Juniperdale Farms: Large Acreage Diversification

From a modest dairy, Pennsylvania’s Juniperdale Farms has grown into an expanded operation.

It all began as a small family farm, purchased in 1937 by the Fulmer family. When Brian Fulmer’s father and uncle took over after World War II, they began dairying. Brian Fulmer now oversees the farm, which he co-owns with his sister’s husband and his cousin Mark.

Per the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Pennsylvania has 16,600 farms in the 500- to the 999-acre range. Sixteen of those, one of which is Juniperdale Farms, are in Northampton County. The region’s population is growing, but its farms are shrinking. In 1982, there were 30 farms with 500 to 999 acres. About 20,000 fewer acres overall are being farmed in the county now than 30 years ago.

Those statistics are one part of what makes Juniperdale Farms so special. With a goal to always grow enough crops to feed their dairy cows, the farm had expanded from the original 160 acres to today’s almost 1,000 acres, 250 of which are owned and enrolled in the Farmland Preservation Program.

Becoming multifaceted

Determined to grow enough to “feed livestock in a bad year,” and have a surplus if it was a good one, was always a goal of the dairy, Fulmer said. Even so, dairying alone wasn’t going to offer another generation the opportunity to join the family business.

The Produce Crib began its humble origins with the family selling sweet corn from the back of a John Deere Gator. Needing to expand, they converted an old corn crib into a roadside stand sometime around 1998. The family increased acreage of potatoes and offered excess garden produce to attract customers.

Their produce journey began in earnest with Matt Fulmer, Brian’s son, who planted one-half acre of strawberries in 2000 and has been expanding each year. Strawberries now occupy 3 acres, with an active pick-your-own following. They also offer prepicked strawberry sales, selling 2,500 prepicked quarts during their month-long June strawberry season. Several acres of fruit trees, black raspberries and about 25 acres of vegetables complete the farm’s current produce selection.

“You’ve got to be diversified. That’s the only way you can survive this,” Fulmer said. “We’re just looking to make a fair living.”

The need to farm profitably enough to support the next generation meant further changes to the farm. The dairy was “not bringing in enough profit” to justify its continuation, he said, and the cows were sold in 2011.

That change and the continued expansion of The Produce Crib, offered new opportunities for additional family members to join the family farm. When Matt left the farm in 2012, seeking more expansive farming opportunities in Indiana, TaraLee and her brother Shane Fulmer, Brian’s niece and nephew, came to work full-time.

TaraLee is assistant manager for produce production. Shane primarily manages and works the fields and row crops. Brian’s wife, Eva, manages the produce stand. Many other family members help on a part-time, seasonal basis. There are no outside employees in this true family-run operation.

Making hay at Juniperdale Farms

Multiple revenue streams

The farm continues to grow soybeans, grain corn and hay on a large scale, although they no longer should worry about feeding the dairy herd. The 350 acres of soybeans and 425 acres of field corn find their way to wholesale markets. The soy is sold on the export market. The 750,000 bushels of grain corn primarily go to one egg-laying operation in New York state.

Juniperdale Farms is focused on decreasing risk and remaining profitable. Although the row crops don’t bring in nearly as much money per acre, they also don’t require as much inputs as does the produce portion of the business. The row crops have steady, reliable buyers and even serve a purpose in enhancing vegetable crop production, by serving as a rotation crop and decreasing weed pressure in vegetable acreage, Fulmer said.

While soy and corn make up 75 percent of the row crops, the farm grows some small grains, as well as 60 acres of hay. The hay market primarily serves small, local farms, many with horses. These crops provide three-fourths of the farm’s overall revenue each season.

The produce brings in one-quarter of the farm’s revenue, but requires a lot of money to be tied up in their production, Fulmer said.

The Produce Crib remains a roadside stand, but the family is now able to focus on expanding it and wishes to create a true on-farm market. Customers want to come directly to the farm, not to a commercial store location. They will be working to make The Produce Crib more comfortable, convenient and customerfriendly and able to be open for an extended season.

“People want to come to the farm and see where their food is raised,” Fulmer said. “We try to keep it a ‘farm-y’ experience and try not to show too much commercialization.”

TaraLee has focused on adding some educational but fun agritourism events to encourage families to visit the farm. A small petting zoo, a playground, hay wagon rides to the actual field where on-the-vine pumpkins can be picked and tours for small school or scouting groups are offered. Liability issues nixed the pony rides she had planned.

“We want people to hang out here, enjoy themselves, learn something,” TaraLee said. “People are always welcome to walk around the farm and see the animals. I have a few signs hanging up with facts about the different animals for people to read, so they can learn a little more about farm animals.”

The farm is expanding its pickyour- own options to include apples and possibly cherries. But keeping the focus on farming, not on entertainment, is the family’s goal as they expand this aspect of the business.

