by Phil Yacuboski
Visiting Roba Family Farms in North Abington Township, is about more than just picking the perfect pumpkin or selecting the best apples. The “fall experience” is something that has grown into the busiest time of year.
“For the first 20 years, it was just a pumpkin patch,” said Jeff Roba, a second-generation farmer. “But now there’s quite a bit that goes on. You can call it diversification, but there are all kinds of attractions.”
Roba said the fall season is the business’ biggest money-maker, with attractions such as apple cannons, pony rides, gem mining, hayrides and a pumpkin patch, just to name a few.
Roba’s is part of a growing trend in farming – agritourism.
In Pennsylvania, this has grown exponentially, according to Mark O’Neill, a spokesman with Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
“The fact is for many of these farmers, in traditional farming, profit margins are extremely tight,” he said. “This time of year, you’ll see a lot of these agritourism places around because many of these farmers, who sell things such as apples, already have a connection to their customers.”
He said it’s very beneficial.
“It helps them on so many levels,” he said, “as they grow products to meet the needs of the community. And it’s smart business.”
Roba, who focuses more on the business end of running the farm, said his father is the “real farmer.” His two siblings help as well.
They also sell Christmas trees.
“I think fall is one of the favorite seasons in this area and people are always looking for something to do,” Roba said. “Not everyone wants the same thing. Pumpkins are very broad, but if you’re not into Halloween, apple picking is popular. People want to get outside because it’s the last of the best weather before winter sets in.”
The business is known for its apple cider doughnuts, which Roba calls a number one seller, along with kettle corn and fresh-cut French fries.
“We sell our pumpkins and apples too,” he said.
Six years ago, Roba opened an apple orchard at a separate location. This year, they added a ‘cut your own’ sunflower field.
And there’s hard cider for the adults.
In 2017, more than 50,000 guests passed through the gates. While admission for children less than 3 years of age is free, admission rates range from $12.95 to $19.95 (check online for better details, Roba said). Some attractions are extra.
Leonard Burger’s family farm in Drums started a pumpkin patch and hayrides in 1982.
“It’s not new to us, but it’s definitely been growing,” he said. “I like to keep a simple quality product at a reasonable price.”
He said customers like the experience of picking their own pumpkins. They also host school trips.
Customers only pay for the pumpkins. There’s no admission fee and attractions are free.
“It gives them a look at where their food comes from,” he said, “so they don’t think it just shows up on the shelf at the grocery store. People are getting removed from a generation or two from the farm. People like to buy local.”
Dr. Susan Ryan conducted a wide-ranging study on agritourism for The Center for Rural Pennsylvania and follows its trends across the state.
“We tend to crave experience-based products,” said Dr. Ryan, who teaches hospitality and tourism at the California University of Pennsylvania. “Agritourism fits in because it fits in very well. We don’t live an agrarian-based lifestyle anymore.”
She said many farmers want to bring in alternatives to their agricultural products to stay on their land and diversify their income away from more traditional agriculture.
Dr. Ryan said it grew in the past ten years.
“Since my original study in 2006, I’ve definitely seen growth,” she said, “in the number of farm-based businesses and customer demand.”