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Orchard owner sees himself as farmer and entertainer

By Jean Caspers-Simmet
simmet@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 02/05/2013 4:18 PM

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Agro-tourism and entertainment are integral to the success of Milburn Orchards, a fourth-generation family business run by Nathan Milburn and his three cousins in Elkton, Md.

Milburn, who is in charge of fruit production and field crews, said he used to view school tours and Easter egg hunts as "extras" that took away from growing and harvesting apples.

"They're not extras, they are making me money so that I can go out and farm," Nathan said.

He spoke at the farm marketing keynote session at the recent Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in Grand Rapids. Windridge Implements along with the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative and the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition sponsored a bus trip for northeast Iowa growers.

Esma Milburn started the northeast Maryland orchard in 1902 with 10 acres of apples and peaches. His son, John W. Milburn grew the orchard to 100 acres. In the 1960s, his sons, Evan and John, expanded to 400 acres, added sweet cherries and built a retail store. Their sales were 90 percent wholesale.

Nathan, Evan's son, and John's kids, Jay, Melinda and David, now manage the operation.

When Jay built a hay wagon out of a bus frame in the late 1980s, and customers started coming in droves, the focus turned to agro-tourism.

"We're not just farmers anymore," Nathan said. "We're now farmers and entertainers."

Milburn Orchards Farm Market closes for the season Jan. 12. The family travels to conferences to promote and learn about their business, and catches up on equipment maintenance in January and February.

The new season starts in March with Easter egg hunts.

The farm market is open seven days a week in June for berry season. They have U-pick cherries as well as retail and wholesale cherries. Starting the first week in June they also have peaches, early berries and apricots. They recently doubled the size of their on-farm market. In June they open the ice cream deck and bakery.

"The bakery is huge," Nathan said. "It accounts for 33 percent of our market gross income. It's hard not to walk out without some pies, fudge or other baked goods. We also sell a lot of what I call 'fancy foo-foo items.' " My cousin came up with something he calls 'goat poo poo,' miniature marshmallows dipped in chocolate and rolled in a bag. It's huge."

Doughnuts are huge. During the busy time they run two Belshaw 200 doughnut machines, and still have hour-long lines.

Milburn Orchards has 120 acres of peaches that they pick and sell in the market. They also have U-pick blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and table grapes.

"We have U-pick adventures —blackberry bash, blastin' blueberry weekend, peachy perfect peach party, rockin' raspberry weekend," Milburn said. "Each is slightly different because we want people to keep coming back."

Apples are their main crop. They grow 30 varieties.

Apples are ready for U-pick starting Labor Day weekend. Customers are shuttled to the field. Everyone gets a bag, and they pay by the pound. School tours start in September with up to 15,000 children visiting the orchard at a cost of $6 per child.

Milburn Orchards does evening bonfires which include a hayride, sticks for roasting marshmallows and apple cider.

"You have the land and equipment, and you may as well use it at night," Nathan said.

For pumpkin time, Nathan grows 14 acres of pumpkins and people select them off a grass display area.

Fall festival weekends they charge $10 for hay rides, a corn maze, a bale trail, gourd golf, a paintball gallery, a goat walk and haunted houses for older and younger children. In November they sell thousands of pies and other baked goods. In December Santa visits, and they sell gift baskets and gift certificates. All year long they host birthday parties, corporation events and weddings.