Growing Magazine - May, 2012

NORTH FEATURES

From Subsistence to Successful Business

A tradition of growth at Bear Mountain Orchards
By Wendy Komancheck

Robert and Mary Lott started Bear Mountain Orchards (www.bearmountainorchards.com) as a typical Great Depression family farm in Aspers, Pa. The Lott farm was like many subsistence farms from those days, with farm animals and fruit trees that were used to feed the family during those tough economic times.

Bear Mountain Orchards' Timeline

January 3, 1937 - Robert and Mary Lott purchase the original 40 acres. It was a typical subsistence farm with pigs, chickens, cows and fruit trees.

1946 - The first packing shed is built and a variety of commodities are packed, such as green tomatoes, peaches and apples.

1946 - 1980 - As the economy grows during the postwar years, the production of tree fruits becomes more specialized, the value of the fruit increases, and the business focus shifts to growing only fruit. There are incremental increases in acreage and infrastructure as the business continues to develop; acreage grew to about 300 acres. John Lott returns to the business in 1972 with a degree in horticulture from Penn State University. Sheila Gantz returns in 1980 with a degree in ornamental horticulture from the University of Maryland.

Mid - 1980s - Bear Mountain grows from 300 to 600 acres. The business is transitioned to the second generation in 1985 when Robert Lott dies. John and Sheila manage and continue to grow the business. The packinghouse is rebuilt, a new packing line is purchased, two cold storage facilities are built and more acreage is acquired. Orchards are transitioned to high-density fresh fruit varieties such as Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady.

2010 - Bear Mountain Orchards partners with Bream Orchards in Orrtanna, Pa. Together, they build a 300,000-bushel cold storage facility called Bream and Bear that is up and operational for the 2011 harvest.

2012 - The new year brings a new Compac packing line to the Bear Mountain packing facility, a new marketing plan, and a newly acquired 80-acre farm. Today, Bear Mountain has over 1,000 acres of tree fruit in production and continues to embrace innovations to strengthen the business.

As the economy started turning around with the advent of World War II, it became clear to the Lotts that their farm could be transformed into a successful fruit-producing business. "As the economy improved, the value of fruit increased as it was viewed more as a specialized commodity," explains Sheila Gantz, the Lotts' daughter and part-owner of Bear Mountain Orchards. "It made economic sense to focus on the fruit as a business."

Today, Bear Mountain grows, packs and ships its fruit. The orchards include sweet and tart cherries; apricots; yellow, white and donut peaches; yellow and white nectarines; apples; and European and Asian pears.

Customer service is a core value. Bear Mountain's motto is: "We love to find the right fruit for the right customer." Freshness is also key, since they ship their produce directly to customers.

In 1984, the Lotts decided to expand their orchards. "Expansion and growth were always part of the ultimate business vision, and the opportunity for growth hit in the mid-1980s, when neighboring orchards came up for sale," says Gantz. "Bear Mountain went from 300 acres to 600 acres during this period."

Today, Bear Mountain consists of over 1,000 acres in fruit production within a 5-mile radius of the family homestead.

Family fruit business

Bear Mountain Orchards has stayed within the Lott family. When Robert died in 1985, Gantz and her brother, John Lott, took over the business.

"(We) rebuilt the packinghouse, bought a new packing line, built two cold storage rooms, and continue to acquire acreage in neighboring farms. Orchards were transitioned to higher-density fresh fruit varieties, such as Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady," details Gantz of the changes she and Lott have made over the past 27 years at Bear Mountain.

Lay of the land

Adams County orchards are nestled in the Appalachian Mountain foothills. "The soil, topography, sunlight, rain, cold winters, hot summers and the weather patterns that move around these mountain ranges make a unique area to grow outstanding flavored tree fruits," states Gantz.

Bear Mountain Orchards consists of 65 percent fruit production and 35 percent fruit packing. There are over 100 employees at the peak of the fruit season and 25 employees during the off-season. Employees work in the fields or packinghouse, some drive trucks, and others work in the office.

"We work to have a synergistic relationship between all aspects of the operations," states Lott.


A peach orchard in bloom at Bear Mountain Orchards.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BEAR MOUNTAIN ORCHARDS.

