Category: Agriculture

Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards

At many of the businesses I visit, turnaround time is an important factor. The company’s bottom line depends on how quickly they can get orders out to customers, or how many products they can manufacture on a particular day.

Not so at Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards, in North East Township. There, it’s all about the process – and that process sometimes sets its own pace. “You can’t hurry it,” owner Jeff Ore says.

He’s owned the winery since 2004, when he left his job in the corporate world and moved back to his hometown of North East.

He came home to plant roots, both figurative and literal. He grows about 3 acres of grapes – “it keeps my fingers in viticulture so I know what’s going on, but it lets me focus on the business,” he says – and runs the winery, including making the wine.

Though he grew up among the grape fields, he had to learn the winemaking business – including the details and chemistry that go into the process. Now, however, he speaks knowledgably about each aspect of his operations.

In Penn Shore’s Champagne room, he details the two-year in-bottle fermentation process, holding bottles up to the light to display the sediment and explaining the features that help the bottles withstand the high pressure contained within.

Next door, in the barrel room, he describes the variations in oak – he uses Pennsylvania and French oak – that affect the taste of the wine. The barrels, he explains, are for drier varieties, which the winery does make despite the fact that Erie County wines are better known for being sweet. About 80 percent of Penn Shore’s sales are sweet varieties, Ore says, with the top seller being their Pennsylvania Lambruscano – a red that he describes as starting sweet and ending a bit drier.

He walks us through the bottling process, describing the difference between corks and caps – corks, he says, allow the wine to age, while caps (used mainly for sweet and white wines) are used to seal the bottle so the taste of the wine doesn’t change.

Finally, he leads us to the back patio, where rows of grapevines fan out in a vista that is distinctly North East.

It’s a view that Ore has come to appreciate.

“If I have a bad day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine,” he says. “And if I have a good day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine.”

About Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards: Penn Shore is the oldest licensed winery in Pennsylvania. It received the second license ever issued by the commonwealth after the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act was passed in 1968 (the first licensee never opened, Ore says). Today, Penn Shore is a popular spot for wine tasting and sponsors a well-attended annual summer concert series, Music in the Vineyard. Though Jeff Ore and his daughter are the only full-time employees – Ore’s wife, Cheryl, is semi-retired – they do hire staff for the concert series and to assist with the field work.

Why Erie County: Jeff Ore says he appreciates the fact that east county has become a destination for wine lovers. Initiatives like the Lake Erie Wine Country trail, as well as the growth of local microbreweries and distilleries, have enhanced tourism around the grape region. In addition, he likes the pace of life, saying that he loves his lifestyle. “If this was a midlife crisis, it really worked out,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Like any small business, the Ores face constant challenges of costs and cash flow. In addition, Jeff Ore says, there’s quite a lot of effort that goes into running the operation – both the business side and the winemaking side.

Fun fact: Penn Shore is legally permitted to use the term “Champagne.” A 2006 wine-trade agreement restricted the use of the word to only the bubbly made in the Champagne region of France. But because Penn Shore had been making its wine under an approved label before that, it was grandfathered in – and thus it continues to sell its Pennsylvania Champagne.

Address: 10225 East Lake Road, North East, PA 16428 or www.pennshore.com

Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill

September is Local Food Month in Pennsylvania – and there’s certainly local food in abundance at Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill in Girard Township.

There are tomatoes, grapes and other produce that are fresh from Erie County farms. There are baked goods from a Millcreek Township bakery, wine from a North East Township vineyard and beer from an Erie brewery.

And the apples? Those were picked about 200 yards from the back door.

Owner Gary Faulkner grows eight or nine varieties of apples at the business, which is named after the stream that cuts through the property. Some of the apples are sold to customers, and others go into the cider that is pressed on site.

The cider season is just gearing up – they press cider from around Labor Day to the end of the year, he says. At Godfrey Run, that process involves multiple steps, sending the apples and juice smoothly from one piece of equipment to another through the cider room. The cider is treated with UV light to prevent any potential pathogens and then is bottled up, ready to be sold.

Not all of that juice comes from Godfrey Run trees – Faulkner contracts with other Erie County growers. The business works both ways – several other operations sell Faulkner’s bottled cider.

