Viscul / Fork & Lens
Three Spring Fruit Farm,
Quote from Ben Wenk
“I think anybody who has entrepreneurial spirit to start new things and work on new enterprises and things of that nature, we always have that drive for the satisfaction of knowing that all of our hard work has been rewarded.”
Jessica Hughes (00:00): Hey everyone. Today’s guest and I go way back. Ben Wenk is a seventh generation fruit farmer in Adams County, Pennsylvania, where I just happened to grow up. And his family owns Three Springs Fruit Farm. They are makers of Ploughman Cider as well. And Ben earned an agriculture degree from Penn State College of Ag Sciences in 2006. And shortly after, he expanded the diversity of crops grown at Three Springs, to support local trips to the regional farmers markets and local stores and restaurants. Late in 2016, saw the debut of Ploughman Cider, a new venture to express the best of the farm through fermentation. Thank you so much for joining us, Ben.
Welcome to the Fork & Lens podcast. Brought to you by Viscul. Oh, smells delish.
Obviously, we’re living in a time where fruit growers are seeing a little fluctuation in the economy. The way that you have gone about growing Three Springs and Ploughman and all these different things. You’ve diversified your income. You’ve also gone from not just grower, but now producer/manufacturer. So tell me a little bit about your background and how you’ve gotten to this point.
Ben Wenk (01:26): Sure.
Jessica Hughes (01:27): I know that’s a big ask.
Ben Wenk (01:29): Yeah, no, no. I’m happy to go there, and thanks again for having me.
Jessica Hughes (01:33): No problem.
Ben Wenk (01:34): So kind of my background is Three Springs Fruit Farm is a multi-generational farm. So I grew up on the farm and seventh generations of my family to farmer that part of the world. I was fortunate enough to go off to college and get a degree in agriculture from Penn State. I have a bachelor’s in agroecology, so very much a sustainable agriculture-based education. And quite honestly, got done with my degree and didn’t know exactly what it was that I wanted to do, like so many graduates.
Jessica Hughes (02:06): I was going to say, didn’t we all?
Ben Wenk (02:09): Yeah, exactly. I had a couple ideas, but it was all very unfocused. Had to really kind of figure out what my next move was going to be. And I found myself working at the local cooperative extension office here in Adams County. And that summer, I would hear everyone else in the office was attending farmers markets in suburban DC, other parts of Maryland. And I would just hear about everyone’s weekend at the farmers market. I didn’t really know much about it, but not long after that, I got an email that there was a farmers market opened in Philadelphia and ended up being Headhouse Farmers Market, which opened July 1, 2007. And for whatever reason, that just kind of clicked. That’s what I want do. And I want to have something to call my own, something I can contribute to the farm, rather than just kind of coming back and being another paycheck. I wanted to have something that was kind of my own.
Jessica Hughes (03:12): Right.
Ben Wenk (03:13): And it was very much influenced by hearing everyone talk about these farmers markets. So we started out with Headhouse and then another midweek market in Philadelphia in 2007 growing season. And kind of started diversifying the kinds of things that we were growing at that point, to make a more robust market selection. So sort of doing more small fruits and berries, all of our vegetables, these are all things that I kind of brought with the farmers market enterprise. And most of the growth of our business can really be tracked to that, because we were well received at the farmers markets.
The timing was great. This is right when farmers markets were kind of really having that Renaissance moment, and it went very well. We started doing more markets. We started finding some great folks to help us out who could represent our farm at these markets, so I didn’t have to be at every single one myself. And things just kind of grew from there.
At the same time, I had another great experience right after that first growing season, where my former boss at Extension took a bunch of us to New Zealand. And on that trip, I really kind of heard from a lot of Kiwi farmers that our geographic location, so close to affluent, urban populations, the same grocery store shelves that they’re trying to access from the whole way across the world, are right in my backyard. And they really challenged us, kind of like, well, if my farm was located where yours was, I wouldn’t have to get out of bed until noon. Like what are you doing? You have a golden opportunity. They really drove that point home. And when you’re right out of college, the first year, it’s like, well, you think you know everything. It’s like [inaudible 00:00:05:14].