Planting sweet corn under plastic for the earliest season

Growing produce

The farm has three major produce crops — sweet corn, strawberries and pumpkins — around which the Fulmers have built The Produce Crib. Tomatoes, apples and peaches have become important secondary crops, and they are focusing on expanding availability by extending the season.

The farm’s produce line has grown as customers demanded more variety, wanting to come back to the farm for all of their produce needs, for as long a season as possible. Although the farm now grows many things, beginning with asparagus, rhubarb and some high tunnel lettuce in April and expanding to winter squash, apples and potatoes into the early winter, they don’t grow large amounts of most crops.

“We grow a lot of different crops, but not a huge amount of anything,” Fulmer said. “We try to have the best variety and what customers are seeking [and] focus on customer convenience.”

The Fulmers have experimented with growing crops under cover — both in high tunnels and in fields — as a season extension technique. They also grow many different cultivars, extending the season of any given product if possible. By spreading out the planting and maturity dates of any given crop, it’s likely that at least some of the product will make it to market, too, despite adverse events.

“We spread out maturity. We do that with all crops,” Shane said, not only to offer an extended season to customers, but also to guard against weather, pests or diseases that might cause crop loss.

This season, yield on tree fruit was much lower than 2015, due to frost damage and pollination issues. But with a variety of cultivars extending bloom times, the farm didn’t lose the entire crop. In 2015, they harvested 253 bushels of apples, but only 153 in 2016. Peaches, too, suffered a yield reduction of 40 bushels in 2016, while apricots — of which they have 24 trees — yielded a mere 18 pounds in 2016, a far cry from the 16 bushels picked in 2015.

“This is why you diversify,” Fulmer said again.

Apple season begins in late August and they pick the last apples in mid- November. Granny Smith, Gold Rush and Pink Lady are the three late-maturing varieties. Peaches, too, have a long season, with varieties picking from mid- July through September.

Orchards, originally semi-dwarf, are now being planted in a high-density system, on dwarf rootstock. Yields are expected to be over 400 bushels per acre on mature apple trees. Currently, there are 1 1/2 acres each of apples and peaches, which are not open to pickers. This year, one-half acre of high-density apples were planted for pick-your-own sales.

“You get your crop sooner,” Fulmer said of the high-density orchard plantings and it’s easier for pick-your-own operations, as no ladders are involved.

Tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in high tunnels, as well as in the field, to get the crop to customers earlier in the season and keep it available later. High tunnel crops such as lettuce, spinach, beets and scallions have the potential to bring customers to the farm even earlier in the season.

Innovation and risk

Despite their desire to meet customer demand, Juniperdale Farms treads cautiously. Start-up costs for many crops, such as the high-density fruit trees, or the high tunnel vegetable crops, add up quickly at about $5,000 per acre. Taking on more than they can realistically handle isn’t an option.

The farm expands, “as I feel we can,” Fulmer said. “I don’t want to jump into something huge.”

Some experiments have included growing red raspberries in high tunnels and creating a moveable high tunnel for cherry trees. The red raspberries, which they no longer grow, did very well in tunnel production, but spotted wing drosophila became a major problem.

They are just beginning to grow cherries on dwarf trees. Cherries are prone to cracking just before maturity. A high tunnel would protect the fruit and alleviate bird damage, too. The size of cherries grown under a tunnel is about 10 percent larger than normal, making them more desirable to customers. While cherries are a high-demand, highvalue crop, using their moveable high tunnel would mean either decreasing the amount of high-tunnel tomatoes or investing in another.

Sweet corn is grown under plastic here, to get an early jump on the season. The corn is covered with clear plastic at planting — they row, fertilize, seed and spray herbicide as well as cover the crop with plastic, all in one step — promoting faster growth. Corn is uncovered when temperatures under the plastic reach about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Scorching the plants is a concern. But when done correctly, the corn will be in tassle by the end of May. Without the plastic, the first sweet corn is normally planted in mid-April, with a mid-July harvest.

“They like our corn and they like it early. It brings in customers to buy other early vegetables,” Fulmer said.

Another goal is to begin selling retail cuts of beef. The farm currently has 12 head of cattle, which are sold at auction. They’d like to increase revenue by offering the beef to customers as The Produce Crib expands.

The Fulmer family practices conservation measures, including no, low or strip tillage; contour planting; integrated pest management; filtering field runoff through sod waterways; and applying fertilizers based on crop need. They utilize drip irrigation for the vegetable crops and drip emitters in the orchard. They plan to add gravity-fed irrigation from the farm pond.

“We’re very conscious of conservation practices,” Fulmer said, and educating customers about their farming practices is a part of their goal.

Juniperdale Farms and The Produce Crib have grown along with the Fulmers, evolving to meet the needs of the family, as well as those of their customers. The expansion in crops and production techniques continues, and the family remains focused on a multifaceted approach, diversifying their revenue streams incrementally and spreading risk while changing with the times.

Photos: Juniperdale Farms and The Produce Crib