Returning to Their Roots

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The next generations of growers are coming home to the family farm.

By Kim Weaver  |  Photography by Casey Martin

Coming back to the family farm in Gettysburg was a given for Penn State University graduate Josh Ramsburg.

The fifth-generation farmer has been interested in agriculture since he was 7 years old and began feeding small calves on his family’s 650-acre, grass-based dairy and grain farm, owned by his father, Lee, since the early 1970s. Despite having developed a self-professed love-hate relationship with weather variability along the way, Ramsburg still wanted to return to Rock Creek Farms after college to work in the fields, oversee dairy production, and leave his mark on the family business. He was hoping to maybe own a couple acres of his own someday.

Since graduating with a degree in agricultural science in 2004, Ramsburg, 33, has been managing operations at Rock Creek Farms. He also put down his own roots. He now owns and operates a farm of 250 acres and sells its crops—hay, straw, and grain—to horse farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey, and to local grain elevators.

On land leased from the Gettysburg National Military Park, Ramsburg, a local food and drink advocate, has grown acres of rye and yellow dent corn, and sold it for spirits-making to the new Mason Dixon Distillery on East Water Street in Gettysburg. He hopes to find success in the future in feeding the spent mash or distiller’s grain to cattle and then selling the meat to area restaurants and eventually the public.

With his eyes open to opportunity, Ramsburg says he is taking advantage of both his college education and early farm experience to run an efficient and ecologically-friendly farm. “The ability to be self-employed in an industry as challenging as farming is exciting,” says Ramsburg, whose wife Tiffany, an event planner, helps around the farm when not caring for their 2-year-old daughter, Clark. “Farming requires several skills. From knowing and applying plant and animal sciences to meteorology, accounting, engineering, environmental stewardship, governmental policy, and regulations, the list is endless. No other profession has as many facets.”

Digging In

Ramsburg is among a new generation of young Adams County farmers returning to their roots, drawn home by love for the land and driven to change the way food is grown and how we eat. And just in time. With the average age of the American farmer approaching 60, this next generation has a strong desire to continue supporting family traditions.

One might suppose that with the numerous challenges in today’s farming industry—shortage of labor, volatile commodity prices, low-profit margin, and expensive regulatory mandates—more farm-raised kids would pursue non-farm careers. But, according to Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, young farmers are optimistic and still see opportunities.

“Many of those young adults talk about the passion they have for farming and their plans of returning to the family farm,” says O’Neill, noting that of the 59,309 farms in Pennsylvania, 97 percent are family farms. “Farming is an occupation, a vocation, and a way of life for most people who grow fruits, vegetables, crops, and raise animals to help feed the world. Farmers have a love of the land and being self-employed.”

Deep Roots

Two days after her 2006 graduation from Penn State University, Ellie Hollabaugh Vranich, 31, started back full-time at her family’s 500-acre produce farm in Upper Adams County. Yes, she says she considered other career paths before coming home. But, when you grow up playing board games in apple bins with your cousin and work at your family’s retail market from a very young age, like it or not, says Vranich, it becomes a part of your DNA.

“At the end of the day, I felt the pull of the passion and love for my family’s farm that had been instilled in me from a young age,” says the third-generation farmer who holds dual degrees in agribusiness management and Spanish, and is the assistant business and market manager at Hollabaugh Bros. Inc.

The family business has been around since 1955, growing and selling fruits and vegetables up and down the East Coast, and of course, at their new retail market just outside of Biglerville. It is currently owned and operated by the second and third generation of Hollabaughs and their spouses, including Vranich and her husband, Erik, who holds a full-time job off the farm.

Vranich continues, “The idea of making a big difference in something so close to me, being a part of this local community, and working side by side with my family through it all was the only lure I needed to return to the farm.”

Both Vranich and Ramsburg have learned how difficult it can be to run a farm in the 21st century. Issues such as implementing new and oftentimes both expensive and confusing federally mandated regulations (for example, the Affordable Care Act), and finding a varied and committed workforce are now familiar to Vranich. “When regulations are put into place by people who have never stepped foot on a farm,” she says, “they do nothing more than create more work and cost money to the people who truly are just trying to succeed as a small family business.”

Ramsburg struggles with another issue, one O’Neill says is one of the greatest challenges facing young farmers today: the availability and affordability of land and acquiring adequate capital to purchase equipment and other farm supplies. “This is one reason why many new young farmers initially return to the family farm,” O’Neill says. “In doing so, they must also be able to add revenue to the farm in order to support themselves.”

Gaining Ground

Vranich sees profit in agritourism, or to use author and food activist Michael Pollan’s catchphrase, “shake the hand that feeds you.” The popular social practice encourages consumers to visit local farms and meet face-to-face with the people who grow their food. Through guided farm tours or on-site kitchen classes, Vranich can introduce visitors to new varieties of vegetables or share the story behind Hollabaugh’s Bee Room.