But then by the time you really realize that he was right, then it just kind of became my sole ambition to take more responsibility for how our fruit and veggies were marketed, and try to bring more of that whole dollar, from between the end consumer and the producer, bring more of that dollar back into our company. First with farmers markets, then delivering wholesale to farm stands and restaurants in these same cities that we were attending markets. And then that leading up to Ploughman Cider in late 2016.
So really, it’s just been a journey in trying to figure out how to diversify the way we market and sell our fruit and capture as much of that end consumer’s dollar as what we can. Because we’re already doing all the hard work to grow this stuff, dealing directly with the public was going to allow us to enjoy better margins on the work we were already doing, essentially.
Jessica Hughes (06:17): Right. And so to a certain extent, that’s the name of the game, because you’re just trying to cut out the middleman. You’re not working with a distributor, you’re distributing yourself. You’re trying to build efficiencies. If I’m going to go to a farmers market, I might as well find other restaurants and wholesale opportunities to be able to drop off on my way to the farmers market. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about the hustle.
Ben Wenk (06:37): Yeah, totally. And that’s why I will always be a staunch advocate supporter of farmers markets. They continue today to be great incubators of people’s agricultural-based businesses. And when done well, they’re such an important part of the communities in which they’re located, that all of the wonderful things that have happened for our farm have been based on these farmers markets and the people in those communities that embrace us. And yeah, I’m a real proponent of farmers markets.
Jessica Hughes (07:15): Well, we’re a great supporter of them. I love it because it almost becomes this, as you said, an incubator. But you become the test audience for certain things, too. When you show up week after week, people are asking you, okay, so what did you think about that last week? You bought, this is something new we were trying out. What are your thoughts? And you almost become this very intimate focus group for products. And that’s what I love about it as well, because I’ve seen so many companies start in farmers markets and then transition to more of bricks and mortar because they need the efficiencies and the space, in order to produce things. So it’s very interesting as a consumer to watch.
Ben Wenk (07:55): Yeah. And so many of our decisions, whether it’s crops that we’re growing, whether it’s processed goods, different ketchups and pasta sauces and things of that nature that we make, so much of that is coming from conversations with our market customers. They’re stakeholders in our business, and they influence those decisions, as much or more so than any other group I can think of. And we really kind of operate at in their direction, in a lot of ways. We value that interaction.
An observation my dad made, as someone who grew up in strictly wholesale, packing apples, processing apples, it was a real eyeopener for him. Because he’d worked all of his life to grow the best tree fruit that he could. And then by the time it was time to sell it, he just had people just making up any reason to devalue it. Just saying that [crosstalk 00:09:03] or that’s wrong. And to go to a farmers market and have people be so appreciative and so positive about things, it was night and day. And that kind of support really means a lot, too. It’s a big plus.
Jessica Hughes (09:22): So you’re seventh generation, and obviously ,your dad’s perspective has changed. Tell me a little bit more about that, because it’s interesting. I look at our generation and the influence that we have, especially on our grandparents, but our parents aren’t as much open to what we have to say right away. It’s like, “Oh, no, I know how it’s supposed to be done.” So how did those conversations go? And how did he kind of come around to the whole thing? Was it the dollar signs that were adding up at the end of the balance sheet, or was it more thoughtful conversations?
Ben Wenk (09:57): Well, I think that he recognized that there was a great opportunity in the kind of thing I was talking about, when we started farmers markets. He recognized, just because he had the same, he was friends with the same people that I was talking to at Extension. And he knew that these markets were a real good opportunity. Probably recognized that I have a personality that would probably interact well with the public and that that could be… It seemed to fit with my skills in some level that way. And at the very beginning, it didn’t look like much but he was… And I should mention my uncle, as well, because the three of us are owner partners of the business. So the two of them, really, they kind of gave me the leeway to give it a try and to see what would happen, and was able to go out and find me a cheap box truck that ended up being a real money pit, to be completely honest.
