Honey Pot Hill Orchards – Small Biz Stories, Episode 8

It’s that time of year when everyone goes crazy for warm sweaters, pumpkin carving and, depending on your location, apple picking. Here in New England it is the busiest season for apple orchards.

Andrew and Chelcie Martin are third and fourth generation farmers at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts. In this episode, they share what it’s like to be part of a family business, how to deal with things that are out of your control, and what it takes to be a successful manager.

Small Biz Stories tells the story of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet — small business owners.

You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

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You can also read the transcript below:

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. You can be a marketer, all it takes is Constant Contact. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Andrew: As with any business, if you’re not morphing, and changing, and growing, you don’t have to be growing huge but growing, you’re slowly dying. Everything’s in change all the time, and so we try to look at what we can do better, or what we should add, or what might make a place more attractive to people. Even if it’s just something as simple as what variety mix we need to change and what type of trees we want to have for the future. People have the idea of a big old apple tree, but that isn’t really the future of apples. Much smaller trees is the future of apples. But also, we don’t want to change that too fast because people have this idea in their head of what apple trees should be when you come to pick apples.

Dave: Andrew Martin is a third generation farmer at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow Massachusetts. If you live in New England, you know how satisfying it is to taste the first apple cider doughnut of the season, stuff a bag full of fresh apples, and find new ways to eat apples for weeks to come.

Our trip to Honey Pot Hill came with the added benefit of speaking with business owners Andrew and his daughter Chelcie. Sitting outside, listening to enthusiastic children and cicadas — yup those annoying bugs you just heard in the opening quote — Andrew and Chelcie shared the rich history of their farm and how they plan to keep the business going for generations to come.

Today they share what it’s like to be part of a family business, how to deal with things that are out of your control, and their best management advice.

More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Dave: Andrew’s grandfather bought the family farm in 1926 after moving to Boston from New York. Initially a smaller general-purpose farm, Andrew and his relatives worked to make the farm both larger and more specialized. Growing up on the farm, Andrew’s lifelong devotion to agriculture started at a young age:

Andrew: I think I was born to farm. Honestly, ever since I was six years old, I started growing my first gourds and I grew some potatoes and I planted blueberries, things we didn’t have on the farm. And I started pumpkins by the time I was 12, then squash and pumpkins, my own little part of the business, as well as working on the farm itself. And I just loved it. Every time I could, I worked, summers after school, weekends. And I never had any thought in my life I was going to do anything different, really. And I went to college for it and got my associate’s in agriculture and I’ve been here full-time for the last 35 years since then.

Dave: Transitioning from a kid on the farm to the manager of a successful family business is not an easy task. Both Andrew and Chelcie are familiar with the unavoidable challenges that come from working with your closest family members.

Andrew: Well, family businesses can have challenges, shall we say.

Chelcie: Yeah.

Andrew: And on one hand when I came back to the farm, my dad said, “You’re in charge. Here you go.” But then after a little while, it really wasn’t quite that way. As long as it was his way, I was in charge, if you know what I’m saying.

Chelcie: It’s hard working with your family. We do okay.

Andrew: So far, so good.

Chelcie: It’s only been a year.

Andrew: That’s right.

Chelcie: But I wasn’t quite like him. I didn’t plant pumpkins when I was growing up, but I always wanted to be like my dad. I don’t know why. We grew up here, the four of us. I have three younger siblings. The priorities were always farm first, and it never bothered us. I feel like when it goes that way, you either end up hating it and resenting it or you end up adopting that mindset. And all four of us have that way. I remember one Christmas, we weren’t allowed to open our presents until noon because dad was working, and we were like, “Nuts,” because we were 10. And yeah, it’s been challenging with family, but it’s hard to not love it. People come here and they come back and they bring their grandkids, and they bring their nieces, and they bring their cousins, and they just rave about it. It’s so hard to not love something that makes people so happy. So I think it’s easier than most businesses to deal with that one hard customer because you have most people that come through here that are just so happy to be here and away from the city. And it’s so beautiful. And I don’t know, it’s a nice place.

Dave: While family dynamics don’t come without challenges, both Chelcie and Andrew would agree the family ties are the most rewarding aspects of their business. There are, however, a few challenges that they find less fulfilling.

Andrew: The weather. Every year is a challenge, but this year, literally nine feet of snow last winter in about three weeks. And we do work in the winter time. A lot of people think, “Oh, you just take the winter off in farming. You go south.” Every tree has to be pruned. We have 14,000 trees, actually 24,000, including all the smaller ones. And every one takes a little bit of attention. And so there’s the snow.

Chelcie: Most people don’t do this anymore. We do everything by hand.

Andrew: We’re hands-on managers, so to speak, all managers, owners, hands-on.

Dave: Why?