According to PA Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, agritourism is a field that is growing in popularity as young farmers try to diversify and increase profits. “Agritourism provides farmers with a higher share of the food dollar,” the secretary says. “The money spent at the local business often continues to be reinvested in the community, creating a multiplier effect, thus greater economic development in that area.”

If agriculture is to remain a key industry in Pennsylvania, it is important that future farmers find support for their career. One such resource, Penn State Extension Young Grower Alliance, gives them just that.

The organization, formed in Adams County in 2005 as a coalition of specialty crop growers, hosts farm tours and workshops, and members can meet with agriculture and community leaders, serve on committees, and take on leadership roles within organizations. “The Young Grower Alliance has helped give a voice to our youth in horticulture,” says coordinator Erin Dugan.

Vranich, a member since college, says that as the future faces of farming, young growers have a responsibility to pass on their knowledge. “There is, indeed, a future for this industry in our community and beyond, and to some degree, it’s up to us to make sure we push hard to ensure that future.”

Ben Wenk, 32 (seventh generation)

College: Penn State, Agroecology, 2006

Farm: Three Springs Fruit Farm, 450 acres. Ancestors moved from Switzerland to Adams County in 1818, family farming same land since 1901.

Owners: David Wenk (father), John Wenk (uncle) and Ben Wenk

Job: Fruit production and new hard cider operation

Lure of the farm: “Each year is a chance to do things better, improve yourself, improve the farm. It’s working outside, working with family, speaking to customers, and having a place on their plate.”

Biggest challenge: “The local food movement is strong and growing, but there are still a lot of folks who don’t know and aren’t engaged to learn anything about agriculture. This can spill over into national and local politics when people don’t have an appreciation for the struggles of agriculture or its role in society.”

Kevin Knouse, 31 (fourth generation)

College: Millersville University, Business Administration, 2006

Farm: Knouse Fruitlands Inc., 1,200 acres, family farming same land 1940.

Owners: Tonya Knouse White (aunt), Milton Knouse II (uncle) and Brian Knouse (father). Kyle Knouse (brother) and Milton Knouse III (cousin) also work the farm

Job: Business manager, food safety coordinator, starting new microbrewery/brew pub

Lure of the farm: “Farm life is a lure, but the main lure is family heritage, and that I can be a reason for it continuing through another generation.”

Biggest challenge: “Dealing with the list of many regulations that seems to only get longer and longer. This also ties into our harvest labor issue; labor continues to only get harder and harder to find.”

Lucas Waybright, 27
(ninth generation)

College: Delaware Valley College, Agribusiness, 2010

Farm: Mason Dixon Farms Inc., 3,000 acres, family farming same land
since 1784

Owner/managers: Bert (father), Doyle (uncle), Alan (uncle), Joel (uncle) and Lucas; Blake (brother), Hannah (cousin), and Tyler (cousin) also work the farm

Job: Manage interior and exterior facility maintenance, manure flow, and separation system; involved with daily operation of methane digester

Lure of the farm: “I thoroughly enjoy working outdoors and on a team that produces quality feed and milk. I also enjoy the challenge of optimizing the farm to work in the most efficient and effective way, which keeps me happy and very busy.”

Biggest challenge: “Regulatory changes, unpredictable weather, global market effects, and how removed some consumers are from where food comes from.”

Sarah Lott Zost, 25
(fourth generation)

College: Michigan State, Agribusiness Management, 2013

Farm: Bonnie Brae Fruit Farms, Inc., 800 acres, family farming same land since 1927

Owners: Jim (father) and Barb (mother) Lott; Greg (brother) and Dylan (brother) also work on the farm

Job: Manager

Lure of the farm: “I enjoy growing fruit, and how the work changes day to day and season to season. I like working out in the orchard and the business side of the farm.”

Biggest challenge: “Reaching consumers who are disconnected from the world of agricultural production. Fruit stands and marketers do a great job of engaging with their customers to explain production practices. But, there are a lot of websites and internet articles that can go viral based on truths out of context, half-truths, and even incorrect information.”

Sidney Kuhn, 36 (fifth generation)

College: North Carolina State University, Landscape Architecture, 2002

Farm: Kuhn Orchards, LLC., 300 acres, family farming same land since 1840

Owner: Sidney Kuhn. Anthony Herring (husband) is the production manager

Job: Owner and general manager

Lure of the farm: “Our venture into farmers markets was what lured me back. The income from farmers markets and the opportunity to sell directly to the consumer is a game changer. It’s amazing to have customers at market tell us how much they enjoy eating our peaches, instead of a wholesale customer saying, ‘Sure I’ll get rid of these for you.’”

Biggest challenge: “Labor—where to find skilled labor, how to retain it, how to manage it, how to afford it.”

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