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Growing a Diversified Farm Business

We recently interviewed Brian Smyser of Smyser’s Richlawn Farms. Smyser's Richlawn Farms is a diversified farm operation in York, Pennsylvania. The Smysers formally were a dairy farm, but now sell freezer beef, operate a roadside stand, host weekend fall festivals, and more. Brian joins us today to share about their operation and his perspectives on running a diversified farm. To listen to the full podcast, click on this link:


Could you take a few minutes and tell our listeners about your farm?

I'm the seventh generation here at Smyser’s. The operation is between me, my dad, and my brother. We operate under an LLC. We've been in mainly dairy farming as my grandpa started that in the forties. Just now we are transitioning to having a roadside stand, fall festival, and freezer beef. Since the main price of milk wasn't where it needs to be profitable anymore, we're trying to expand our other avenues going forward. We also grow corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, pumpkins, and sweet corn. We try to have everybody help out. We have other family and friends that help out here on the farm. They make everything run.

Let’s talk a bit more about your roadside stand and fall festivals. What prompted you to start these enterprises and why do you think they’ve been beneficial to your farm?
We started selling sweet corn about 20 or 25 years ago. We messed around a little bit with that on and off over the years. It was a lot of work. We actually took a couple years off just because the corn didn't do very good. Then we started planting a little bit more and a little bit more. Then it got to the point where we started planting five or seven acres every year just to sell. Then that seemed to be going pretty good.

12 years ago we started selling pumpkins. With the start of that it seemed to go over really well with the roadside stand. Between the pumpkins and the sweet corn, it's amazing how much we sell every year now. I grow almost 20 acres of sweet corn and 20 acres of pumpkins each year to get just the supply of the roadside stand along with other produce now. We just started within the last five years growing tomatoes and other vegetables to get the stand to where it’s at today. I'm looking to even possibly make it larger in the future. We just put up two small greenhouses and are looking at putting another big greenhouse up. We're selling flowers at the roadside stand now too.

Then we added our fall festival, which we just completed our 11th year of. We started that not thinking it was going to be where it's at today. We started small. I was just trying to get families here to pick pumpkins and just enjoy little activities. We started out and added one new event each year and tried to keep our prices cheap. This is the first year that we actually raised our prices, but I also added three new events this year.

My philosophy has always been charging a decent amount so you get the people in, but still keeping prices where they can come and afford to do the activities. Even with the roadside stand, we try to keep our prices decent and don't charge a lot. Yes, we're doing all the work and we have a lot of cost up front, but if people come and buy one thing, they're going to probably buy something else too. You don't necessarily need to make all your money on one thing, but if they're here to buy sweet corn, they're probably going to buy a tomato or something else too. That's always been my philosophy.

Could you give our listeners just a little bit of a background? Where you're at in York the type of people that come to your stand, come to the fall festivals each year. Are they non-agriculture folks? What opportunities have you seen that exist with that?

Yeah, the one thing I think that definitely helps us is that we’re only open on the weekends, because we actually farm 1200 acres. We don't have a lot of time during the week. We're only open on the weekends on Saturday and Sundays. A lot of places aren't open on Sundays. I think that it gives us an advantage. We're only three miles west of York, and York's getting bigger all the time. We get a lot of people that come from Maryland, even over in Hanover area, as big as Hanover's getting. We get a lot of people coming from far away. We only usually have our festival five or six weekends, depending on how many weekends are in October.

Just by getting them here for our fall festival they also see that we have flowers and other stuff. They often tell us that they stopped back here just to buy our stuff, because they're pleased with the way we do things. They like it. They've always had a good impression here. That's always been my key. I want everybody to have a good first impression when they step foot on the farm. Over the years we've had games for kids and families to go around the fall festival and look at the answers. It's almost like a scavenger hunt. Like, "How many stomachs does a cow have?" Different questions and answers that nobody knows... farm related questions. It has helped because people just don't really come from a farming background anymore. So, we’re trying to educate the public about farming.

And that definitely has helped, getting the people to the farm. It's amazing how many people don't even know what a corn maze is. They don't even know where the corn is.

There's a lot of education, right Brian?

Yes, it is. It's a shame, but people don't know.

With all of the challenges in agriculture, many other farm families are considering diversifying their farm business as well. What words of wisdom would you share with others about adding a new venture to their existing farm? 
The key is to make sure you have a good insurance company. They have to be willing to work with you and you’ve got to be willing to work with them. There's always challenges. Safety's my number one priority. We've had few minor incidents, but luckily nothing major. You always have to plan for the best and think of the worst. It takes a lot of planning, 24/7 pretty much. I'm working and planning year-round. My mind never stops trying to plan for what we're going to be doing next year. How can I make things better?

You also have to get yourself established. I wouldn't say it's going to take you five years, but it's going to probably take you the first year. It will pretty much be trial and error and figuring things out. I'd recommend going to some other places. If you're going to do a fall festival, go to some other places, see what they do, and see how they do things. We did that the first year. We tried to get some ideas on how to do things. Then sit down and pencil things out and go from there. The amount of money that we started out making the first year to where we're at now, I never thought it'd be anything possible to get where we're at now.

The key too is that the weather's everything. We've had years where it rained almost every weekend. The farming period is weather related. You're going to get hammered. There's going to be a year or two where you're going to think it's not worthwhile. We've already had years like that. We had two years in a row where it wasn't worth our time and hassle to do everything. So, you need to pay the insurance. There were years where it just didn't seem possible. The reason I do it is for the kids. I like seeing the happy. I have four kids and my brother has four kids and they enjoy it.

I love seeing families come here and seeing the smiles on the kids' faces at the end of the day when they leave. It’s great to see how happy they are. You know you made a good impression when the parents are carrying the kids out and they're crying. It's not a good thing, but you know you did your job.

With Thanksgiving's just a few days away, some of our listeners might be looking for some last-minute items for their Thanksgiving festivities. What do you currently have on your roadside stand for customers?

The only things we have left are pumpkins and neck pumpkins. The main thing is that we have neck pumpkins. I'll have neck pumpkins until Christmas for people to come to buy and make pies with. Yeah, that's all we have.

As we wrap up here today, is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners? Also, I'd love for you to add in one thing you're grateful for this Thanksgiving season.

I'd have to say my family and friends that help us out here. We’ve got a great cast here behind me that makes everything go around 24/7. My brother's leaving for Montana. He's getting to go out there hunting for a week. I’ve got family and friends that are stepping up to help out. When somebody needs a break or to get away, it's nice to have family and friends here that don't mind stepping up and making everything run smoothly.


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