But we got started on the cheap because that’s what you do in agriculture.
Jessica Hughes (11:13): That’s right.
Ben Wenk (11:13): And so we got our start, and there was plenty of bumps along the way, as I was figuring my way through this new operation, this new enterprise. And back then, my dad would pitch in and help me and attend some markets as well. And back then, the totals aren’t what they are now, but there was potential there. And after the first year and going into the second year, we really started seeing that the income was going to be worth the effort. And we were able to grow the business from there. And really success with these farmers markets is what made it easier for them to embrace the wholesale delivery part of the business, and then finally the cider company, because I had at least a history of success in bringing the farmers market thing into reality.
But with the cider being a much more… a larger capital investment, I really did write a full business plan, speak with our lenders and secure some funding, and actually ended up pitching them, the same as I would have pitched anybody I was in the business with. I said, “I really think that this is what I see. This is why this could be successful. Here’s some numbers I have behind me, in terms of what I think this could do.”
But yeah, the whole idea is that I add value to the work they’re already doing. And for the most part, that’s been the case. And so when I’m talking to them and saying, you guys just do the things that you do well, and I will make sure that that effort goes a lot further, in terms of what our accounts look like at the end.
Jessica Hughes (13:12): Right.
Ben Wenk (13:13): That’s been received well.
Jessica Hughes (13:14): Yes. Well, that’s always nice because as a team, you’re always trying to figure out what is everyone’s strengths and trying to capitalize on those. And the fact that they’re willing to say, okay, if you can run with that, and we can continue to do what we’ve always done, and we can see bigger numbers at the end of the day, then have at it.
Ben Wenk (13:33): Yeah. Yeah. That’s what it’s all about. It’s gone a little bit beyond that. We’ve seen our opportunities, in terms of crop diversification, that allows us to… We’re growing more different things than we did before. So, in that way, there has been some disruption in what their normal operations might’ve been like, just because they’re helping with growing things like kiwi berries and table grapes and hardy kiwi and gooseberries, and a significant amount of seasonal veggies now, as well, than what we had before. But it’s all in the interest of keeping those farmers market and wholesale revenues continuing to crank out what they need them to.
Jessica Hughes (14:26): Yeah. Okay. So tell me a little bit more about how Ploughman came to be, and how you’ve grown it, and now you have a location in Gettysburg. Actually, I was down there the other day, and of course everything was closed up, but we had lunch on the square because we were in town to meet with my parents. And I was peeking in the windows to see kind of what was going on because I hadn’t had the chance to get down there yet. So tell me about it.
Ben Wenk (14:49): Yeah. Well, I’m speaking to you from the taproom here. I chose that over the sometimes spotty rural wifi connection we have up in Northern Adams County. So yeah, Ploughman really started as an idea. It was literally born right beside our farmers market stand in Philadelphia, where there was… One of the first couple of weeks of doing markets, my dad had come down to Philly with me on a Sunday, and after what we considered at that time to be a really good market, it being in our first year, in hindsight, it wasn’t as great, but it was good for that year. We decided, hey, let’s walk into this pub and have one before we go home. Celebrate.
Jessica Hughes (15:40): Right.
Ben Wenk (15:41): And I was just discovering craft beer at the time. I was ordering from whatever tap handle I couldn’t recognize. And so I saw a tap handle that said Strongbow, and I ordered one, not knowing it was cider. And my experience with cider previous to that had just been very sweet American ciders that have rodents on them, that didn’t appeal to me. Trying to protect them [crosstalk 00:16:07] But this cider, when I had the Strongbow, was completely different. It had more balance. It wasn’t so cloyingly sweet, that it was speaking dessert. It really kind of was dry, refreshing. It really hit the spot on a hot day of market, and we’d been outside working all day. And I was just like, wow, this is great. And I let dad have some, and even dad’s first taste, he’s like, well, we can make some of this sometime. I was like oh, [crosstalk 00:16:43]
Jessica Hughes (16:43): I have my hands on the farmers markets.
