improved.
Dana says that there is a cautionary note to all of this. You can’t run a slipshod operation. It has taken many gradual changes over several generations to achieve this level of development, and everything has to run seamlessly.
“I think our greatest challenge is maintaining what we have and keeping quality high,” she says. Management and business sense become necessary skills. The farm can have up to 20,000 guests on an October weekend, and there needs to be adequate parking, safety features, hand-washing stations and police there to make sure it all goes smoothly.
“You live it every minute of the day,” Huber adds, noting that the farm is 30 minutes from Louisville, Ky., and not too distant a drive from other metropolitan centers in Indiana and Ohio. Dedication to the job is important, as is creating a team that is also efficient and dedicated.
Ultimately, however, the Hubers have proved their point. By squeezing every cent out of their produce they have created a dynamic and lasting business. Call it a farm, call it entertainment, but it certainly is called a fun place to visit by thousands of happy customers.
Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.