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Barron, Glenn Shaw overcome challenges to keep family farm going

Slideshow: These 2019 Master Farmers run Shaw Orchards, a 240-acre fruit operation.

The history of Shaw Orchards goes back to the early 1900s when Glenn Shaw’s grandfather planted the seeds of what the business would eventually become.

Through many challenges and hardships, Shaw Orchards continues to produce apples, peaches and other fruits on land straddling the Mason-Dixon line. Glenn’s son, Barron, took over in 2015 as the fourth-generation Shaw to run the farm.

The farm’s mailing address is Stewartstown, Pa., but most of the 240 acres are in Maryland. It includes more than 200 acres of cropland, 25 acres of pasture and 15 acres of woodlands.

Most of the acres are in apples with lesser acres of peaches, strawberries, pumpkins, squash and other fruits.

Glenn’s grandfather planted apple trees in 1909. Glenn’s father eventually took over the operation, adding cattle and growing grain crops between the rows of apple trees.

The apples were sold wholesale to local canning houses. “I’ve told people I’d rather be lucky than good,” Glenn says. “My father was lucky because all those years he was in business he only endured one hailstorm.”

He remembers his dad trying to sell hail-damaged apples to Knouse Foods. The company would take the apples but there was a catch: his father had to buy stock in the company.

Didn’t seem like a good deal at the time. Considering the growth of Knouse Foods, though, it turned out to be a pretty good deal for his father.

Off to college and back

While he was in high school and college, Glenn helped his father take fruits to wholesale markets in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, then the University of Arkansas with a master’s degree in food science.

After getting a job at the University of Arkansas and meeting his future wife, Mary Sue, Glenn was ready to plant his roots in Arkansas.

“I had not planned on coming back,” he says. But after his father told him he was ready to retire and get out of farming, Glenn decided it was time to come back home.

“I figured if I was going to come back, I better go do it," he says. “The longer I was to wait, the harder it was going to be.”

In 1973, Glenn and Mary Sue, now married, along with their two children, returned to the family farm. Most of the trees were large, apple-bearing trees that were difficult to harvest.

Glenn decided to make changes, eventually transitioning sections to dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties that were cheaper and more efficient to prune and spray. But it wasn’t cheap. In those days, growers couldn’t claim depreciation until the trees started to bear fruit, so Glenn says he had to pay federal income tax on every tree.

“One year I spent most of my gross on trees because we had to get the trees replaced and I had to pay income tax on it, and boy that really hurt,” he says.

In 1974, a modern packing line was installed, which enabled the Shaws to pack waxed apples in bags as well as six different sizes of tray packs.

After doubling the acreage of peaches, a large hydro cooler was purchased that cooled peaches in bulk bins. When ice costs became too prohibitive, mechanical refrigeration was added, tripling the capacity of the two cold storages to cool the fruit. 

Changes in the orchard

While the industry was pushing semi-dwarf trees, different apple varieties were also coming out.

Glenn remembers traveling out West in 1983 to see Granny Smith apples in Washington state, which at the time were bringing big prices. He planted a test plot of 150 Granny Smith trees, but he wanted to see for himself how larger growers were managing them. The trip was worth it. The climate out West was better-suited to Granny Smiths, he says, something he likely would not have known if he didn’t go out and see for himself.

Glenn focused on varieties he knew would do well in the local climate, including Fujis and Golden Supremes. He believes he was the first orchard in the area to grow Gala apples, though that can’t be independently verified.

By the mid-’80s, Shaw had 100 acres of apples and 60 acres of peaches. Trickle irrigation was added to the peach plantings to ensure they had enough moisture.

Mother Nature’s curveballs

While his father was “lucky,” Glenn’s luck with Mother Nature eventually ran out.

Hailstorms were a constant problem in the 1980s, he says, but a storm in 1988 being especially bad. A microburst swept through the area with 100-mph winds and quarter-sized hail. The whole orchard was damaged, putting him out of the apple business for two years.

