A family-integrated agricultural operation
Take a young couple firmly rooted in their dream of a rural lifestyle, raising their family on a small farm in the mountains. Add hard work, constant learning and innovation, a diversified approach to growing, five active kids, twenty years and a continued faithful love for the land and each other. Welcome to Heritage Farm, the family business of Greg and Linda Burns, a living testament to idea that integrating family, farm, business and bliss results in a powerfully satisfying lifestyle and livelihood.
Back in the late 1970s, Greg and Linda married and settled down on some land in north-central Pennsylvania, an open plateau next to the Allegheny National Forest, satisfying both their needs for suitable agricultural land and living in the mountains. Farm life proves to be a fun playground of learning for the Burns’ children, each taking on active roles based on their age range from four to twenty-three. Expanding their farm to 77 acres over the years, Heritage Farm now exudes a diversity of agricultural crops and livestock, from a variety of fruits and vegetables grown on six acres to grass-fed beef and pork. The Burns have not found the time and financial investment of organic certification a needed marketing element in their rural area.
Neither Greg nor Linda grew up on a farm, but both always knew they wanted to work in agriculture. “My father grew up in a farming family and his stories probably sparked my early interest in horticulture and we always had a big garden growing up,” shares Linda. Greg chuckles when he admits his roots are pretty mainstream East Coast suburban, yet early on he too felt a calling for agriculture. After meeting and graduating from Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture with horticulture degrees, both Greg and Linda adopted a self-sufficient, back-to-the-land homesteading lifestyle.
Given her gardening and home preservation experience growing up, Linda immediately started “put up” the garden harvest for year-round eating. When they started growing more than they could use, they sold the excess at local farmers’ markets. “Farmers’ markets are great incubators for agriculture businesses,” shares Greg. “Any small business can get in, it isn’t a high expense, and, importantly, participating in a farmers’ market create self-confidence that a person can actually do this.”
Today, the heart of Heritage Farm’s business stems from a diversified growing portfolio of seasonal crops, providing a steady stream of seasonal produce for sale at farmers’ markets. “The growing, horticulture side is what we do best,” Greg explains. Finding the right market for sustainably-grown produce in a rural environment remains a challenge. The Burns Family are regulars at three area small town markets and advise experimenting to find the right market for your goods. “We deliver to local customers and also have a small on-farm seasonal store that has built a small loyal following, despite being on a very out of the way rural road,” laughs Linda. Other seasonal crops include tomatoes (including canning tomatoes by the bushel), sweet corn, peppers, cucumbers, beans, culinary and medicinal herbs among others.
Using greenhouses for early season growing has proved to be a profitable business niche. “We use high tunnel greenhouses, which look like a giant cold frame and you can roll up the sides as the season warms up. They look like ordinary greenhouses from the outside, but are very cost-effective since they are completely solar heated and no supplemental heat needed,” explains Greg. “Through season extension, we bring produce like tomatoes and green beans to market six weeks before the competition and can charge a premium price,” adds Greg. This family-integrated approach to farm life strongly centers around the Burns’ five children. A homeschooling family, Linda and Greg helped their children identify at an early age their own areas of interest and enthusiasm on the farm and made each one a “department head,” giving them an area of the farm to run as their own micro-business. “As homeschoolers running a small business, our children experience a working classroom everyday in which to try new things, experiment, and develop responsibility and self-esteem. Just like the plants in the garden, children need a healthy, active learning environment in which to thrive,” Greg explains.
The department area each child takes on illustrates the diversified nature of Heritage Farm. Rebekah, the oldest child at twenty-two, always showed an interest in baking and cooking. After attending food service school, she opened “Bekah’s Bread Basket,” selling various whole grain breads and baked goods for farmers’ markets and local deliveries, grinding the whole grain flour herself to add a distinct, hearty, appealing flavor. Sensing Rebekahs’ interest in culinary arts early on, Greg and Linda built their kitchen to meet Pennsylvania licensed bakery regulations when they needed to build a new kitchen a few years ago. Consulting with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to learn what was required for a home based, inspected kitchen, their facility cost approximately $6,000 (doing much of the work themselves) and is licensed for baked goods and various types of food processing such as jams and jellies.
Son, Daniel, age nineteen, was attracted to the horticultural side of things. Showing an interest in greenhouse growing, he was put in charge of the farm’s three high tunnel greenhouses from which his favorite crop was early season tomatoes. Since he was thirteen Dan has kept excellent production and financial records on each of the different varieties grown. He is also department head of the small fruit area.
Son Peter, age seventeen, sparked to raising poultry at a young age and is currently an intern for a year at Joel Salatin’s renowned pasteurized poultry operation in Virginia to garner knowledge and experience and then come back to the family farm and expand this area of operation. “I admit, I dragged my feet on the whole pasteurized poultry for years, but Pete helped prove to me this is a real business winner. Chicken raised this way tastes great and folks are looking for local, sustainble livestock so we do some grass-fed beef as well,” explains Greg. “When Pete comes home, we’ll allocate a budget for him to take off with and expand the livestock side of things. Greg and I will concentrate on the horticulture and growing side,” adds Linda. Even the youngest members of the family are encouraged to find their area of passion on the farm. “Anna is eleven years old and loves animals, especially caring for the layer chickens. Tim is just four, so he’s still into a little bit of everything,” Linda says.
Greg supplements the family income by tutoring at a local high school during the school year. “Not a full teaching salary, but it helps during the off-season,” comments Greg. A frugal approach to finances also helps Heritage Farm thrive. “We never took on debt, saving for farm improvements in cash, and have focused on slowly growing as the opportunity arises. Growing most of our own food has also reduced our cash income needed,” explains Linda.
The Burns’ integrated, home schooling approach to their farm business represents increasing interest in homeschooling across the country. According to the U.S. Census Burea report, Home Schooling in the United States: Trends and Characteristics, “as many as two million American children are schooled at home, with the number growing as much as 15 to 20 percent per year.” “Everything today is so segregated, boxed off and compartmentalized: you leave home to do your work and them come home to your family. Shouldn’t things be more holistic and integrated? Heritage Farm, our ‘work’ is simply our way of life that we have fun and enjoy doing. In the end, work and everything else just rolls together,” laughs Greg.