The fifth-generation JDS Family Farm in North Londonderry Township is nearly an island.
Not a literal island, but a figurative one as residential development abuts the two farm properties that are part of the family business.
There is another a farm just down the road, but how long that farm, which is not owned by the Smith family, stays in agricultural production is anybody’s guess.
“We have one farm that’s around us and the rest is development. That farm got sold this year to a development company,” said Dave Smith. “So I would expect that within the next 10 years it will be a residential development, also, and then we’ll be an island.”
Dave Smith is the fourth generation of the Smith family to work the nearly 160 acres that comprise their two farms, which are adjacent to each other. He farms both properties that comprise JDS Family Farm along with his son, Joel, 33 and father, Robert, 88.
Residential encroachment is a reality that has weighed heavily on Dave’s mind for at least the past decade.
“To give you a little background on that, this has been very intentional relative to the development in our area,” said Dave. “Joel is a fifth-generation farmer and when he got out of school, he decided he wanted to continue farming and we had this conversation 10 years ago that things are changing rapidly around here. Some of the fields that at some point we rented from neighbors and other places to grow crops got sold off and developed. In fact, our tillable acreage is probably 50 percent of what it was five years ago.”
Despite those cautionary words from his father, there was never any doubt the career Joel would pursue. Farming, you see, just like generations of Smiths before him, is in his blood.
“I never really had any other thoughts about doing anything else,” said Joel. “And I really had no interest going elsewhere, either. Summers, in college, I would always come home and work on the farm.”
Dave also informed Joel that the family wouldn’t be able to make a living just growing corn and soybeans as they had in the past.
“We needed to repurpose and change our direction about how we maintain a sustainable farm here,” said Dave. “That’s how some of the roadside market developed.”
The family’s roadside market, as Joel points out, technically began before that conversation occurred since his father has been growing and selling sweet corn for many years. Sweet corn is a staple of the family business and traditionally has been one of the farm’s big sellers annually.
What really drove the advent of the roadside market, particularly beef sales, was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The roadside market is located at 605 Plaza Drive, Annville.
“That was something the two of us had a conversation about when the store shelves got a little bit empty during the pandemic,” said Dave. “I told Joel, I said, ‘Why not put a sign out along the road that we have beef for sale?’ We had a butcher that we could sell a whole cow, so he made an effort to get lined up with a USDA-approved butcher and that’s what allows us to sell it by the piece (retail) now.”
Not only did Joel put out a physical sign, but he also hung out a virtual one, too. He created a social media page and the market’s website to promote beef sales.
“Our goal right now is to serve the increased traffic and the population around us and give them a product off the farm that is closer to fresh,” said Dave.
Nearly all of that customer “traffic” – in fact, 90 percent of it – is within a 2- to 3-mile radius of the farm, according to Joel. The family and their customers are living the Buy Local mantra.
“Freshness is what it comes down to,” said Joel. “When we take an animal to the butcher, it gets processed and packaged right away. Many also say they come here because they want to support a local business.”
Other customers support JDS Family Farm because they want to know the source of the food they eat.
“People want to know where their food is coming from,” said Dave. “And they know it is coming from right here on the farm and they know it is fresh.”
The roadside market also sells three flavors of beef sticks from the cows they raise, locally sourced honey, gourds, pumpkins, mums, which are grown in Lebanon County, and corn stalks for fall decorating. Most of the produce and other farm products are purchased at the Lebanon Produce Auction near Myerstown.
For now, beef sales are conducted via the website with set hours for customers to pick-up their purchases. That will change this fall with the market being open on Saturdays for walk-in retail sales.
The first of the two farms that Robert’s father, Jacob, purchased is currently 95 years old. Joel said it will be his honor and a blessing to be working the land when that farm reaches its centennial celebration in 2028. (A farm must be in the same family to qualify as a centennial farm in Pennsylvania.)
The farmstead carries more significance for Robert beyond being a revenue source.
“I was born in that house and I’ve lived my entire life there,” said Robert, the Smith family patriach, about the two-story, white house across the street from the roadside market.
Robert remembers a time when his family and their relatives spent Sundays hanging out on the farm, playing games.
“On Sundays, we were family-oriented,” said Robert. “I had a bunch of cousins and they would come to the farm to play bag tag. We also had basketball nets at the barn and we played basketball. Local farmers had a softball team and we’d play other teams from around the county. We didn’t need to have bases because we already had them. Brown patties were our bases,” he said with a laugh.
The octogenerian also remembers when there was more farmland than development in the neighborhood and surrounding area.
“All of our neighbors were farmers,” said Robert. “And I remember when the bowling alley (along Main Street in Palmyra) was farmland. I make the comment to different people that we moved our farm to town. Some of them get what I mean.”
The rise of “house” farms is one thing that disturbs Robert.
“What we see happening here that disturbs me the most is building homes on this more fertile land (south of Route 422) than building them north of 422 since that land is less productive and should be used for housing,” said Robert.
An alternative to building on any farmland is turning local brownfields into residential developments. That is a topic that will be weighed by local municipal and county officials in the coming months as part of the county’s development of its new 10-year comprehensive plan.
Another relevant subject for the plan related to land use based on a recent report is the lack of available and affordable housing in Lebanon County.
- Lebanon County launches process to craft new 10-year comprehensive plan
- New study highlights countywide housing problems, provides potential solutions
Dave said converting brownfields into residential developments isn’t something that Lebanon County has practiced in the past.
“My beef would be that over the course of the last 200 to 300 years, we haven’t picked the less desirable land to do this development in – and there’s a reason for that,” said Dave. “The less desirable land costs more money to develop infrastructure. It’s easier and less expensive to grow in the open areas where the farmland is.”
Dave said he’s “banged the social media drum” against the rise of warehouses across Lebanon County, including those just down the road from his farm that sit on prime farmland. He did, however, have a moment of clarity recently about them saying consumers only have themselves to blame for their proliferation.
“When you really dig into it, and ask why all of these warehouses are popping up everywhere, it is because we, as consumers, are changing our buying habits,” said Dave. “We used to go to malls and we complained about malls popping up everywhere. But we don’t go to malls anymore, we go online and order online. Where do those next day deliveries come from? They come through a distribution center at a warehouse. So, we, as consumers, are the ones who are driving all of these things that are happening around us.”
Despite the encroachment of development near their farm, the Smith family continues to work the land, choosing to embrace and practice a way of life that they love and hold dear to their hearts.
Dave raises about 80 dairy replacement heifer calves for a local farmer and Joel tends to about 50 beef cattle he raises for the roadside market. They also grow and harvest corn, soybeans and wheat for their livestock. Joel noted he would like to expand his wholesale beef business by adding more customers like local restaurants and other businesses beyond haj paj catering, LLC of Annville.
“It’s interesting in our situation, too, that we have some people who say, ‘Why don’t you sell or sell out, take the money and move somewhere else?’” said Dave. “I don’t think our culture is necessarily (about that). We value income to pay our bills but it’s not always about the money. I believe we’re stewards of this land that has been handed down through several generations. Some people go for the money, and that’s fine, we just happen to view it a little bit differently.”
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