Ben Wenk (16:45): Yeah. He actually brought it up first. And so, that fall was the first that we had fresh cider press for farmers market. We had it made custom press at a neighboring farm. And whenever that cider would go to market twice and didn’t sell, because it was UV treated and not heat pasteurized, it was not advisable that we take it to market for the third time. So I just started buying up some used bourbon barrels from a place called the Flying Barrel down in Frederick, and just started taking all the cider that I couldn’t sell at market and putting it in a barrel and adding some sugar, adding some yeast, and walking away from it and just letting it ferment for a year, and coming back and having a big party, inviting all my friends, and essentially just using what would have been a waste product and turning it into just a party, that all my friends could hang out and the music and act like young 20-year-olds, like I was at the time.
That’s how everything started. And from there, I just started exploring different ciders that were more orchard-based and more traditionally made. Ciders like what Steve Wood makes at Farnum Hill, the single varietal Redfield from West County. And I started finding some ciders from England that weren’t Strongbow, and discovering these different ciders that were more complex and that weren’t so sweet and accompanied food better. It really inspired me to learn more about it. I started buying some books and studying cider making, reading about the history, different techniques.
And it just kind of went from there. It got to a point where I saw some other peers, like my friends out at [inaudible 00:19:02] and Boyertown were one of the first fruit growing families that I was familiar with from meetings or Hershey and stuff like that, who took the plunge to make their own cider. And Reeds followed, and Jack’s followed after that. And I could see it’s going to be a thing. And it was shortly after that, that I was introduced to our cider maker. Hans Edmond Winsler was, at the time, working for the lab, still working for the fruit lab, the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, and found out that he was a passionate home cider maker. And we kind of talked about it, and he soon became part of the business plan because I could tell he was a capable and eager and good at what he did.
And that’s kind of how it all came to be. It was a very slow buildup. I was making cider at home and studying and reading for probably, oh, maybe six or seven years. Then it took parts of three different years to get all of our licenses in line and get our facility approved. And yeah, so we’ve been making cider for about three and a half years now. We’ve had the taproom here in the square. Really, the first anniversary of our first popup here was Memorial Day weekend.
Jessica Hughes (20:24): Nice.
Ben Wenk (20:25): We did a whole bunch of popups in the summertime, and really kind of started occupying this space every weekend, still in a popup kind of scenario, almost a year ago now. So it was a Fyter Fest weekend of 2019. It was kind of like the first weekend, and we’ve been open really ever since.
Jessica Hughes (20:48): Yeah. Something that you’ve now mentioned twice, inadvertently, is the fact that the first year you went to market, it hadn’t completely proven itself. And then even with the cider, you studied for years, and then you still worked for years to bring it to fruition. And I think that’s something that often goes unnoticed, is the fact that you have to play the long game in these situations. It’s not going to be an immediate overnight success. And you have to be diligent in it and kind of hang on to that and be patient. How has that been for you? Are there times where you’re like, screw this, I’m done, it’s too much. It’s not paying off fast enough for me.
Ben Wenk (21:33): Well, yes and no. I think anybody who has that entrepreneurial spirit to start new things and work on new enterprises and things of that nature, we always have that drive for the satisfaction of knowing that all of your hard work has been rewarded.
Jessica Hughes (21:54): Yes.
Ben Wenk (21:56): I do think that I benefit from the experience of growing up on a tree fruit farm, especially, because we approach everything with that kind of long game. One thing that I love trying to explain to customers, when they ask about planting trees and what’s going on in the orchard side of things, is the lag time is so long, in terms of… We found out about some great new Apple varieties that were being marketed successfully at farm stands a few years ago. And so we ordered trees two years ago, or maybe just last year, that we’re going to plant in 2021, that won’t bear any significant fruit until 2024, that’ll be hitting their stride in 2028.