Andrew: I love doing it really. One of the things about our business, I will say, is that we’re small enough, even though we’re pretty good size, that I can still do a lot of the hands-on work. But we’re big enough so we can justify hiring enough employees because I can’t do everything and she can’t do everything.

Chelcie: I never wanted to be a manager. I like it but we got into it because we like the work, which is frustrating when you find yourself not having the time to do it. He gets so upset when he’s bogged down with paperwork. I do all the paperwork because if he has to do it, it’s just a lot of grumbling the whole time.

Andrew: But going back to what I just said for a second just to finish out. We had one of the best-looking crops we’ve ever had this year and then we had a hail storm August 4, which put a bunch of nicks and dents in them. It didn’t ruin them but they’re just not the way we wanted them to look. And now we’re here in the fall, we still got summer weather, which doesn’t exactly inspire people to come apple-picking and doesn’t do anything good for the apples quite frankly.

Chelcie: Put on my sweater today.

Andrew: Today is great, but every other day has been, as you know.

Dave: Yeah, it’s too hot.

Andrew: But that’s the whole story of agriculture. You’re dealing with weather. Something wrong, someone is throwing a curve at you and you just do the best you can to deal with it.

Dave: While Andrew and Chelcie will never be able to tame the New England weather, Chelcie focuses her energy on the parts of her job she can control. After becoming the store manager last year, she’s worked hard to get up to speed with legal requirements and management responsibilities that keep the business running smoothly.

Chelcie: I went to school for horticulture, and I took some business classes and some science classes and thought it was cheating going to school for agriculture growing up here. I was like, “But I already know all of that,” which is so not true. But coming back here, because my aunt did this job for 25 years before I took over last year. And I worked here for years, so I’ve done a lot of different jobs but was totally unprepared last year because no one tells you when you’re in college, “Oh, if you want to run your own or work for a small business, you need to have this many permits.”

Because, like we were talking about it, we’re managers that are really hands-on, but we split responsibility. There’s two of us. So he does a lot of the orchard work and we have migrant workers. So he handles part of that paperwork. But then the other half of it is permitting, staffing, making sure that we don’t get shut down, just making sure that everything’s in order. And I had no idea.

I remember last year in May, I was in the office sifting through paperwork being like, “I don’t know what any of these forms are for.” No one sits you down and is like, “Here’s how to pay taxes. Here’s how to make sure that you’re up to health code and you make sure that everyone gets paid on time. And here’s how to do payroll.” So it was a huge learning curve of just learning how to deal with everything. And occasionally someone cuts you a break. But it’s one of those things where if you’re in the role of running a business, you’re expected to know more than everybody else.

Dave: Even with each other to turn to, Andrew and Chelcie know they’ll never be experts on everything. Relying on their employees and valuing feedback has helped the orchard’s staff feel like they’re part of the Honey Pot family as well.

Chelcie: We’re lucky we’ve had a lot of people come back and we have a lot of people that have been working here for a while that take a lot of responsibility off of our plates, my plate. We have 14 hay ride drivers on the weekends and then we have Sean, who’s in the store right now, who does a lot of the staffing for that. He comes in every Wednesday, and we talk about it.

Luckily, we have some really responsible awesome people with weird talents. Our ATM went down yesterday, and our office manager knew a guy that she worked with that was in tech, and he came in and fixed the ATM. And it’s just like, phew. Small businesses, a lot of it’s connections. Like, “Who do you know that can help you fix something?” Because I don’t know anything about wiring. I got yelled at by…one of our staff is an electrician. He was like, “That’s not the same as telecom. These are completely different things. I can’t fix your ATM.” And I was like, “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

Andrew: That is one of the challenges of a small business because you don’t have specialists to do this department and that department.

Chelcie: You can’t afford them. They’re so expensive.

Andrew: Exactly. So you tend to try to be a jack of all trades, as they say, and then you try to pull in people. And we have a couple guys that work in the orchards that are pretty good mechanics that do the things for me on that regard, that end of it. And you try look to people’s strengths and to utilize them as much as you can. And then we try to do everything else we can.

Andrew: Of course, the funny thing is that I’m not a computer person at all. And this is the advantage of when you get into a bigger company.

Chelcie: He doesn’t text.

Andrew: I’m not tech, period. But when you’ve got a bigger company, again, this person specializes in that and the other, and then another person in that. She’s much better at that stuff than I am. So somebody told me, “Why try to do something that you’re not good at?” I can do some other things that I can do that I’m pretty good at. Why struggle with this? And she picks that up and couple other people pick it up, and then we go from there.

Dave: One thing they’ve tried to pick up in recent years is an updated marketing strategy. While Andrew remembers the days of sending out postcards to thousands of contacts, he and Chelcie are now moving a lot of their marketing online.

