Pa. family farms change their ways to stay the same

Crystal Spring Farm mirrors changes in region's agriculture

December 28, 2003|By Sam Kennedy | Sam Kennedy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. -- Farming in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley has been in a state of decline for much of the last century, as measured by the amount of land in agriculture and number of farmers tending to it.

But Crystal Spring Farm in Schnecksville, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, has not only survived -- it's thriving.

Seventy-year-old Hubert Sell's grandfather started the farm in 1903. He paid $3,800 for 90 acres, and planted potatoes.

Today, Sell and his four children, who are between the ages of 38 and 47, raise dairy cows on 250 acres. It's a diversified multimillion-dollar corporation with 250 head of cattle, a milk processing plant, a grocery store, a restaurant and an electrical business.

`A roaring fire'

"We just jumped into a roaring fire," Sell said of his decision to expand the farm into a retail business in the mid-1970s. "We had a lot of sleepless nights."

Sell's grandfather, whose main implements were a horse and plow, would hardly recognize his great-grandchildren's methods. A milking station, for example, automatically identifies each cow by a radio collar, records how many gallons she produces and transfers the data to a computer system in a neatly furnished office nearby.

In some ways, though, life on the farm continues as always. The hours are as long as ever. Sell's two oldest sons each work 80 to 100 hours a week, going years without a day off.

"We eat, sleep and drink it, which wasn't a change from the way we were raised," said Sell's daughter, Audrey Marsteller, who manages the payroll and works in the grocery store.

In its centennial year, Crystal Spring exemplifies how the Lehigh Valley farming industry has changed, and how it is staying the same.

Moving into retail

Crystal Spring processes and bottles its own milk -- in whole, 2 percent or skim varieties -- and makes ice cream from scratch. The move into retail was born of necessity in the early 1970s when the Lehigh Valley Dairy, the primary buyer of Crystal Spring's unprocessed milk, went out of business.

"We decided we ought to take our destiny into our own hands," Sell said. "We could blame ourselves if things didn't work out."

Such retail ventures take many forms, said Robert Leiby, director of Cooperative Extension in Lehigh County, an educational arm of Penn State. Vineyards grow grapes, make wine and sell it on-site to tourists. Farms offer horse boarding, open pumpkin patches and corn mazes to the public and sell produce at local farmers markets.

"A lot of people have the notion that a farm is a nice estate with a barn and some animals in a field," Leiby said. "Agriculture has gotten a lot more diverse."

Crystal Spring is what's known under state law as a "closely held family farm corporation." The designation gives the farm some of the legal powers of a traditional corporation, but with greater flexibility and a smaller tax burden.

The corporation has three divisions: the agricultural operation, the retail business and the electric company, which is run by Sell's youngest son, a master electrician.

The corporation has a payroll of 26 employees, half of whom are members of the Sell family. Only Hubert Sell and his wife draw salaries. Everyone else, including their four children, receives hourly wages. The corporation also provides health insurance.

The corporation benefits from certain economies of scale, according to Sell. For example, he said the three divisions share one payroll, which reduces paperwork.

It's basically the same thing that bigger companies achieve through mergers, Sell said. "We do it in a small way, but it still counts."

The Sell family cultivates about 250 acres of land, half of which it leases from neighbors.

Technological advances have enabled fewer people to farm more land.

Between 1987 and 1997, the number of farms in Lehigh and Northampton counties dropped 20 percent, from 1,025 to 821, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, the average size of a farm in the region grew to more than 200 acres, from 179 acres.

Crystal Spring was but one farm in sea of agriculture land several decades ago. Today, it's surrounded by subdivisions.

Losses to development

Lehigh and Northampton counties lose a total of 3.5 acres of agriculture land to development every year, according to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

The planning commission's statistics are striking: In 1975, 67 percent of the region's 729,000 square miles was farmed or undeveloped. That figure has shrunk to 53 percent today.

The Sell family, at least, has benefited from the trend. The tract houses that sprung up provided a ready-made customer base for the milk and ice cream business.

"They got into that at a good time," Leiby said.

Just beyond the valley's urban core, countless barns and silos are scattered across a patchwork of farm fields.

And more than 1,500 people in the two counties work in agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. That's about the same number employed by Sacred Heart Hospital of Allentown, the region's eleventh-biggest employer.

Only a few farms in the region are bigger than 1,000 acres, according to Beverly Weaver, program assistant for the Lehigh County Bureau of Agriculture Land Preservation.

Unlike the Midwest and California, where massive corporate farms dominate, the Lehigh Valley is a stronghold of the family farm. Sell said he hopes his grandchildren take over Crystal Spring some day.

Sam Kennedy is a reporter for The Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Allentown, Pa.

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