Sidney Kuhn: New Fruit Grower, New Perspectives

Sidney Kuhn

There is a long historical legacy at Kuhn Orchards in Cashtown, PA, and this history has not gone unnoticed by Sidney Kuhn. Sidney is the latest generation to take the reins at Kuhn Orchards, which has been growing apples, peaches, and other crops in Adams County, PA, since the 1840s.

When talking to Kuhn, however, it’s obvious that she not only wants to carry on the farm’s family legacy; she’s also looking to take the business in new directions. This process began with her father, David, and as Sidney takes over more and more of the responsibilities of running the family business, she recognizes that the strategic skills required to lead the company into the future are critical, perhaps even more so than the skills required to produce the crops they are selling. This mindset, along with the knowledge she’s gained in working with other young growers in the area, is helping her along the way.

The Bigger Picture

While Kuhn grew up on the family farm, neither her undergraduate degree nor her first job experiences after college were in horticulture. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from North Carolina State University, she did not immediately return to the farm. Rather, she spent a few years working with the local land conservancy, focusing on land use issues and regulations, as well as conservation easements.

“I had to work with several committees, and this is where I learned how to work as a team,” says Kuhn. “It also taught me a lot about the politics of business, and working with government entities, which has been helpful in my current role as a business manager.” For example, Kuhn wrote and implemented several grants on behalf of the conservancy, and this practice would serve her well when she eventually came back to Kuhn Orchards.

Even though she is now back at the farm full-time, Kuhn’s area of expertise is not in horticulture. While her experience growing up on the farm gave her a basic understanding of fruit growing, she more often than not relies on working closely with the farm’s production manager, Rusty Lamb. “My dad has said that business, finance, and human resources management are the hardest things to learn, so I’ve tried to focus on these areas.” She also looks for ways to complement her own knowledge base outside of horticulture with the wisdom of her father, Lamb, and others she has learned from.

This ability to work as a team extends to all of her employees. “I try to listen to our employees and help them take ownership of a project,” says Kuhn. “These practices have helped encourage many of our employees to come back year after year, which means we don’t need to spend the time retraining them.”

The Next Level

Along with her focus on business and financial management, Kuhn is also looking for ways to incorporate new technology and production systems into the orchard. For example, all of the farm’s spray and fertilizer records, as well as planting dates and even production guides from Penn State University, are kept on a tablet, which seems to be part of the next wave of mobile data information. With the farm’s broad mix of varieties and crops, it became necessary to digitize each orchard block. Lamb, who does not have a traditional desktop computer in the farm’s office, can carry the tablet around in the orchard. Furthermore, all of the farm managers have access to these records via Google Docs (docs.google.com). “A tablet makes more sense for Rusty, since he’s not in his office for most of the season,” says Kuhn.

Two crops that have seen greater focus at Kuhn Orchards, thanks to customer demand, are raspberries and blackberries. Looking for ways to improve labor efficiency and extend their season, Kuhn has recently worked with her father and Lamb on two major investments. The first is the installation of an adjustable trellis system. (This system was highlighted in an article in the May issue of American/Western Fruit Grower) This system allows for a movable trellis that can be bent down, saving pickers the time of having to stand on crates to pick the highest berries. “Blackberries are a very labor-intensive crop, and anything to alleviate that is important,” says Kuhn.

The other investment was a high tunnel, made possible by a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant Kuhn applied for (her previous experience in grant writing no doubt made this process run smoothly). Kuhn is hoping the high tunnel, which will house fall raspberries, will lead to higher yields due to a lack of insect and disease pressure, as well as a longer growing season.

Consumer Connection

Perhaps the biggest change to take place at Kuhn Orchards in the last few years has been its sales. While almost 100 acres of apple production was shifting from processing to fresh, the farm’s selling strategy was moving from wholesale to direct marketing. Currently about 60% of the farm’s income is derived from a chain of farmers markets in the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC, area. “My dad says you always have to be willing to take risks and change direction if things aren’t panning out,” says Kuhn.

Aside from a new revenue stream, the other benefit to this approach has been a direct connection to their customers. “In wholesale you learn from your customers second-hand,” says Kuhn. “But we are able to hear directly what they are looking for.” This customer feedback is not falling on deaf ears. In fact, every time someone asks about a particular crop or variety that Kuhn Orchards may not be producing, Sidney gets together with her team to decide how they should proceed. In most cases, they elect to try growing it, even if there’s a risk of failure. Fortunately, again in most cases, the result is a new success story, with crops such as gooseberries, currants, table grapes, and Honeycrisp apples being the biggest examples.

The questions from their customers are not always about crops, either. “The main question we get is, are you organic?” says Kuhn. “We get that one almost every day.” So what is her preferred response? “We tell them what our practices are (note: the farm has no organic crops), and leave it up to them to decide if they want to purchase from us.” Kuhn points out that while she’s not offended if they choose to walk away, it’s ironic that many of them walk away while they are eating a sample of their apples.

Kuhn also says there’s so much conflicting information out there about what organic, conventional, and sustainable really mean, she can’t blame consumers who may be confused. “I hope they understand that if they ask questions, we can explain what we do, and hopefully make them a bit more comfortable about buying from us, even if we aren’t organic.”

As Kuhn Orchards continues to position itself for the future, Sidney Kuhn will be the driver in the years ahead. It’s a challenge she welcomes. “In this industry, it’s unusual for a female to take on the role of a business owner,” she says. “But my parents never had a problem with it, and they’ve helped push me in the right direction.”

Sidney Kuhn: A Profile

Title: General manager, sales and marketing (transitioning into owner)
Kuhn Orchards: 25 acres apples, 65 acres peaches and nectarines, 15 acres several other fruit and vegetable crops
Website: www.kuhnorchards.com
Influences:
• Parents David and Mary Margaret: “They’ve taught me I could do anything I want to, including take risks.”
• Tara Baugher, tree fruit Extension educator, Penn State University: “She introduced me to other growers through the Young Grower Alliance, and taught me a lot about the industry beyond our own operation.”
• Matt Harsh, ag economic development educator, Penn State: “He’s been our consultant during the farm transition.”
• David Kohl, ag economist and consultant, Virginia Tech: “I took his Ag Biz Master’s class through our local farm credit office, and he taught me all the things I didn’t know about business and financial management.”
• Peers in the Young Grower Alliance: “Thanks to them I’ve implemented new technology and new marketing ideas. It’s also a good thing to know that the challenges I face are not mine alone.”
Future Opportunities:
• Season extension with high tunnels
• Direct marketing (“There’s a lot of customers we have yet to meet.”)
Current challenges:
• Stable workforce
• Weather uncertainty
• Proper farm transition

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