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Brad and Kay Hollabaugh thrive amid constant change

2021 Master Farmers: The couple are partners in Hollabaugh Bros. Inc. in Biglerville, Pa.

Brad and Kay Hollabaugh have seen lots of changes in the orchard business. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is their love of the land, for each other and for giving back.

“Sometimes I ask, why me? I think we both feel that within our power we need to give back and to be a team player," Kay says.

And give back they have. When not in the orchards or in the farm stand, the Hollabaughs — partners in Hollabaugh Bros. Inc. of Biglerville, Pa. — attend Extension orchard walks with other growers, volunteer their time at their local church, help organize events for their local Lions Club, and are out promoting the tree fruit industry in the community.

One might ask, where do they find the time? The answer is easy for Kay: “You make the time. You prioritize.”

The couple have been married since 1977, but they come from completely different backgrounds.

Origins of a partnership

The Hollabaugh name is well-known in the Adams County tree fruit community. The business has been around for more than 55 years and was founded by Brad’s father and uncle.

Brad remembers toiling in the orchard alongside his father when he was only 5 years old. By 7, he was helping most of the week during busy periods.

“We started at 7 in the morning and worked until 5 six days a week," he says. "It was a family business, and that was the expectation. You're a part of the family. You're going to help get the work done, and we did. I hated thinning peaches for a long time, but I also appreciated years later that a good strong work ethic was engrained in me at a young age.”

Kay didn’t grow up on a farm. Her father was a mathematics and driver’s education teacher, and her mom worked in the school cafeteria. Many Adams County drivers were taught how to drive by Kay’s dad. He became a local legend.

“We couldn’t go anywhere as kids without someone saying, ‘Hey, you taught me to drive,’” she laughs.

The couple started dating in high school, but they went separate ways when they attended college. Brad attended Gettysburg College where he studied medicine; Kay went to Central Business School for business administration. But the farm came calling for Brad, and he returned to his family’s business.

Kay, meanwhile, started working for doctor’s offices and did this for six years. She and Brad got back together and started dating. But the stress of working in an office, though, became too much, and she decided that she wanted to leave the office.

Problem was, she was the breadwinner as Brad wasn’t a partner in the business and was paid as an hourly employee.

“I said, I just can’t do it anymore," Kay says. "And he said, ‘Well just quit. We’ll figure it out, God will take care of us, and it will be OK.’ I just kind of slid into this."

Changes to the business

Just as Brad and Kay were getting serious, the business itself was evolving. When Brad’s father and uncle ran it, processing apples was the name of the game.

“Very little fresh fruit," Brad says. "We also grew peaches, plums and apricots, which were remnants of the previous owner."

A little fruit stand across the street from the current farm market is where he and his family sold fruit. It was a remnant of the farm’s previous owner.

In 1960, Brad’s family built a new farm market with cold storage facility. "It was going from a little box of a building to a building like this,” he says, comparing it to the current farm market. “It was really incredible. It worked really well for us.”

But his father and uncle also saw the future. And the future was smaller trees. “There was a vision by my dad and uncle to convert from big trees to a more dwarf-type production in about 10 to 20 years. Now 30 years later, it’s not complete,” Brad says.

Large trees, some of them 40 feet tall, were difficult to work with and often produced bad-quality fruit. The decision was made to transition orchard blocks to semi-dwarf and dwarf planting.

Next generation takes over

When his father and uncle sold out of the business, Brad and his brothers, Neil and Steve, took the business down a new path, with new orchards — bringing small fruits and vegetables into the business and, eventually, a new farm market.

And they continued the changes the first generation of Hollabaughs started, with new dwarf plantings and more recently four-wire trellis plantings.

The orchards include 115 acres of apples; 60 acres of peaches; and varying amounts of pears, Asian pears, apricots, plums, and vegetables and berries.