Chelcie: We’re trying to do more of a mix this year. My family has never really been on the forefront of technology, but we’re doing okay. We have a Facebook page. We’re trying so hard to update it all the time and answer questions. And part of the issue is that I do that. So I try to update it all the time but I don’t have a person for that. I do have a person for the e-mail blasts because my best friend in college majored in marketing and she is much better at that than I am. So she designs all of our emails and she does the outings here. But we’re doing email marketing, Facebook, TV advertising, advertising through Google AdWords and trying to do a shift more toward the digital because we were newspapers for a really long time.

Andrew: And alas, we still do a little bit of newspapers.

Chelcie: And we still do a little bit. We’re with the Boston Globe. I love hearing where people see us. I ask people all the time. We had people from Taunton in yesterday. I was like, “How did you make it out here? That is so far away.” They were like, “We were on Yelp.” And they were like, “The only thing we saw was wrong with you is that you were really busy, so we came at 8:30 in the morning. And it’s great. There’s no one here.” And I was like, “You came on a week day. Yeah, there’s no one here. You guys are fine.”

But we’re constantly looking for feedback. And I actually had a couple of regular customers that were like, “We really appreciate the Facebooks and the emails. We check them. We like to know what you have available.” Because our varieties are changing constantly, what we have available. We sell out of things. We can’t restock here. It’s like, “Let’s just send out for some more nectarines.” It just doesn’t happen, so we try to update because certain people just swear by certain varieties, certain things, and they won’t eat anything else.

We’ve gone out and picked a variety for somebody who came an hour away. And they’re like, “What do you mean you don’t have any more Zestar?” It’s like, “Somebody help me.” “We need to pick a box of Zestars. This woman drove from an hour away.” So yeah, it’s all about informing people, and the people that really care check all of our different media to see exactly what we have available.

Andrew: That is one of the great things about technology, I will say, because back when I was her age, we had a mailing list of excess of 5,000. But it was a matter of labeling and doing postcards and going to the post office.

Chelcie: They really truly sent out postcards.

Andrew: Costs a lot of money, and it wasn’t that timely. It took several days to get there, and you had to print them and the whole nine yards. Now it’s like, bing, bang, boom, and it’s gone, and it doesn’t really cost too much. It costs for Constant Contact, I guess. But it’s relatively nothing compared to what it used to be.

Dave: The timeliness of email is one of the biggest benefits for a business that changes its offerings depending on the weather. Chelcie updates her mailing list regularly with what they have available at the store. With a growing list of 5000 contacts, she recently realized how engaged her subscribers are and how important it is to double check the accuracy of the information she’s sending out.

Chelcie: We don’t really send too many e-mails. Once a week when we’re open just to update with varieties and what we have available isn’t overwhelming. So I think people tend to trust us with that. I’ll explain it to them. “Oh, we don’t send you one a day. It’s usually just once a week, and it’s an update of what we’ve got.”

Andrew: I think if you overdo it, people just start to ignore them, just write them off.

Chelcie: Yeah, forget it. Yeah.

Dave: So do you find people coming in based on getting those emails delivered?

Chelcie: Yeah, actually I had a guy who was angry because we messed up. We put Ginger Golds down the day before they came in. And he came in, he’s like, “Where are your Ginger Golds?” And I was like, “Oh, no, they’re coming in tomorrow.” And he said, “Well, your email said you have Ginger Golds!” And I was like, “Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Put in the wrong date.” So yeah, they do read them. I know they do.

Dave: Staying in touch with existing customers is especially important for a business that is so seasonal. With less than 2 months of peak business, Andrew and Chelcie know they have to deliver a great product and experience so their customers will be back next year.

Chelcie: We have really consistently good fruit most of the time. He does a really good job growing it. And I don’t think I realized when I came back how important that is and how difficult that is because we were visiting an orchard, and they had no peach crop because they got frozen out. And peaches are really delicate and susceptible to frost. And even with the hail, we have beautiful fruit, and it’s very difficult to find because people have started to distrust agriculture. People ask me all the time, “Do you grow this? Do you grow that?” and I’m constantly saying, “Yes, we grow everything that we sell. All the produce is ours, even the vegetables. The only thing that’s not is the corn, which is picked fresh daily from Acton.”

And I think that having that relationship and being able to explain to people what we spray, why we spray, what we do and having consistently good fruit that’s ours, I think people appreciate that because we’re a family and we’ve been here a long time and we continue to try and be very knowledgeable about what we’re selling. So we just try to have a good relationship with our customers and answer their questions the best that we can. But I think it’s becoming more and more rare to find a place that grows everything and is honest about it. And I don’t know. I’m a big plant nerd, so I like answering the questions, but we’ve gotten a lot of comments lately on our fruit being consistently good. I think that’s important.

