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Master Farmer keeps family legacy going

Through personal tragedies, Wade Butler has kept his family’s farm alive and primed for the next generation.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

May 29, 2024

6 Slides

In an area once dotted by dairy farms and orchards, Butler’s Orchard, about 20 miles from the White House, is one of the last farms standing in Germantown, Md.

That presents not only a lot of stress for owner Wade Butler, but also a lot of opportunities.

"We're in a very unique situation here,” says the second-generation owner of the business, which has been around since the 1950s. “Ag's no longer a big dog in Montgomery County, so we're an afterthought too much of the time. And we need to keep reminding them that ag is very important.”

Wade’s been on the farm for 45 years, and he’s seen many changes in that time. But the one constant has been him and his family, who have committed to adapting with the times to keep the farm going for generations to come.

His parents, George and Shirley Butler, came to Montgomery County in 1950 with no farming experience. Although dairy was dominant at that time, they bought a 17-acre peach orchard on 35 acres of land for $7,000.

"We learned that it's a lot of work,” Wade says. “I remember my dad, he poured everything into it. He kind of had that mindset. I basically learned a get-it-done kind of attitude, but also, here's a problem, let's break it down, let's figure out what's the next step, and let’s find a way.”

Wade grew up working on the farm. He attended the University of Maryland where he majored in agriculture. It’s also where he met his wife, Angela.

Back to the farm

In 1978, after graduating college, Wade came back to the family farm. He admits he was unsure of what he wanted to do at the time.

“But my parents were very supportive,” he says. “I wasn't sure, and my parents never pushed us to come back to the farm.”

The farm was about to go through major changes. In the early 1980s, the county government changed its zoning laws to allow for less dense housing developments in rural areas. To preserve farms, the county also put together a transfer development rights program, where a farmer could sell their TDRs to a developer to build somewhere else in the county. In return, the farmer would make money, and the land would be preserved for farming.

While the program led to many farms being preserved — the county has 93,000 acres set aside in its agricultural reserve — Wade says farmland prices plummeted. “The TDR program, as good as it was, never made many farmers whole,” he says.

But it did open more opportunities for him and his family to get more land. He and two of his siblings, with the help of their parents, expanded the farm’s footprint by buying an adjacent 220-acre parcel. The operation went from 60 acres to 280 acres.

The farm also diversified into smaller fruits and vegetables. By the late 1980s, peaches were gone.

“We quickly realized that people wanted to be out doing stuff, so we got into pick-your-own strawberries and other things,” Wade says. “And we realized that peaches weren't a great pick-your-own crop because they get ripe, and they don't wait around for people.”

More changes occurred in the 1990s. Wade’s sister, Susan, went to Washington state to intern on an apple orchard. Her experience led the farm to plant its first apple orchards. Then, Wade’s brother, Todd, planted the first blueberry bushes. Pumpkins came along soon after, with farm festivals as the farm tried catering to the increasing suburban character of the area.

As farm manager, Wade dabbled in everything, but it was a steep learning curve.

"I wouldn't say I had any one project. I would say I was instrumental in all three," he says. "It's always somebody has a great idea, but somebody has to implement that great idea. I think I was more the implementer in some of that.

"Festivals were a big evolution here, and I would say the evolution that's happened after that is just more of the public on the farm — having more opportunities for people to be here," he adds.

Wade and his siblings established themselves as second-generation owners. Todd Butler took over as market manager. Susan Butler became office manager. Wade managed the farm operation.

"In our case, that worked very well for us,” Wade says. “We all were in sync together, and we all moved in the same direction.”

Taking charge

But personal tragedies led Wade to eventually take over.

In 2000, his father, then in his late 60s, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He later died at age 71.

Then, in 2010, Todd Butler was killed in a farm accident. It was a big shock.

"We had to step up," Wade says of himself and his sister. “There definitely was the need to do that. So, when my dad got sick, we all pulled more weight, and then when my brother passed, which was a complete surprise, that was a major blow for my sister and I to try and keep the farm together.

"It certainly caused some friction when you lose a family member like that," he adds.

In 2016, Susan Butler announced her retirement from the business. Susan, who never had children, wanted to do her own thing, so she bought land 1.5 miles away and started a small pick-your-own apple business, Waters Orchard, and a hard cider business, Doc Waters Cidery.

It left Wade as the sole owner and operator of the farm.

