By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Keeping a farm in the family often depends on the ability of the family to respond to trends in agriculture.
Long Acre Farms in Macedon, N.Y., offers an example.
Owner Joan Allen's grandparents, Arthur and Dora Lawrence, operated the farm as a dairy, naming it "Long Acre Farms" because of the fields’ mile-long stretches. Allen's parents, Harlan and Charleen Lawrence, shifted into cash crops.
When Allen and her husband, Doug, took over in 1983, they continued the business until they began losing contracts with food processors. The Allens saw their livelihood slipping away and knew they had to change things. They began growing soybeans and field corn, both widely grown and well-suited to New York’s growing conditions. In 1993, they added pumpkins, along with the farm market to sell them in.
"Not a whole lot of people came," Joan says. "We realized we needed to do more. We started with school tours, and that was the beginning of agritourism with hayrides, maze, and it developed from there."
Today, the farm operates the world's second-longest continuously operated corn maze. The Allens makes their own fudge, wood-fired pizza, baked goods and kettle corn, but they purchase private-label preserved items.
Ever evolving operation
Figuring out what to do has challenged the couple.
"When we started, we had young children and that's what we were geared toward," she says. "Then we started going toward families and teens."
The Allens soon learned that the status quo wouldn’t bring back the crowds every autumn. They continued adding new attractions each year, including the state's first Amazing Maize Maze, a jumping pillow, gold panning, playground equipment, pedal cars and, most recently, JD Wine Cellars, their on-site winery.
They added the winery and wine tasting to appeal to older adults.
"It adds diversity to the farm and an attraction that's not weather-dependent," she says.
The Allens grow a half-acre of Marquette grapes and source the rest locally. They make between 1,500 and 2,000 gallons of wine annually, including classic Viniferas, hybrids and fruit wines.
"My husband worked with some local winemakers but is pretty much self-taught," she says. "He had brewed beer for years and there's some similarities. He started 12 years ago and did it for a few years before we opened the winery in 2010."
The Amazing Maize Maze attracts companies wanting a bonding experience for employees. The rustic events barn, which can fit up to 600 people, can host corporate events, reunions and weddings.
"People may want something nontraditional, memorable and different," she says.
The farm has hosted seven weddings so far this year along with a handful of corporate events. Its location near Rochester, about a 20-minute drive, provides a steady stream of people seeking a "country" setting for events along with ready-made activities on the grounds.
When they started in agritourism the Allens also had to learn about potential safety hazards and liability insurance. Although agritourism has become a big source of income for the farm, the Allens still grow a few acres of pumpkins and 5 acres for the corn maze. Neighbors harvest the corn maze after the season is done.
As they have grown older, the Allens have started to scale back their operation, although their daughter Sarah Henning has returned to the business.
Keeping up with all the proverbial irons in the fire challenges the couple. Finding employees is also difficult, as is keeping pace with hikes in minimum wage.
"We're trying to tap into older adults who are empty nesters, which is working out well for us," Joan says.
This demographic doesn't mind working autumn weekends for some extra vacation or Christmas money, or working during a few odd summer events. Joan says many of her employees remember the good times they had with their youngsters.
“It's a fun place to work," she says. "We have people who know our system. We do some music nights in the summertime. They've been here for the fall, so they want to help out for events like that and for weddings."
About 35 people work at Long Acre Farms, plus family members, in the fall. There are two full-time employees year-round in addition to part-time employees.
The Allens have built their business slowly to avoid going into deep debt. Last year, they remodeled the farm market for the first time.
Joan says the way people perceive the business can make a big difference in how they relate their experience to others. For instance, some people think the venue should include amusement park rides. While some people have left negative social media ratings, Joan says that she takes it all in stride and keeps doing what her family has done well: adapting to the times to keep the family farm humming.