And so everything about our farm is built on the idea that we’re going to educate ourselves the best we can, make the best plan that we can, knowing full well that it’s likely to go wrong, invest the money upfront, have the faith and confidence that all the factors beyond our control will not be so limiting that we won’t get to where we need to go. And then you wait for the payoff. Any acre of orchard trees that you would plant, you’re going to invest between $8000 or $12,000 per acre upfront. And the best folks are not even breaking even until year three or four. And so with that as the kind of backdrop, or that’s the baseline for almost every decision we make, in terms of how we plant and grow a block of tree fruit, it really conditions you to apply that same patience and positive thinking to many parts of your life. Not just projects like the cider company, but the idea that set it up for success and then wait.
Jessica Hughes (24:16): Well, and especially with growing because there’s so many factors when it comes to growing fruit that are completely out of your control. They are up to Mother Nature. There’s so many things that you can’t… You can’t determine whether or not there’s going to be frost this year or frost next year or enough rain or whether or not insects are going to bombard your orchards, or whatever it is. And it’s one of those things that I’ve found, at least, as a business owner, is you have to control what you can control and everything else, you just have to have faith in and keep pushing forward.
Ben Wenk (24:50): Yeah, that’s totally it. And one of the things that I love most about working in agriculture is that the rhythm of the growing seasons and that renewal, that every year, you have a chance to do everything a little bit better. You have a chance to learn from what happened last year and apply it to this year. And that just has this cumulative effect of always trying to do things better. And you’re totally right. There’s so many things we can’t control. I joke a lot. In 2018, which was a miserable year for agriculture, just based on excessive rain… and there again, it’s beyond our control. We can’t shut off the skies. We can’t turn a knob and cease the rain. It’s going to rain, and it’s going to do what it wants to do.
And I joke around with a lot of customers. Trying to learn from things that go wrong, well, the only thing we could have done differently that year is just stopped trying to invest and grow things from the start. It was almost 80 inches of rain in 2018, and it really brought everybody in agriculture to the brink. It really did.
Jessica Hughes (26:07): Yeah.
Ben Wenk (26:08): But you just had to have a little bit of faith that 2019 wouldn’t be the same thing. And 2019 was all right. We got through it okay.
Jessica Hughes (26:16): Now we’re in this crazy.
Ben Wenk (26:20): Yeah. And speaking with a buddy of mine, Tim Mountz at Happy Cat Farm, I was speaking with him at market the other day. And it’s like, yeah, global pandemic, quite honestly, it’s really a lot easier to mitigate than 80 inches of rain.
Jessica Hughes (26:36): Yeah. There’s a little bit more control in that. Well, and honestly, I think we’re about to see another resurgence in the whole local movement. I think it’s going to push that much harder, now that we’re going through this. I know personally, I was still visiting farmers market and going to a lot of our local vendors, but at the same time, I was using curbside and delivery for your standard grocery items. And I’ve found that I’m not even doing that anymore. I’m piece-mealing that much more. And especially, some of the people that we buy from aren’t going to market because of all of this. So instead, I’m going to their farm and picking up that, and then going to the bread company, and going there.
Ben Wenk (27:20): Yeah. Yeah. And I love that. At one point, I had somebody kind of put the notion in my head that trying to bring the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker back in every town. We can build our communities in a cooperative way, that we’re more self-sufficient. And it takes people willing to sacrifice the convenience. But what you end up with at the end of the day is a much richer, more resilient community, that isn’t dependent on your meat coming from halfway across the country, or all your vegetables coming from the Central Valley in California. We’re capable of providing all those things to our friends and neighbors. It’s just whether or not people are going to continue to prioritize how they spend their money, based on this almost civic duty, really, of supporting your friends and neighbors, when it would be easier, more convenient, to operate and spend your money through more traditional means.
And so, I’m very encouraged by it. I think I speak for a lot of us in agriculture, that we’re all encouraged by it. And we really hope that it continues. Because right now, it looks like a great option because other options have become limiting. And I would be lying if I didn’t at least lend a voice to some real skepticism among those in agriculture that it’s going to stick this time. We really want it to.
