Editor’s note: This story is part of the Business Matters special section.
It takes more than just hard work to be a successful farmer today — it also takes a lot of business savvy.
Consumers’ preferences are always changing, so farmers have to be willing to adapt and interact with the community.
“We’ve found that the consumer wants to know where their product is coming from — they want to be involved in it,” Candy Wasson said.
Wasson Farm, run by Candy, her husband, Ron, and their six daughters, has been in the family since 1922.
The State College farm started out as a milk bottling and jugging operation, but when Candy and Ron took charge in 1989, they continued as a dairy farm but began to explore other ventures, such as ag tourism, ag education and crop farming.
The number of farms in the United States and the way in which they operate have changed greatly over the years.
In the 1930s, about 30 percent of the population lived on a farm, now it’s down to about 2 percent, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. In that time, the number of farms decreased from about 6 million to about 2 million.
Centre County’s about 1,200 farms have not been immune to the shifts in the agriculture industry either.
“We’re going to have to feed the world and we’re falling in numbers,” Wasson said. “... Our whole idea with our farm is we want to bring people back to their history, back to their heritage.”
Putting the focus on the consumer, the Wassons have made opening up the farm to the public a priority.
They operate a fresh produce market, host Fall Fest with live entertainment and have hayrides to the pumpkin patch, and take about 2,500 students on tours of their farm each year.
“They get to see the industry as it is. (The kids) are seeing how their food is being grown, how the farm is being run,” Wasson said.
Wasson Farm — which is about 500 acres of leased and owned land — hasn’t downsized at all, Wasson said, but the dairy side of the operation has not expanded, for several reasons.
Wasson said expansion could be in the future but it’s quite a difficult task in the dairy industry partly because there’s a surplus of milk.
Wasson Farm ships its milk to Land O’ Lakes, which controls the surplus by placing a base in effect that determines how much milk a farm is allowed to produce. If a farmer produces more or even less than that base, they can be penalized, Wasson said.
But it’s not just big corporations that can make it hard to expand in the dairy business.
“(Dairy) is consumer based, and the consumers are not drinking milk like they used to — there are other options,” Wasson said.
And that’s why Wasson Farm created more ag tourism and educational activities to get the community involved.
Harner Farm in State College has also seen a change in the market in recent years. Owner Dan Harner said he’s had to find other ways to support the farm throughout the year.
In the 1980s, Harner Farm grew about 30,000 bushels of apples each year and shipped them to three warehouses. However, two warehouses have since shut down and the other downsized considerably, Harner said.
With the market disappearing and because of how much work is involved in maintaining the operation, Harner has decided to sell about 72 of the farm’s 102 acres.
The farm, which has been in the family since 1945, now produces about 5,000 bushels per year, and that number will likely decrease even more as Harner transitions more into the pick-your-own fruit market.
He says pick-your-own is easier to manage and is a good way to interact with the community.
“I think there’s something interesting going on with the economy in general — there’s been so much emphasis on Amazon and ordering everything online and all that, you would almost believe that everybody wants to sit in front of a computer all day,” Harner said. “And I would take the contrary opinion to that. I think people really want to be out and do something.”
Harner has also implemented other ways for the public to experience his farm, such as having a fall corn maze with all sorts of mock scenes, running a produce market and hosting fundraisers where a portion of the sales are donated to various community groups.
He said it’s important to spread out the risk — don’t put all your eggs in one basket in case of a spring freeze.
“If we keep our eye on the ball, I think we’ll be OK, but you gotta be willing to make a change,” Harner said.
Similar to the Wassons, Harner wants to educate the public about the agriculture industry. For the past few years, Harner has been thinking about starting a farm camp program for local kids so they can see where their food comes from and how a farm operates.
Both Harner and Wasson agree that building relationships with the community is key to being a successful farmer nowadays.
“We feel that farmers need to sell themselves because that’s our livelihood, and if we do a good job and make the consumer feel comfortable with the produce, they’re going to buy our produce,” Wasson said.
Kelsey Thomasson: 814-231-6461, @KelsThomasson.