Pumpkins, strawberries and much more at Hellerick’s Family Farm

The season’s seedlings are planted.

Bruce Hellerick’s red, almost orange, hair is undeniably similar to the color of a pumpkin, but he doesn’t mind the irony.

As a grower, one of his fortes is marketing, and from underneath a straw farmer’s hat that he wears mostly for sun protection rather than effect, it all fits with “keeping it homey, old-fashioned and low-tech,” he says.

The tint of orange is especially timely for the fall, too, one of two prime harvest seasons at Hellerick’s Family Farm, a sixth-generation producer in Doylestown, Pa.

The water tank painted like a pumpkin that greets farm guests on the road in is a giveaway to one of the farm’s bread-and-butter crops.

Then, there are the orange traffic cones near the entrance and exit. When they come down, Hellerick’s is open; when they’re up, Hellerick’s is closed. The cones are cheaper than fencing or gates at the corner property that recently opened a second entrance-egress in an effort to create a courtyard effect on the 30-acre property. With the demographics in the heart of Bucks County, and some estimated 22,000 passersby a day on Route 611, Hellerick says it’s a “real opportunity.”

If the farm was open all the time, perhaps its harvest and services would be taken for granted. Instead, the family works to build anticipation for the two seasons, strawberries in the spring and pumpkins, squash, gourds and 1 acre of zinnias (10 to 12 varieties) in the fall.

Some of the many varieties of pumpkins.

“It’s just something mom and dad started and we’ve continued,” Hellerick says of the zinnias.

In advance of each harvest season, the farm sends out email blasts. As a result, hits increase on the farm website (hellericksfarm.com), and the phone starts ringing.

In the fall, there are 10 acres of 65 varieties of pick-your-own pumpkins, squash and gourds for the “decorator folks.” One variety of squash – The Lady Godiva Pumpkin – no one else in the area grows. It’s green and yellow striped and contains a naked seed that farm guests scoop out, dry and eat.

“The day we open, they’ll all be here trying to find the oddballs,” Hellerick says. “They’ll take the entire vine, 3 or 4 feet worth for their mantelpieces. We tell our employees: Don’t cut the vines.”

There’s also 10 acres of field corn, 5 acres of which are turned into a corn maze. The crop is sold off to a neighboring farmer, who harvests the corn. Planted in crisscross rows, it takes a day to plant the corn, using the Monosem Precision Vacuum Planter that will seed anything from an onion to a pumpkin seed.

In the spring, there are 2 acres of ripe strawberries and 25 to 30 varieties of heritage iris that bloom during strawberry season.

The Hellericks are lucky in that there’s lots of repeat business throughout the seasons. Most customers have a system, arriving at different times for different things.

“People come here for an experience,” Hellerick says.

With 30 acres, the Hellericks plan and plant for the fall, a season with big agritainment value, everything from hayrides to a newer potato slingshot station, where patrons sling potatoes into the woods or aim them at targets.

In a five-year-old market building, there’s also education, like a display on the wall: How to Grow a Pumpkin. During the fall, the family rents a 40-by-40-foot tent. It was once a 20-by-20-foot tent, so that’s progress. “We’ve moved up to it,” Hellerick says. “We needed more room, and it’s much cheaper to rent a tent than to put up another building.”

This spring, the family has also preserved the farm through Plumstead Township, a seven-year negotiation process finalized this past spring. The Hellericks’ was the last parcel among other neighboring preserved township properties, and one officials have called “the crown jewel” because of its history and road frontage along Route 611.

“We’ve been doing what we do for a long time, and the township would like to see us continue to succeed,” Hellerick reasons. “This allows us to put some funds away, but also to expand.”

Commenting on the farm’s motto “We Create Memories,” Hellerick says, “Adults my age will still say, ‘I remember when my grandparents brought me here.'”

Team effort

For four generations, the farm was owned by the Shelly Family. Then, in 1928, Arthur Detweiler Shelly married Caroline Sames Hellerick at the Plumsteadville Inn, then known as Hellerick’s Hotel. Her parents, George Hellerick Sr. and Flora Keller Sames, owned and operated the inn for 42 years, from 1912 to 1954.