And just speaking for myself and what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to build infrastructure into our company and start a couple of new things that would allow us to sell more directly and conveniently to our friends and neighbors in Adams County and the greater Cumberland Valley area. Because we want to be part of that too. When our businesses are growing organically in the places we’re serving, like Philadelphia, DC, Baltimore, it’s very easy, just continue to let those grow. And it was never intentionally at the expense of our local area. It was just, that’s where our business was growing. And in a world where I only have so much bandwidth, it was very easy to just apply my energies to those areas.
But when I wasn’t traveling as much, in these past couple of months, it’s really been a great time for me to kind of double down and provide new opportunities for our friends and neighbors to access the things that we’re working so hard to grow.
Jessica Hughes (30:19): Yeah. There’s something great about the local vibe of Adams County. And it’s interesting because we went to high school together, you left and went to college. So did I, and somehow we both returned. You to a family business. Me, I had zero intention of returning, and I distinctly remember my senior year of college, coming home at fall break, and my parents are really close friends with some of the farmers in the community. And they said, “Hey, we’re down at the bar, come on down.” And so it was nighttime, and it was cool enough, but warm enough, my windows were down in the car. I just driven seven hours home. And I’m driving down the mountain, and I go through an apple orchard. And there was something about the smell of the orchard that night, that I was like, “Well, shoot, I’m moving home, aren’t I?” There’s something special about it.
Ben Wenk (31:11): I had almost the very same experience, now that you mention it.
Jessica Hughes (31:15): Really?
Ben Wenk (31:15): So one of our last family vacations was out to California, and we went through the Central Valley, and we went through Napa, and we spent some time in San Francisco and did the redwoods and all that. I distinctly remember being very… It was so striking. And very taken by the aesthetics of the Napa Valley wine region, and just all these beautiful rolling hillsides, just dotted with grapevines and how beautiful it was and lush and green. And I came home. And I was, at the time, still thinking about college choices that might include moving to a more urban area and pursuing music and not agriculture, in my senior year of high school.
And I had almost the very same experience that you did. As I was driving north towards Biglerville on 34, and it was a big, moonlit night. And I was just driving around. I could just see the pale outline of all the orchards in the moonlight. And I just kind of like looked around and said, “Well, everything that you admired about Napa Valley is right here.”
Jessica Hughes (32:31): Yeah.
Ben Wenk (32:33): All the things that… just that act of getting myself out of Adams County and traveling really made me appreciate what we have here so much more, that it just dawned on me like a snap. I could search the world over and not find what I have here.
Jessica Hughes (32:55): Yes.
Ben Wenk (32:57): And that was really when I started thinking more about agriculture as a career, is because I thought about just my love and affinity for the area. I thought about all the people I’d come to know in agriculture, just kind of being beside my dad, going to meetings and working at the fruit lab and getting to know some of the other fruit growers in our community better.
I said, I’d be really proud to be part of this fruit-growing community here. And I do love this area. It’s not without its faults, just like any places.
Jessica Hughes (33:33): Every place has their faults.
Ben Wenk (33:34): Right. But there’s something here that can’t be recreated other places. And it took me a while to understand that. But the more I travel… I always say it’s a great place to come home to. The more I travel, the more I enjoy coming home because I’ve experienced new things. And it helps me appreciate where I’ve been. It helps me appreciate where I am so much more when I come back.
Jessica Hughes (34:01): Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate this.
Ben Wenk (34:03): Yeah, no, thanks for having me. It’s a, it’s been great catching up with you. And again, thank you for considering us for the podcast here.
Jessica Hughes (34:12): Yeah. All right. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Ben Wenk (34:18): I think I’ve probably said a lot.
Jessica Hughes (34:19): Okay.
If you enjoyed today’s show. Please feel free to find Ben on LinkedIn and Instagram. You can also find Plowman Cider on Instagram and at ploughmancider.com. And you can also check out Three Springs Fruit Farm on Instagram. If you live locally, please find them at one of the local farmers markets. Their produce is one of the best.
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