Produce Growers, Retired Teachers Diversify their Farm Ventures

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DENVER, Pa. — After a combined 50-plus years of teaching schoolchildren, along with 30-plus years of growing seasonal produce (primarily asparagus, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries) alongside their school duties, “retirees” Margi and Dan Burkholder are enjoying many new adventures on the Burkholders’ Ever-Green Farm in Denver, Pa. Though formerly professional teachers, the pair never stopped growing produce, only tried to fit their produce business in with their teaching schedule.

“We had one foot in farming and one foot in education,” said Dan, who tried to farm full-time for some years, adding operations on another farm four miles away. But, he ended up also teaching alternative education and coaching wrestling locally, at Cocalico High School.

However, the couple never strayed too far from Dan’s homestead family farm, where his brother lived and operated the farm until the couple purchased it about 10 years ago. They lived nearby and had begun helping Dan’s elderly father grow and harvest his 6-8 acres of strawberries when they weren’t busy teaching. Though Margi taught the fourth grade at Reamstown Elementary School for 26 years, the seasonality of berry-growing allowed her to work in the fields once school was out for the summer.

According to Dan, they eventually switched from growing strawberries to raspberries because of climate changes — the strawberries, which had initially always ripened in June, starting ripening earlier and earlier in the year with warming temperatures and eventually conflicted with the school year. The raspberries they focus on now ripen later in the summer.

These days, at the peak of raspberry season, the Burkholders supply local grocery stores and farm markets with a regular supply of red, black or yellow berries. Most are Lancaster County buyers, Dan said, but some berries also go to Philadelphia stores.

Ever-Green Farm is also known for its high-quality asparagus in the spring, a reputation that has kept buyers and customers coming back for years.

In addition, the Burkholders grow blueberries, blackberries and gooseberries for market. Margi has recently added fresh and dried lavender and other herbs to their small, self-serve on-farm stand.

Dan’s family farm was originally 62 acres and included dairy, steer and chicken operations, but by the time the couple purchased it, feeling strongly that they wanted to save it from being developed, it was just 25 acres in size, with several historic barns much in need of restoration and a 1796 sandstone farmhouse.

“Historically, it’s significant and we wanted to keep it from being developed,” Margi said. They also applied their conscientiousness about being “green” to the property, installing solar panels for electricity as well as geothermal heating and cooling. They pulled the pastures away from the edge of the Cocalico Creek with a riparian buffer strip, maintained in the CREP conservation program.

When they bought the property, most of the farm’s buildings needed serious restoration work, Dan said, including some major infrastructure repair, especially on what is now the horse barn.

“With the barns, our questions were, Do we fix it, or tear it down?’” he said.

The couple decided that with some major repair, the old steer barn could be rented out as a horse stable. One wall of the building was sagging, and the pastures, which had only minimal cow fencing, needed new fencing to keep in horses. But the Burkholders decided that having horses would manage the pastureland, so they went ahead and put in all new fencing. Since the barn’s overhang was too low, they had to dig the floor down one-and-a-half feet to make the space tall enough for horses.

Now, the new horse stable is rented out and operated independently by a manager who arrives twice-daily and takes care of most of the feeding and care of the horses, some of which are thoroughbred racehorses and show horses.

In other repairs, some 60 windows had to be replaced on the horse barn and other farm buildings. Dan’s brother had earlier torn down an old bank barn, and on the concrete pad where it had been, the couple built a new barn that holds an antiques shop (another of their ventures) as well as an 8-by-12-foot walk-in cooler for their seasonal produce. On one side, nearest the road, is a large door and the capacity to open a bigger on-farm market stand in the near future.

The couple has one part-time employee and others on an as-needed basis, but they pick most of their produce themselves. Dan would like to build their farm and business ventures and be able to hire a few people eventually.

“I enjoy growing berries,” Dan said, as he explained why he doesn’t expand into other crops such as sweet corn and beans. It’s tempting, he admitted, and said he’s tried a number of vegetable crops over the years, even ones like horseradish, but said growing those other crops can be too distracting. “If you’re not in tune with the berries,” he said, it’s easy to let certain things slip while working on other crops, and then the berries aren’t as productive.

“We’re very fussy about our produce coming in from the fields and going into the cooler,” Dan said.

Dan is excited about the new high tunnel he’s been growing some of his berries in. He is pleased to note that there’s much less need for spraying the berries in the high tunnel, and said the bee activity is high. He plans to build more high tunnels soon.

Since much of their crop work is seasonal and intermittent in wintertime, Margi and Dan have spent their winter hours pursuing another venture — antique collecting. Their new barn now houses more than 2,000 antiques, painstakingly arranged and inventoried by Margi. Many of the antiques have an agriculture connection, including farm tools and antique equipment, such as a 100-year-old thresher.

“I am interested in the historical aspect of all the pieces,” she said, “I like going to sales, and now I have time to research.”

Besides the antiques shop, which is open weekdays and Saturday mornings, Margi wants to share the unique history of Ever-Green Farm with others by hosting historical events open to the public, using the farmhouse’s old bake oven and summer kitchen and including old-time crafts such as spinning and weaving.

With the amount of energy this “retired” couple has, it’ll only be a matter of time until that happens.


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