Waiting in the wings were his three children: Hallie, Tyler and Benjamin. All three were eager to join their father and come back as the third generation.

Wade got the help of another sister, Carol, who worked for the University of Cincinnati’s Goering Center for Family and Private Business, to look at the business and lead the family through the process of developing leadership roles for his three children.

Going through that process was critical, he says, as it helped him identify where his children fit best as managers. Hallie, 38, the oldest, was named hiring supervisor and purchasing manager. Tyler, 36, was named general manager. Benjamin, 34, was named farm and finance manager.

"For me, in looking at the quality of the children that I have and their abilities, they were ready," Wade says. "I thought, it's my job not to let them make any really big mistakes. And they haven't. But they also didn't come to me to make the hard choices.”

For example, his children started charging admission to the farm, including the agritainment area, something he and his siblings couldn't figure out.

As Wade’s children were growing their roles on the farm, Susan Butler was growing her own business. But just two years ago, she died of cancer.

"She had done a lot of work at Waters Orchard and Doc Waters Cidery,” Wade says. “She didn't want to see it disappear and fall apart.”

So, Wade’s three children got the money together to keep the orchard and cidery open. Butler's Orchard and Waters Orchard are separate entities, but they collaborate on a lot of things. Wade has a beer and wine license, so he can buy the hard cider and sell it in the farm store.

Gearing up for the future

From just a 17-acre peach orchard back in 1950, the farm has changed significantly over the years.

Christmas trees are now the biggest crop, with 40 acres being grown; followed by pumpkins, herbs, okra and peppers on 25 acres; blueberries on 15 acres; strawberries on 12 acres; blackberries on 4 acres; apples on 4 acres; 3.5 acres of red raspberries; 3 acres of black raspberries; and 4 acres of assorted vegetables and flowers.

Over the past five years, Wade has implemented more Integrated Pest Management, biofumigants, cover crops and mating disrupters throughout his fields. He also helped implement new weather tracking, insect and disease tracking technologies, moisture tracking, and more.

“All this helps us to be more sustainable and efficient,” he says.

The original on-farm store was built in 1960. An extension was added in 1992.

Agritainment is now a big focus on the farm with a petting zoo, playgrounds and other things all designed to give people a daylong farm experience.

“I like that we're able to offer this and open it up to the public to let people have that opportunity,” Wade says. “There’s not a lot of that around, so it's important for me, and to see the satisfaction on people's faces and letting them bring their kids out and see how things grow, see where food comes from, I like that very much.”

Having a farm so close to D.C. is hugely important. It’s one reason he is involved in many ag organizations. He wants to keep farming alive in Germantown, but he also wants to educate leaders on why ag is important.

Although he now considers himself semiretired, he’s still on the farm every day, helping where needed. The farm has weekly business meetings where Wade and his children gather to discuss what’s going on.

“There’s nothing more important than being able to sit down once a week for a couple of hours and say, ‘Where are we, what’s happened, what’s the big items we’re looking at here?’ We have an agenda. It’s a business meeting,” he says.

Having open communication with his children has been key to keeping them in the business. But he also gives a lot of credit to his wife.

“We struck a good balance, and certainly I give my wife a huge amount of credit,” Wade says. “Angela has always been kind of the levelheaded visionary herself, sees through things, and she's been instrumental in keeping everybody grounded, being very welcoming to our children and their friends growing up.

"We're going to continue down the road we're on. I think the agritainment thing is getting bigger. We're getting more data-driven on things, on what's profitable, what's not, what direction we are going. We're very much a family farm, and I'm going to continue in that vein.”

Wade Butler at a glance

Operation: Butler’s Orchard, 207 acres owned, 125 acres rented. Christmas trees, 40 acres; pumpkins, herbs, okra and peppers, 25 acres; blueberries, 15 acres; strawberries, 12 acres; blackberries, 4 acres; apples, 4 acres; 3.5 acres, red raspberries; 3 acres, black raspberries; 4 acres assorted vegetables and flowers.

Family: Wife, Angela; children Hallie Butler-VanHorn, Tyler Butler, Benjamin Butler.

Ag and community involvement: President of Montgomery Agriculture Producers; treasurer of Montgomery Soil Conservation District; president of Montgomery Advisory Committee; vice president of Maryland Christmas Tree Growers Association; superintendent of Damascus Community Fair; superintendent of Montgomery County Fair.

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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