As many people look forward to the fall as a time to visit pumpkin patches, drink apple cider and go on hayrides, autumn is an important time for local farmers and the agricultural industry.
Many farmers took advantage of Penn State football’s bye week by packing the weekend full of harvest and fall festivals. The Centre County Farm Tour, typically held in early August, was also pushed back this year to the first weekend of October.
”What we wanted to do is highlight the different time of year and also to give some of our farms a little bit of a break, because the summer can be really intense for farmers,” Sarah Walter, executive director of the Centre County Farmland Trust, which organizes the farm tour, said. “And at the time that we changed the date, we didn’t realize this was going to be such a difficult season for farmers with the weather. So it ended up being a good thing.”
Many of the regular farms on the 13th annual tour — like Wasson Farm and Way Fruit Farm — also happened to be holding their regular fall festivities.
Walter said the date wasn’t changed to the prime fall festival date on purpose, but that it all worked out.
“We, like all the other farms, picked this date because it’s a Penn State bye week, and it wasn’t until we started inviting farms that they were like, ‘oh we’re actually having a fall festival that day, can we still be on the tour?’ Walter said. “ ‘And we thought, ‘what a great way to promote all these activities all in one place through the farm tour and also open up some of the other farms that might not be having festivals but at the same time?’ ”
Heather Dippold, of Ferguson Township, along with her husband and three daughters, had the same thought. The family started the morning at Way Fruit Farm in Port Matilda, took a beak at home due to heavy rain, then stopped by the Harvest Fest at the Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market and Wasson Farms, both in Ferguson Township, then ended their day at Bear Meadows Farm in Boalsburg.
Some of the family’s favorite activities included painting pumpkins, making pumpkin magnets and decorating sugar cookies at the PGM Harvest Festival, and riding the barrel train at Wasson Farm.
Dippold, however, especially enjoyed the behind-the-scenes tour at Bear Meadows Farm.
Dairy farmer Jeff Biddle, whose father bought that farm in 1959, took the family and other tourgoers around his property, stopping in the stable to see where the cows are kept, the barn where the cows are milked and the room where the milk is processed and stored. They even got a sample of the raw milk, along with cheese made from the milk — and of course cookies to dip in the milk — at the end.
“We’re pretty proud of what we do, “ Biddle said about his operation, which specializes in raw milk production. “People are so far removed from agriculture that they don’t understand how this all really works. And to actually meet the animals and meet the farmer is a good thing. It helps bring attention to local agricultural industry and gives them a better understanding of their food.”
Farms such as Biddle’s, which didn’t have additional fall fest activities going on, offered people tours and a peek at their daily operations, while some held a mix of tours and festivities, and others focused mainly on their fall festivals while also promoting the farm tour.
At Way Fruit Farm, people got to see the cider-making operation in action, whether they were on the farm tour or not.
Brooks Way, one of the owners, demonstrated the cider press to curious consumers, while his granddaughter served the cider at the end.
John and Suzy Cimbala, of Pennsylvania Furnace, are both regular patrons of Way’s, and came up to see how they cider they so often purchase is made.
“It’s more work than I thought,” John Cimbala said. “I love cider and it was just interesting to see how it’s made.”
Another one of the owners, Jason Coopey, said that in addition to serving its regular customers like the Cimbalas, the fall events they hold each Saturday in October help showcase what they do to more people.
“The fall is kind of neat for us because we see different faces,” he said. “I like the fall because it allows us to show what we do to more people, and that’s what the farm tour also does. It just gives us that extra little bump.”
Similarly, Wasson Farm also holds regular weekend events throughout the fall. This weekend, in addition to the regular hayrides to the pumpkin patch and live music, the farm on Shingletown Road also featured area vendors with its “Taste of Pa.” theme.
About seven or eight different vendors came to sell their products at the festival, according to Candy Wasson. On Sunday, a car show and cruise will be the featured events, and the public will get to vote on their favorite cars.
For Wasson, the importance of fall harvests event is twofold.
“We started this years ago because we have a large family — we have six daughters — and as a large family, we found out it was very hard to go out and be able to afford something, so we wanted to bring it to the people and make it a family event.,” Wasson said. “We also want to bring awareness to the agriculture industry and what better way to do it than invite people into your farm and let them see what agriculture is all about, and visit it firsthand?”
In Pine Grove Mills, the Harvest Festival was a celebration of the end of the growing season, according to PGM Farmers Market manager Heidi Rhoades.
The inaugural Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market wrapped up last week, and by all accounts — vendors and patrons — Rhoades said, it was a success.
In addition to the economic benefit for farmers and educational benefit for consumers, Rhoades said these harvest events and farmers markets also serve a third purpose — to preserve land.
“We were a part of the Centre County Farm Tour because we want to help raise awareness of our local food systems and our farmers in particular, because they are the ones who are really safeguarding our natural resources,” she said. “And as State College and the surrounding area becomes more and more popular, it’ll become that more important for us to conserve our lands. And without our farms, we don’t have that greenscape, that natural landscape or that local food that we’ve grown so accustomed to.”
Despite the afternoon downpour, organizers at each stop said they saw a steady flow of people throughout the day. And Biddle, especially, enjoyed answering people’s questions.
“A lot of people now don’t live on farms, don’t interact with farms on a daily basis,” Walter said. “So it’s important to understand that behind all this food you buy, there are people, and understand kind of what goes into that — especially during a season like the one we just had, which was really challenging.”