The peach trees, which had just been planted, had to replanted again.

“That was the toughest thing we went through. We went one year where basically we had no peaches,” he says.

Glenn says he had no choice but to tough it out and wait until the trees were producing again.

“You didn’t buy anything. You did with as little labor as you could, tried to keep expenses down,” he says.

It was a turning point for the farm.

“We really weren’t making any money on our wholesale. We just realized we had to get into something else," he says.

Glenn started planting strawberries, cherries and even some blueberries. People started coming out for pick-your-own fruits and horse-drawn hayrides were started in the fall.

The next generation

Barron says he always had a desire to be a farmer, but he was always good at computers, too.

His parents found this out after he graduated high school. Just before going to college, he contracted mononucleosis. With nothing to do but sit around and work on a computer, he wrote a program for a new invoicing system for the farm.

His parents used the computerized invoicing for 10 years.

In 1995, Barron developed the farm’s first website. He also developed the farm’s emailed “ripe line” to let consumers know what items in-season were ready to pick.

Barron worked for several different companies in supply chain management, including a stint at Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, and a couple of years working for a company in Houston.

He returned to Pennsylvania in 2004 and took a job with the Hershey Co. At that time, the farm couldn’t support Barron and his growing family.

Glenn says the farm’s on-site market started picking up business and the farm shifted production to more direct retail sales. Through word of mouth, the Shaws grew a strong local following, and on-farm sales increased.

Barron says he wanted to make sure his financial situation was in order before taking over the farm.

“This is not something most people do for the money,” he says. “There's a lot of better options if you're interested in making a lot of money.”

“We had to think about what everybody's role would be in that transition. So, once we were comfortable with that it was just a matter of, you know, cutting the cord from the old job and finding a place to live,” he says.

It took a couple of years to fully the transition the business to Barron and his wife, Jana, but the transition was completed in 2015. Barron says he saw opportunities for growing the farm’s social media presence as well as making changes to accommodate more pick-your-own and direct retail sales on the farm.

He’s planted raspberries and has expanded the acreage of strawberries and blueberries.

Older varieties of apples such as Rome and Red Delicious are slowly being phased out. The orchards are also becoming denser. This year he planted a plot with 3- to 4-foot spacing.

He’s also doing a lot more grafting of trees to save money on establishing new plantings.

Still, challenges remain. Along with finding good labor, getting good apple varieties is a lot more difficult as new varieties are being grown and marketed by select cooperatives — SnapDragon apples are managed by Crunch Time Apple Growers, for example — and are not available to most growers.

But Barron says he welcomes the challenge and hopes his two daughters, Grace Anne, 15, and Abby, 13, will fall in love with farming, too.

Shaws at a glance

  • The operation. Shaw Orchards is 240 acres of crops, pasture and woods in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
  • Family. Glenn Shaw is married to Mary Sue Shaw. They have two children. Barron Shaw is married to Jana Shaw. They have two daughters: Grace Anne, 15, and Abby, 13.
  • Education. Glenn Shaw earned his bachelor’s degree in pomology from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in postharvest physiology from University of Arkansas and a Ph.D. in postharvest physiology from the University of Maryland. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, then the University of Arkansas with a master’s degree in food science. Barron Shaw earned a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from University of Virginia.
  • In the community. Glenn Shaw has held numerous leadership roles with the State Horticulture Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Board, the York County Fruit Growers and York County Farm Bureau. Barron Shaw is on the research committee for the State Horticulture Association of Pennsylvania. He is chairman of the Kennard Dale High School Ag Advisory Committee and ruling elder for Stewartstown Presbyterian Church.
  • Notable achievements. While recovering from mononucleosis at home just before he started college, Barron Shaw wrote the farm’s first computerized payroll system, which was used for 10 years. The farm was awarded York County Farm Family of the Year in 2011.
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