Faulkner supports growers not just in Erie County but statewide, too. His products are designated PA Preferred (part of an initiative to support local foods), and he is active in the Pennsylvania Apple Program and the Pennsylvania Cider Guild.

In addition, he has been looking into ways to expand and find different uses and new markets for his apples and his cider.

A previous brainstorm created the cider slushy, a favorite treat for visitors to the farm market. I had a taste during my visit to Godfrey Run, and I can see why they’re so popular.

It’s a new twist on a favorite fall flavor that reminds me of how fortunate we are in Erie County, where we have family farms growing fresh produce so close to home.

As Godfrey Run Farm Market’s sign says: “How sweet it is.”

About Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill: Faulkner has been growing produce for 38 years, first part time and now full time. These days, he almost exclusively grows apples. He expanded his farm market over the years, and is now in his seventh year of making cider on site. The market draws a number of tourists, he says – particularly people who pass by on their way to camp or fish. “A lot of people don’t realize that Erie County is the place in the world – not in the state or in the county, but in the world – to go steelhead fishing,” he says.

Why Erie County: For Faulkner, Godfrey Run is an opportunity to do what he enjoys. He worked as an insurance agent for most of his career, and switched over to run Godfrey Run full time just over 11 years ago. Now, he enjoys the chance to work outside. He also is helping to keep alive a tradition of family farms in Erie County. Years ago, he recalls, family farm stands were plentiful, particularly in west county between Fairview and Girard. Now there are fewer, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Godfrey Run faces challenges from the most unpredictable source – the weather. Like any agricultural operation, it is largely at the whims of Mother Nature. That includes facing various challenges, like apple scab.

Fun fact: Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill participated in Farm Aid in Pittsburgh on September 16, representing cider makers in the local food concessions at the all-star music festival.

Address: 8958 West Lake Road, Lake City, PA 16423 or www.godfreyrunfarm.com

Skelton Farms

Looking across the fields of Skelton Farms in Washington Township, you can see how past and present have come together. An outbuilding dates to the days when this land was a dairy farm. Alpacas share space with chickens. Beef cattle graze in a grassy pasture.

These are all signs of what co-owner Trish Skelton calls the “evolution” of Skelton Farms – and also signs of what has kept the farm thriving.

“You have to evolve, or you’re not going to stay around,” she says.

When she and her husband, Terry, decided to take over the farm that had been in her husband’s family for years, they decided to branch out from dairy farming, seeking an operation that could guarantee a more steady cash flow.

At one point, they added alpacas, which proved to be a great asset. But when the fiber market started to dip, they branched out again, this time to grass-fed beef.

Trish Skelton had done her research into the health benefits of grass-fed beef – “I knew beef was going to be big,” she says – and the family decided to stake their future on it.

That was an evolution that continues to prove successful for the farm. As the Skeltons have steadily, and selectively, grown their herd of Piedmontese beef cattle, they have found their niche in offering healthier meat to customers in Erie County.

Skelton Farms is still dabbling with evolution: They grow their own pesticide-free, herbicide-free hay, to ensure their cattle are fed the highest-quality grass year-round. (“We’re meticulous about it,” Trish Skelton says.) They’ve allotted land for the next generation – Trish and Terry Skelton’s son – to experiment with growing vegetables.

Meanwhile, they’re still tracking the grass-fed beef market, while still keeping an eye on opportunities to expand.

“We’re satisfied with beef for right now,” Trish Skelton says.

About Skelton Farms: Skelton Farms is focused on providing a healthier meat option for customers, who buy the beef for home use. The beef that they sell is leaner, with good fats, healthier cholesterol and a higher level of Omega-3. Because of the genetic makeup of the Piedmontese breed, the meat is naturally tender – without requiring the marbling that usually is present in tender beef. The health benefits of the grass-fed beef are a selling point for Skelton Farms, and are what brings in most customers.