Andrew: With a business, you try to watch the details. You’ve got to look at the big picture. It’s an interesting thing. When you’re working for somebody else, you can get bogged down in details because it doesn’t matter so much, unless the boss starts yelling at you, “Hurry up.” When you’re working for yourself, you’ve got to look at the big picture. You you’ve got to say, “I can’t spend too much time on this thing.” But also details matter. So you’re always doing that balancing along the way of looking at the big picture but then the details because little details adding up can make a big difference in the end. And that’s where, I guess, she says I’m perfectionist.

Chelcie: Yeah, there’s so many moving factors in growing fruit in New England because our weather is hot and cold, and the bacteria count can go from zero to several million in a day. So we try really hard to monitor the weather, but every time, everyone makes mistakes. But he beats himself up about it every time he makes a mistake, really hard. And I guess probably because I’m his kid and I watched it happen, I try to roll with it a little bit more. So we balance each other out that way, too, but he’s always looking for the perfect crop, trying and pushing for the perfect crop.

Andrew: Then I’m going to retire. Probably never happen.

Dave: Many of the business owners we’ve interviewed this season have had a similar dedication to their craft. Each owner has made sacrifices in the pursuit of creating something bigger than themselves. As a fourth generation farmer, Chelcie’s devotion to the farm is part of her identity, something that has been ingrained in her since childhood.

Chelcie: Yeah. I don’t know. I always feel like I’m a balance in my family. I don’t want to force my siblings to come back here. I think that they should have the option. I had a little bit more pressure because my aunt wanted to leave. But I would do anything to keep this place from being sold. It’s interesting because someone posed this question to me, “What are you doing?” I was like, “What do you mean?” They were like, “You’re working like 100 hours a week and you could sell the 200 acres and never work again.” I was like, “Oh, you shouldn’t. I don’t think about it that way.” And it’s crazy. It’s literally crazy. Who would do that? I don’t own anything, but, “You own 200 acres of prime real estate. Why are you killing yourself to keep a business going when you could sell it and you wouldn’t have to worry about it?”

Hopefully one of my siblings will think that way, too, that it’s bigger than you. And I think that’s one of the hardest things about working here is I love this place more than I love myself. And I know he feels the same way. I’m 23. If I ever end up wanting to get married, they’d have to move to Stow and hang out on a farm forever, which is not a bad deal. But at the same time, how do you have a life?

Dave: Finding balance isn’t always easy, but it’s clear that — for Andrew and Chelcie — that’s part of the excitement. Long hours and early mornings aren’t as much of a hardship when you’re proud of what you’re able to create. I’ll leave you with Andrew’s best piece of business advice, and how Chelcie knows the sacrifices are all worth it.

Andrew: It certainly isn’t just a job. It really is an adventure because the hours get crazy sometimes. Your weekends are not your own anymore. I say very few people go into this business that didn’t grow up in it, quite frankly. There’s a handful, but not very many because if you’ve owned your own weekends and you’ve owned several weeks off, you say, “What am I doing going into this business?”

One of your questions, I think, was, “What do you have to say to a person getting into business, in its own small business?” And my advice would be, “Make sure you love it, whether you have to deal with people, if you love dealing with people. Or if you’re making something, love what you’re making,” because if you don’t love it, it probably won’t work because you’ve got to put so much effort into that to get through all the obstacles that get thrown at you, whatever way it might be. In our case, it’s weather and government, as I keep saying. But to get through all those, and if you don’t love it, it’s just not going to make it, in my opinion. Yeah.

Chelcie: I think that I weighed it out in my head, when I was thinking about coming back here, if I would be happier leaving or happier staying. And either way, you give up something. I didn’t expect to come back so young. I was thinking I would go off somewhere. I lived in Australia for six months in college, so it’s not like I’d never left. I’ve been very lucky. But Stow has just such a rocking nightlife. There’s just so much to do when you’re 23. So that’s been a little difficult. It’s hard being here when all of my friends have moved to major cities and are starting their own thing.

Andrew: Oh, I should vouch for that, too. I remember those days. Long ago and far away, but it’s true.

Chelcie: It’s just we have a weird family here. We have my family and then we had an employee party at the end of last year, and I cried and I was like, “You guys are my only friends because I hang out with you seven days a week.” You learn to rely on people and communicate with people, and it’s excellent life skills, but it’s just so much of it is a passion. I could read 100 books about plants and that’s strange, and I really like our customers. I really like my employees, the whole package is worth it. It’s not one individual thing.

I’m sure I could go somewhere else and really like my job, but the stress and dysfunction is part of what makes it so much fun. I don’t think there’s anything comparable to this that’s left. A lot of trades and things that have to do with your hands, you watch it grow and then you harvest it. It’s just a different kind of life.

Dave: We appreciate you listening and would love to hear what you think of the show. Your reviews help the show get found so please go to iTunes or Stitcher right now and leave us a review.

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. You can contact us at [email protected]. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. You can be a marketer, all it takes is Constant Contact. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

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