Hellerick, now 50, grew up in Lebanon County, but visited his grandparents. He met his wife, Sally Hofferth, at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown. Her family had a Lancaster County fruit farm. The couple moved to Bucks County in 1995 after he began working full time for the Brickman Group, where he’s now a senior horticulture specialist. Before that, he worked as a Penn State county extension agent in Lancaster County.

His father and mother, Karl and Doris, farmed before him, back when Karl was working full-time for what was then the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service). In June 2007, at the age of 79, Karl died after sustaining injuries from a tractor accident at the farm. Doris is still involved, as is Hellerick’s brother, Paul. Hellerick is the farm manager.

While the modern incarnation of the family has the Monosem seeder, with its plates that measure .25 inch to 4 feet, Karl, who always wore overalls and his straw hat, had to hoe open rows.

“This has made it easier, but so does having great people around you,” Hellerick says. That includes Kim Arnold, who manages the market; Andy Wharton, who maintains the machinery; and Sally, who keeps the books. Doris is hands-off, but helps oversee the finances. The Hellericks often hire local high school students, especially if they come seeking a job and interview on their own.

Changing times

Karl and Doris once sold sweet corn for $5 a dozen, then fielded complaints. Now in the fall, the Hellericks sell Indian corn and retail three ears for $4.

“Do the math – and there are no complaints,” Hellerick says with all practicality. “Someone may look for an hour for those three ears that will look just perfect on their door, but when they find it, they’re in awe. We’re giving the customer what [he/she is] asking for.”

It was actually his parents who stopped growing sweet corn in the ’80s. His dad liked growing it, but it took too much time for too little a return.

Years ago, his grandparents called their vegetable growing efforts a “truck patch and grew 50 to 60 vegetables, turning much of it into chow-chow, an old Pennsylvania Dutch sweet and sour treat; the Hellericks still have the old family recipe.

Chow-chow has sweet corn, five types of beans, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, celery and other types of vegetables. This vegetable mixture is then marinated in a combination of cider vinegar, sugar and spices. Served cold, the family, friends and neighbors were canning 12,000 quart jars a year at its peak production. Requiring initiative, they sold chow-chow from the house, along with cakes and pies.

Today, Hellerick’s is filling more of a niche market. The focus is on four or five crops, but doing them big and doing them well. Hellerick says you need to be profitable, or you can’t stay in business, and rather than close up a shop’s doors, we’d have to sell the farm, and no one wants to sell the farm.”

Between seasons, they’re always in a planting and waiting pattern. Hellerick practices double-cropping, getting two growing seasons from the same black plastic he’s put down. For example, once the strawberries end, the plants are killed off and a water wheel planter is used to poke holes in the plastic, and then seeds are dropped in by hand. In the fall, there might be a pumpkin crop in the same plastic. The family has been doing this for a couple of years. The following year, two different crops are rotated in.

With 30 acres, Bruce says he can’t afford to let much ground go fallow, so he’s constantly planning, moving and rotating crops. Because so much of the farm’s topography is also sloped, in the ’70s his father, with his soil conservation background, implemented terraces, most 100 feet wide, throughout the acreage to help retain whatever water Mother Nature offers.

Hellerick means ‘helpful’

In German, the name Hellerick means “helpful.” With a farmer’s eternal optimism in mind, years ago, Karl and Doris created “Thankful 4 U” pumpkin gourds. Each fall they would give them to friends who had helped on the farm during the year with instruction to pass it on to someone who they were “thankful 4” along with the same instructions. Each fall, pumpkin gourds are still hand-painted and available to continue this act of being “Thankful 4 U.”

In 1939, when Route 611, then a new road, cut the most productive fields and the farm in half, none of the Hellericks found progress very helpful. It took a heavy financial toll to keep the farm solvent. Today, however, this change is considered a blessing. Route 611 now provides direct access to one of the major roads in Bucks County and quality visibility. “We couldn’t ask for (or afford) that kind of frontage,” Hellerick says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.