Why Erie County: Terry Skelton’s family has been farming in northwestern Pennsylvania for generations, and his father purchased the Washington Township property after World War II. So Skelton Farms’ roots run deep in Erie County, and the current owners are content with that. Trish Skelton says that one of the highlights of her job is meeting customers, and she takes pride in the Skelton Farms operation. “I like supplying healthy, grass-fed beef to the people of Erie County,” she says. “It’s very satisfying, even if it’s not always easy.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that face Skelton Farms are echoed throughout family farms across the county, and across the country. Cash flow is a constant challenge, as is the unpredictable weather, which can make or break a season. Some challenges are unique to Skelton Farms, however. Educating customers about the health benefits of grass-fed beef is an ongoing challenge, Trish Skelton says. Other challenges come in the form of state and federal regulations. Skelton Farms, for example, would qualify for organic certification, except for the fact that they don’t use a certified-organic butcher – the closest is four hours away. Other regulations mandate that the Skeltons must sell their cattle before slaughter, rather than selling packaged meat, because of the uncertainty of using a USDA butcher in Erie County. They are hopeful, however, that pending legislation might alter those rules enough to allow them to use their preferred custom butcher, so they can continue to expand their options for their customers.

Fun fact:  Skelton Farms prides itself on the fact that the cattle are humanely raised, never confined, fed only grass, and never given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Address: 13388 Cambridge Springs Road, Edinboro, PA 16412 or www.skeltonfarms.com

Hurry Hill Maple Farm

My visit to Hurry Hill Maple Farm, in Franklin Township, came at the tail end of the maple syrup season – a fact that was confirmed by owner Jan Woods.

“Hear that? Those are the peepers,” she said, after we stopped by the sugarhouse. “That means spring is here. The season of mud and snow is over.”

The sugarhouse, a rustic little building tucked away in the trees, is situated down the road from the main building that greets visitors to Hurry Hill Maple Farm.

The main building – a repurposed cattle barn – houses a small shop and a detailed museum. The museum, which highlights the history of syrup making, is designed around the driving force behind Hurry Hill: The 1957 Newbery Award-winning book “Miracles on Maple Hill,” by one-time Edinboro resident Virginia Sorensen.

The book, about a family’s experiences after moving to the countryside and befriending syrup makers, features real-life local figures. Woods, a former school principal, uses Hurry Hill to showcase the book as well as preserve the sugar-making tradition that it details. The end result, Hurry Hill Maple Farm Museum Association, is a blend of history and agriculture.

As part of that preservation, Woods relies on the old ways to tap her trees and make her maple syrup. Silver buckets, some overflowing with clear, waterlike sap, hang beneath spiles from the trees in her maple orchard. There is no network of modern tubes weaving among the trees to collect sap at Hurry Hill. Instead, they do it the way the Chris family did in “Miracles on Maple Hill.”

Besides, Woods says, “No one wants to come take pictures of tubing.”

But savvy uses of technology surface around Hurry Hill, including on a walking trail. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan QR codes on signs, so that they can download information about each location around the property.

It’s just another way that Hurry Hill is weaving together present and past, in order to unite today’s families with history, agriculture and literature.

About Hurry Hill Farm: The operation, like dozens of sugarmakers in the Erie County region, reaches its peak in late winter and early spring. The sap needs several days of the freeze-at-night, thaw-during-the-day cycle to get going, Woods says. But it is open beyond the syrup season. Hurry Hill – including the shop, filled with glowing amber flasks of pure maple syrup and other maple products – is open in spring and fall, and the museum also welcomes groups for private tours.

Why Erie County: Hurry Hill is unique in that it is inextricably tied to its location – not just to Erie County, but to that specific area outside Edinboro that is the real-life Maple Hill. A driving tour, listed on Hurry Hill’s website, even lists locations from the book. In addition, Erie County is square in the maple syrup-making region, which stretches from northeastern U.S. and Canada across the Great Lakes.

Challenges of Erie County: Woods says her biggest challenge might be in getting publicity for Hurry Hill, particularly for the museum. As it highlights the local connection to Pennsylvania’s only Newbery winner, she would like to see a stronger connection to other tourism opportunities in the county. In addition, she is seeing fewer tours of students, as schools are working with limited budgets and greater attention to standardized testing.

Fun fact: Hurry Hill welcomes about 4,000 visitors per year.

Address: 11424 Fry Road, Edinboro, PA 16412 or www.hurryhillfarm.org.

 

Next week: We brush up on our math skills at Larson Texts in Millcreek Township.

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