Diversification pays off: Hager’s Farm Market wins entrepreneur award

The Recorder, May 10, 2018, by Richie Davis

If the name of the game for farmers is “Diversify, Diversify, Diversify,” then the Hager family clearly has won the game.

And won it has, as the Franklin County Community Development Corp. is awarding Hager’s Farm Market its 2018 Haas Entrepreneurship Award. The award will be presented tonight from 5 to 7 at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield.

It has been nearly nine years since Albert “Chip” Hager and his wife, Sherry, together with their daughter and son-in-law, Kim and Aaron Stevens, built the store at Mohawk Orchards. The property had belonged to Sherry Hager — across from where she grew up.

Hager was a third-generation dairy farmer on 750 acres in Colrain that was visited by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2007 as dairy farmers wrestled with the same fundamental pricing problems that have forced farms to either find new ways to survive or get out of dairying. The former president of the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers had already received one of the state’s first Agricultural Viability Grants to help expand a maple sugaring business.

With the 53-acre orchard property, the Hager family set out to build a market for its maple products, farm-raised beef and some apples and peaches from the orchard. And maybe some pies and jams.

“Then it mushroomed,” said Ms. Hager, with a laugh and a gesture to the Mohawk Trail market that’s a beehive of activity all but the four days of the year when it’s closed.

“We thought we’d have some apple pies,” adds her daughter. “I remember when we first opened, I would get worried about making one batch of cookies and six pies, that we wouldn’t sell them all. We never imagined people would like us this much. … We’re just really thankful the community has embraced us.”

Amy Shaprio, business development director for the Community Development Corp., called Hager’s “a great example of how local entrepreneurs positively impact our community. … One example of their community giving is their (annual) pumpkin smash, a unique event that raises funds for 4-H.”

This is the first time the award is being given to a farm business, she said.

With a faithful following and location convenient for locals traveling to and from Greenfield, as well as skiers en route to Vermont and Route 2 tourists, the market has grown year by year: an addition to the building went on in 2010, with a grill for breakfasts and lunches added in 2011.

Work is under way to convert a dirt-floor pavilion with picnic tables into an enclosed dining room with picture windows overlooking the orchard. The expansion, which is due for completion this summer, will be followed with a “high tunnel” greenhouse to extend the growing season for the 3 acres of vegetables — sweet corn, pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli and lettuce.

There are also 4,000 asparagus plants and 400 new blueberry bushes that are relatively new, along with an orchard of peaches, apples, pears, plums, nectarines and cherries. And grapes are being planted.

Meanwhile, at the Colrain Farm — where the 125-cow dairy herd was sold off in 2015 — there are 60 Hereford beef cattle, as well as 20 acres of popcorn. The popcorn, which gets stored in the old milkhouse, is sold not only at the market, but also at South Hadley’s Tower Theaters, in 20 to 25 stores and at Logan Airport.

The market, which got its start as an outlet for the Hagers’ enterprising maple-cream fried dough, is also the home of maple soft-serve ice cream, which Ms. Hager declares “has gone bonkers,” with some regular customers becoming irate if the soft-serve machine gets shut down at any point.

And then there are a variety of breads from an in-store bakery, which Ms. Stevens — the market’s manager and bookkeeper — expects to sell 14,000 loaves of bread this year.

And if all this isn’t enough, the Stevens’ 5- and 7-year-old daughters have their “Grace and Clara’s Cluckers” eggs on sale at the market from 60 chickens. The girls, along with their dad, tend these as well as 100 chicks, each with its own name. And with help from their grandmother, they’ve painted jelly jars and decorated them with faces as petunia pots for sale at the market.

Even with 24 full-time and part-time employees in the peak of the season, including those in the orchard, the fields and the bakery and store, you might wonder how this farm family keeps it all straight.

“We have some really good help,” Stevens said, pointing to one woman who handles mail orders, phone orders and running the market’s social media. Another employee handles all of the pricing, ordering and inventory control.

“We just want to utilize our land, to be as functional as we can,” said Hager. “It does seem like we don’t have a down season anymore.”

He said, “It’s a real good feeling to see the person who’s going to use or eat what you’re growing, face to face, and not have it trucked off to a store somewhere. It brings us in contact with our customers and the community.

“What’s really important to make a place like this work,” he said, “is to listen to what people tell you they want to see you do and are willing to pay for, versus having the mindset, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ To try listen to what customers are looking for and what they want, and any changes we make to kind of head in that direction: That’s what keeps things rolling.”

Ms. Hager, now in her fifth year as the Hawlemont School nurse in addition to making jams and jellies and helping out around the market when she can, noted, “We’re family. That’s the bottom line. We stick together whether crazy or slow, whatever. It puts a smile on my dad’s (former orchard owner Bud Wiles, now 79) face when he comes over here everyday. And then, the kids come along and it’s awesome.”

Keeping the family together on the farm, and serving the community everything from maple-coated peanuts to fresh cream of asparagus soup in season is an added joy, family members said.

“What we’ve done, we’ve done for our family and for the land,” said Stevens, who grew up on a northern Vermont dairy farm and met his wife at an Agri-Mark dairy conference for young farmers. “We want to keep what we have and want our kids to grow up on a farm doing what we did. I miss milking cows, but it’s more about working with the family and keeping the land going. … It’s a determination that we do want to farm.”

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