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The future began with a bunch of pumpkins, an empty can and a lot of faith in the honor system.

The Basehore farm in Hampden Township used to be a dairy operation until the Route 581 bypass came in and forever changed the landscape.

The family lost ground to eminent domain and the fields they used to rent on adjoining farms were sold off for residential development and taken out of agriculture.

“We could not make enough forage to support the dairy herd,” Tom Basehore said. “To keep the farm, we had to figure out something else to do.”

The farm was still producing milk in 1995 when he sowed a pumpkin patch on land now taken over by homes. The harvest was successful and the pumpkins were put on sale along the road.

Busy with a side job, he could not man the display, so he asked for donations. Sometimes the pumpkins were stolen, sometimes the can, but it was clear to Basehore there was a demand for the product. It got him thinking.

In the years that followed, the enterprise expanded to include the sale of corn stalks and straw bales, ideal fall decorations. As time became available, Basehore opened a produce market that started with a folding table, a pop-up tent and whatever fruits and vegetables he could harvest from the farm or buy wholesale at auction. Now the market is a building on the farm.

The dairy farm gave way to a market niche that flourished within its location. As one of the last working farms in the township, the Basehore property is surrounded by housing developments that form the core of its customer base. In recent years, the family trucked in Christmas trees for resale and launched a side venture to grow and market chrysanthemums.

Today, Basehore is working with his son Max to chart a new course that could develop the family farm into an agritainment destination while maintaining the tradition of the produce market.

“You can’t stay stagnant or you’ll be left behind,” Tom Basehore said. “I’ve opened my mind to what is possible,” his son said.

Farms like the Basehore property are part of a trend in agriculture that started in the 1970s, gathered steam in the 1990s and early 2000s and is now more the rule than the exception, said Kent Strock, a farmer in Upper Allen Township and president of the Cumberland County Farm Bureau.

There are two kinds of farming operations that are flourishing in Pennsylvania — large farms with lots of land and livestock operating with cost efficiencies and small farms that focus on customer service and provide a specialty niche within the market, Strock said.

“If you are caught in the middle ground, you are going out of business right now,” he said. “They will die a slow painful death. Some of them will be forced to sell the ground when they quit because they have no other source of income.” The origins of this trend go back to market realities that have always impacted agriculture.

“There’s an old saying that farmers are price-takers, not price-makers,” Strock said. “Farming is one of the few businesses when you buy retail and sell wholesale. There’s a lot of truth to that.”

This is the reverse of most every other product-driven business where the seller buys product wholesale to sell at retail for a profit. To survive, more farmers are expanding their operations to buy their input in bulk at wholesale price to turn around and sell their output at a better price for a greater return, Strock said.

As a result, the large farms are putting pressure on small farms to either sell off land or, more often than not, agree to rent land to the larger farmer, Strock said. He said it is not unusual for large farm operations to cross not only county lines, but state borders in pursuit of rental holdings to farm.

While renting land gives the small operation a guaranteed source of income, often the rent per acre is barely enough to cover the property tax, Strock said. Meanwhile, the renter is reaping all the benefits from the land when it comes to harvest, but they are also putting in all the upfront costs and taking all the risk.

As for small operations, the key to survival is to either invent or expand upon a niche. “It’s so difficult to add on to the land base in this part of the country,” Strock said. “It means you have to be creative in the way you use your land.”

The Strock family has a history of niche marketing dating back decades to its turkey operation that focused on raising, processing and selling birds to local residents over the holiday season.

“We were a small scale operation,” Strock recalled. “We survived because I owned everything. I was my own marketer, my own salesperson, my own feed maker. I controlled my market and what I was getting for my turkeys.”

But the turkey operation ended in 2016 and was replaced by a new niche — renting out a converted bank barn for wedding receptions, banquets, reunions and anniversary parties. That enterprise makes up the bulk of the profits earned by the Kent Strock farm.

The barn operation has its origins in a catering business Strock started in 1981 after returning to Cumberland County. Prior to that, Strock had earned a master’s degree in agricultural science and was teaching the subject at a junior college in the southern tier of Iowa from 1978 to 1981.

He was an adviser to the agriculture club, which hosted the annual fall picnic. It was tradition for club members to roast a pig, a skill that came in handy for Strock. “When I moved back here, I built a pig roaster and hired myself out on weekends. That was the beginning of my catering business.”

Seeing the success, Strock expanded the business to include 15 different roasters, each suited for a specific purpose or cut of meat. “We got to the point where we were doing everything off-site,” he said. “We were traveling every weekend to five or six different locations.”

Some of that fell off with the Great Recession of 2008 but, in 2012, the bank barn became available for use after his brother-in-law stopped storing hay in the 1845 structure.

Strock re-tasked the barn into an event venue by investing money to convert it over. “We put on new siding and new windows and did a lot of work inside,” he said. “We took out the old dividers among the bays. Almost everything here is original lumber, though it may have moved around a little bit.”

Strock also wanted to convert another old building into either apartments or rental storage units, but was prohibited by Upper Allen Township zoning regulations.

As he sees it, relaxing some of the zoning restrictions would make it easier for farmers to find creative ways to use their land to maximize the return and keep the operation viable.

“Zoning puts blinders on creativity,” Strock said. “If you want to preserve farms, preserve the farmer.”

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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