With limited opportunities to experience the ‘normal’ things in life, the Spy has been on the lookout for fun or interesting things to do, close by, that can be enjoyed outdoors. We heard about Family Affair Farm from someone who said they had encountered all three, while also picking a gallon of delicious strawberries, and learning about the Farm.
It seems that the name, Family Affair Farm, is very appropriate to how owners, Donna Saathoff and friend Nicole Barth, think of their business. First, there’s Saathoff’s husband, Bobby, and their son, who help prepare and plant 10,000 strawberries and other crops. Then there’s a daughter who lives in Pennsylvania, who comes down to help pick, as does Bobby’s aunt Sharon. There are Bobby’s 80-year-old father and 78-year-old mother who plant pumpkin seeds, along with Barth’s parents and… Well, you get the picture. The Farm is a family passion.
Family is how the whole idea started anyway. Saathoff recalls how she picked strawberries with her grandmother every year when she was a little girl. They would sell the berries, make a little money, and a lot of memories.
When the Saathoffs, who had a farm that grew corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, decided to change direction seven years ago, they considered at the possibility of a ‘pick-your-own’ opportunity. With Barth as a partner, they discovered they would be the only ones in Talbot County. This is how Saathoff sees it: “This millennial generation is very interested in where their food comes from. They’re also more interested in having experiences with their children, rather than spending money on them. So, I thought it was a great idea to have them come out and pick berries and learn about how they grow. Kids are more likely to eat something they know about and pick themselves. So that’s how this kind of started. And then that just bloomed into the next thing and then into the next thing…”
The blossoming into the next thing is how the Farm has expanded from strawberries to blackberries and blueberries, to pumpkins, interactive autumn corn mazes, fall festivals, nursery school tours, kids’ birthday parties, trolleybuses, etc. And in expanding, Saathoff has watched families make their own memories. “Our farm has always been a place where families come. We’ve had the same kids that were in their mom’s bellies that are still coming. They get their picture taken by the same sign every year that shows them how much they’ve grown. They pick their own, and we see these cute little red juicy faces running out of the field. The kids remember, and they ask, ‘Can we go pick strawberries at the strawberry farm?’ it’s something that’s become a tradition for them.”
Drive by anytime during the season, and you’d see 30-60 people picking fruit anytime they were open. Half of them were kids, of course, who were doing more eating than picking. Afterward, there were picnic tables, playgrounds to explore, and farm animals to pet. And these families became part of the Family Affair Farm, as well.
“I support Governor Hogan a hundred percent,” says Saathoff. “I totally understand the 10-person restriction. But if Nicole and I are there, we also count in the 10. So now I’m down to 56 people per day when we usually had 50 to 60 people per hour. But we’ve been doing it and doing it successfully because at week six, and we’re still doing it.”
Success does not necessarily mean they’re happy with the decisions they’ve had to make. Part of the decision was to close off the playgrounds and picnic areas. The bigger problem were the strawberries.
Having decided to expand their production last year, they were faced with thousands of pounds of crop possibly going to waste. Unlike the larger farms in the area, Family Affair didn’t have the staff to pick the berries and then sell them. “So, we had to come up with a plan, says Saathoff. “I lost a lot of sleep over it. I thought about it, prayed about it, thought about it some more. And the only thing I could come up with was to only allow adults to pick.”
Saathoff and Barth acknowledged that a few families were upset they couldn’t bring the kids, but most were grateful to be out in the sunshine, away from crowds, while also getting local and fresh produce. Once they announced their decision, the pair started booking eight appointments every half hour on the hours, all day.
And then, something unexpected happened. “By week three or four into this, parents became okay about coming by themselves,” says Saathoff. “Because at that point, they were working from home, they were homeschooling their kids. They were exhausted, and they needed to get out of the house. There were those who either had a job or didn’t have a job at all, and there was all this stress of worrying about it all the time.”
They began to see a lot of healthcare workers, doctors and nurses, that were coming out to the Farm as a release from what they were experiencing daily. When Saathoff and Barth realized that the fields were a comfort place for some, they started making sure that everyone who called and wanted an appointment was able to get in at some time. That has presented its own set of challenges, says Saathoff.
“I tease people; I’m like, we’re not a nail salon, so you can’t just call and say I want to pick berries on Friday at 10 o’clock. Well, that’s great that you might want to, but that’ll depend on how many berries were picked on Thursday. It might take a whole day to ripen up that next set that’s on there. It’s getting people accustomed to appointments and helping them to understand that this isn’t like Giant or Acme where you go in the back, and you pull more out. When the red ones are done for the day, they’re done for the day.”
The whole strawberry season is almost done, they tell us. Meanwhile, they use social media to let people know when the next batch of strawberries has ripened. Within half an hour, they will have received 30-50 calls, and begin scheduling visits.
Next up are the blackberries and blueberries. The pair know they will continue making appointments but haven’t decided what their game plan will be. There is a lot that is still up in the air. Governor Hogan has not announced when or what or how the next phase will be. So, for now, they’re not putting too much planning into it. Of course, they can’t help but wonder what the fall season, their most successful time, will be like this year.
For now, Saathoff and Barth are grateful to all who make up the Family Affair Farm. Their own family, of course, who work the Farm and keep it operating, and the ones who have become like family returning year after year, making memories, even during a pandemic.
Family Affair Farm, 30091 Rabbit Hill Road, Easton, MD 21601, is open by appointment only. Check Facebook page for availability. Phone: 410-310-1331
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.