Marketing

"Bear Mountain has a long-standing relationship with farmers and brokers throughout the East Coast," states Lott. "Our closest connections are in the mid-Atlantic region. We developed a fuzzy peach crate trade for the wholesale market, where we pick the peaches out in the field, [and] directly [put them] into the crate to turn it around to our customers throughout the mid-Atlantic region."

Lott says that Bear Mountain continues to provide their staple apple varieties, such as Red Delicious and Rome apples. They're also in the process of developing a niche apple trade.

"We are looking to continue to develop our business-to-business relationships and get more of these niche apple varieties, such as Cameo and Honeycrisp, out directly to the consumer," Lott states. "In conjunction with our 75th anniversary, we are revisiting our marketing plan and are very excited about the opportunities for the future."

Field work and packinghouse

During a typical growing season, Bear Mountain produces 325,000 bushels of apples, 100 tons of cherries, 60,000 bushels of peaches and nectarines, and 15,000 bushels of pears.

"Our daily operations involve many moving parts here at Bear Mountain," says Gantz. "We have 1,000 acres of fruit in production, with 12 different commodities to grow, pack, ship and sell. There are people in the field, in the office, in the packinghouse and on the road at any given time. It takes a strong staff of people to make it all happen."

Keeping pests at bay

Bear Mountain Orchards works with Penn State University's Fruit Research and Extension Center (http://agsci.psu.edu/frec">http://agsci.psu.edu/frec) in Biglerville, Pa. The farm also works with scientists from the center and from Penn State Cooperative Extension as a "cooperating grower" on research topics like integrated pest management, mobile orchard platforms, and mechanical blossom and fruit thinning research.


Nectarines on the packing line.

The climate and topography in Adams County make it ideal for growing Gala apples.

"Their supportive network of researchers and educators are a tremendous asset when troubleshooting problems in the field, and they help keep our industry strong and vibrant," states Gantz.

Over the past few years, the brown marmorated stinkbug (BMSB) has destroyed many Pennsylvania crops, especially tree fruit. Mid-Atlantic fruit producers have been searching for methods to control this invasive species.

"We did have moderate damage in 2010," notes Gantz. "For 2011, we took increased preventative measures by hiring a specialist from PSU to focus on a tailored spray program for our specific orchard sites. [In] 2011, [we] also saw increased rainfall in the spring and fall compared to 2010 data. The combination of increased preventative measures and increased rainfall minimized the damage we saw from BMSB on the 2011 harvest."

Bear Mountain uses IPM to deal with other insects. "We use pheromone traps for insect monitoring [and] mating disruption for insect management. We use targeted sprays for specific insects, and we use organic compounds, such as Surround, on the pears to protect from pear psylla," explains Gantz.

Of course, weather presents challenges. South-central Pennsylvania, like most of the U.S., experienced a very mild winter in 2011-2012, and Gantz fears this could have a negative affect on the coming season's fruit crops. She says that Adams County is about four weeks ahead of schedule temperature-wise, and there is the danger of trees budding too early only to be destroyed by frost in early to midspring.


Peaches on trees at Bear Mountain Orchards

"But here is where you have to be humble and sit back and go with the flow," says Gantz. "Things like increased hailstorms, droughts followed by monsoons of rain, and then even to throw in an invasive species like BMSB into the mix - these are the times you have to sit back and trust that you'll be able to work with what you get."

That's the philosophy Gantz holds onto in this sluggish economy, too. "We make a conscious effort to keep costs down. With that said, continuing to push forward and make investments and make progressive business decisions - to continue to focus on a successful future - that is how you get through the hard times. That is what farming is all about," states Gantz.

Fortunately, Gantz and Lott can look back to when their parents started the farm. They have the same willpower as their parents to push forward and beat whatever nature and the economy throw at them.

"We do our best to stay in the progressive, innovative tracks of the fruit world and adopt what benefits us for the fresh market so that we have the best quality fruits. Our customers, in turn, can deliver a good piece of fruit to their customers. We offer ourselves to grocery stores as a company that offers niche fruit varieties with quality and volume; we offer ourselves to schools and other institutions that can offer new flavors to kids, so they can enjoy a delicious apple, peach or Asian pear. We offer ourselves to our customers as open and flexible in getting the right fruit they need for their consumer."

By staying current and putting their customers' needs first, Gantz and Lott have found that innovation and flexibility with things outside of their control will sustain Bear Mountain Orchards through the tough times.

A member of the Garden Writers Association, Komancheck writes from her home near Ephrata, Pa.