Another 100 acres is in woodlands, which Brad says has been crucial to getting the business through tough times, such as a fire blight outbreak several years ago that led to the removal of acres of bearing apple trees.

Peaches haven’t always been part of the business. In fact, Brad says the farm used to harvest peaches from neighboring farms to keep up with their own wholesale demand as they didn’t grow enough on their farm. When a neighboring grower sold out, the Hollabaughs scooped up the property, stabilizing their wholesale peach business.

Peaches and other stone fruits, he says, have always been higher-value crops, but they’re also harder to grow. They’re labor intense and short-lived, and because of this, they can sell for higher prices than apples.

But the gap is closing, Brad says, as newer apple varieties hit an increasingly competitive market. This is a big change, too, and it’s required Brad and the other farm partners to constantly think about apple varieties that will sell in the future.

Processing fruits, which made up nearly 85% of the farm’s sales, now comprise less than 5% of sales. Fresh-market apples make up more than 90% of sales.

The look of the orchard has also changed, especially with the apples. Forty large apple trees per acre used to be a big number. Now, with high-density trellises, Brad says he can get up to 1,100 trees per acre. But it’s not cheap. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per acre to convert old plantings to trellises. That’s why growing for the fresh market is a much more lucrative outlet.

“Part of orchard management is being able to recognize the right moment to rotate an orchard out because there's a process involved in renovating the ground and getting it ready for the next planting," Brad says. “We're always looking down the road five or six years, and this is a challenge. From rootstock to bearing with new high-density plantings, it takes three years, but it's a big cost to put those in.  

“We push out something every year. We plant every year. My famous quote is, ‘A fruit grower who stops planting has already made his decision to go out of business.’”

Giving back, looking forward

Even when they were in their mid-20s, the Hollabaughs always had a goal to give back and be involved in their community.

“I think we have a natural tendency to want to be involved at the industry level, church level, whatever, but I think we both agreed as young adults getting into this that our connectivity to our community at large was and would be a really critical part of what would become our company,” Brad says. “We had that vision when we were 25 years old. We wanted to be more involved so people started to recognize us.”

The couple have been involved in or held leadership positions with the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association; the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program; the Adams County Fruit Growers Association; and Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

They’ve also been involved with the Adams County Community Foundation and Gettysburg Adams Chamber of Commerce.

They been honored with several awards over the years. Brad was named American Fruit Growers Apple Grower of the Year in 2000 and is past SHAP Grower of the Year.

Kay was inducted into the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame and was awarded the Callie Award for Women in Ag, as well as the Manos Unidas Award.

The couple were named Gettysburg Adams Chamber Small Business Person of the Year in 1999.

Now, Brad and Kay’s children — Bruce Hollabaugh and Ellie Hollabaugh Vranich — are starting to make their marks on the business. Bruce, who is fluent in Spanish, is the farm’s production manager. Ellie is the retail market manager and assistant business manager.

Brad and Kay also have five grandchildren.

During peak seasons, the business employs 100 people.

Neil Hollabaugh, one of Brad’s brothers, is still a partner in the business. Another brother, Steve, retired from the business in 2019. Wayne Hollabaugh, Neil’s son, is the assistant wholesale manager.

Kay Hollabaugh is quick to point out that even though she and her husband get the attention, the rest of the family has been crucial to the business’s success.

“We could not do this without other family members and all of our employees behind the scenes," she says. "We're just the talkers and the people who aren't afraid to go in front of the camera."

Brad and Kay Hollabaugh, at a glance

Operation: Hollabaugh Bros. Inc., Biglerville, Pa.; 410 acres of tree fruits

Family: Two children, Bruce and Ellie; five grandchildren

Ag and community involvement: Members or leaders of North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association; the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program; the Adams County Fruit Growers Association; Pennsylvania Farm Bureau; Adams County Community Foundation; Gettysburg Adams Chamber of Commerce; Trinity Lutheran Church; Upper Adams Lions Club.


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