Apr 7, 2007
Pennsylvania Farm Specializes in Adding Value

Soergel Orchards sells fruit salad in a special basket for $54.99 – and people are willing to pay for it.

The secret is the basket: a carved-out watermelon. Each hollow melon can hold 12 to 15 pounds of cut fruit, including honeydew, oranges, grapes, kiwi, muskmelon, apples, blueberries, strawberries and watermelon. With oranges, limes, lemons and grapes tacked on the outside of the rind in a symmetrical pattern, the finished fruit basket is a spectacular spectacle for the sense of sight.

“People buy with their eyes as much as anything,” said Eric Voll, manager at Soergel Orchards. “We try to do anything we can to be unique.”

Voll’s grandfather came up with the idea for the watermelon basket, a popular item for graduation parties, reunions and similar get-togethers. He wanted to offer something more exciting than a fruit salad on a tray or in a bowl, Voll said.

A couple factors explain the watermelon basket’s high price: It takes an hour and a half to prepare and it’s not available year round. It’s truly a value-added item.

To Voll, however, the term “value added” could mean a lot of different things.

“It doesn’t have to just be product,” he said. “It’s a feeling you can give customers – you put a smile on their faces when they enter and leave. That’s value added to me.”

Voll also looks at his employees as a value-added item. The Wexford, Pa., orchard has about 40 full- and part-time employees in the off-season, and up to 120 during the fall harvest.

“Without them and the service they offer, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” he said. “They’re as important an asset as anything we have.”

The emphasis on customer service hasn’t kept Soergel Orchards from specializing in value-added products, however. There’s plenty for customers to choose from.

Like apple wine, for example. The orchard has a partnership with Arrowhead Wine Sellers, a wine shop in Erie, Pa., that increases the value of its apples. The orchard presses some of its apples into cider and sends them to the wine shop, which turns the cider into apple wine, apple spice wine – even green apple wine for St. Patrick’s Day (the winery sold almost 500 cases during a holiday promotion). The orchard sells the special wine out of its farm stand. It’s also sold at a couple other locations. Voll is hoping to make strawberry wine before too long.

In the summer, they roast corn. The big corn roaster can roast more than 100 dozen ears an hour. Combine them with hot dogs, drinks and nice weekend weather, and you’ve got the ingredients for some great summer memories.

“People can see you bring it from the fields to the roaster,” he said. “It’s pretty popular.”

There are farms out there that do similar things, but none of them are near Soergel Orchards, Voll said.

“You have to have items that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “We’re always trying to come up with something different. We don’t put any limits on anything.”

The fact that they’re buying from a family and not a corporation adds value to the experience for some customers, he said.

Voll is a member of the same Soergel family that founded the orchard in 1850. For years, family members sold their crops at produce yards in nearby Pittsburgh, but in the 1960s they decided the trip into town wasn’t worth it and they built a roadside stand. Things grew from there. In the early 70s, they moved across the road. Located near a turnpike in a swiftly growing area, it’s a great location for attracting customers. The downside is higher taxes and difficult farming conditions.

The orchard has a total of 475 acres between two counties, mostly in apples but also in pumpkins, alfalfa, gourds, corn, tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, muskmelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries – 50 to 60 varieties of fruit and vegetables, he said.

The vast majority of their crops are sold retail, much of them directly out of the roadside market – all 11,000 square feet of it. There are plenty of opportunities to add value. There’s a gift barn (built in 1860), garden center, greenhouses, bakery and deli, event center, cider press, tea party room, ice cream, petting zoo, fall festivals, scavenger hunt, hayrides, pony rides, horse-drawn wagon rides, musicians, performers – they cover all the agritainment bases, according to www.soergels.com.

Their efforts have paid off in terms of customer volume. About 10,000 customers visited the orchard in March, a slow month, Voll said.

Many of the customers are neighbors, who perhaps benefit the most from the orchard’s value-added efforts. Neighbors get discounts and exclusive specials that other customers don’t have access to.

“We rely on them to keep us in business,” Voll said. “We want to supply them with everything they need.”

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