Local farmers get creative when winter comes.
In the winter, the frenetic pace of summer and fall on a family-owned fruit farm winds down. Gone are the lengthy days of pruning and picking and the tiring drives from central Pennsylvania to Philly and back, bringing fruit to market.
With the decline in activity comes a decline in revenue. For many local farmers, the winter months are a time for belt-tightening.
When Ben Wenk began bringing fruit from Three Springs Fruit Farm in Adams County to Philadelphia farmers markets in 2007, he realized markets could provide more than just fresh fruit. By the time fall rolled around, he'd contracted with a local cider mill to bring apple and pear butter and cider to Headhouse Square in addition to crates of fresh apples.
"Still, by the end of the season, sales were stalling out a little," says Wenk. "We started thinking about other custom value- added products to bring to the market."
Wenk was prepared to brainstorm. Part of a seventh generation of farmers, Wenk had begun exploring ways to expand his family's business after graduating from Penn State with a degree in agro-ecology. His father, David Wenk, and uncle, John Wenk, continued to manage the farm's 350 acres, but Ben focused his attention on how to better market the farm's products.
Looking for a way to extend sales, he realized canning fruits could keep products flowing. Plus, he had the ideal fruit for canning.
"We pick our freestone peaches five times over the course of the summer," says Wenk. "But the fifth time we pick them, they're a little smaller."
This last round of John Boy peaches was perfectly ripe, and 45 half-bushel crates traveled a mile down the road to the Kime's Cider Mill in the neighboring town of Bendersville.
The cider mill had already been producing Three Springs' apple and pear butter, in addition to cider. They were also equipped to can peaches, both in heavy syrup and in light syrup, as well as with no sugar added.
I recently stumbled upon the light-syrup version at the Fair Foods Stand in the Reading Terminal Market and promptly tore through a can. Roasted and served with fresh goat cheese, the sweet ripe peaches (especially exciting in December) fit perfectly with the acidic tang of the goat cheese. The peaches that avoided the oven didn't stay in the fridge for long; the next morning they found themselves portioned into buttermilk pancakes. A few stragglers proved their merit when they were eaten plain.
Three Springs may be at the vanguard of local farms that have been looking to add greater value to crops they've been growing for years, but they're not alone. A cooperative of six New Jersey tomato farmers has begun marketing crushed canned tomatoes so they can easily be turned into pasta sauce year-round. Canned under the label "Jersey Fresh," they have yet to make their way to retail outlets on this side of the Delaware, but we may see them by this time next year.
Likewise, Ben Wenk continues to look for more ways to add value to Three Springs' output. Next year look for apple sauce and apple juice at local farmers markets. And of course the orchards will bloom again, bringing fresh fruit our way. In the meantime, we could do a lot worse than what's in these cans.
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