Ryan’s Farm market carries on family tradition
TIMBERVILLE, Va. — Patrick Ryan, 33, represents the ninth generation to run a successful family farm, located on North Mountain Road in Rockingham County.
Ryan’s Fruit Market offers peaches, apples, and cherries, as well as sweet corn, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carolina reaper and ghost peppers, sweet peppers, jalapeno peppers, onions, squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber, kale and tomatoes. Ryan’s also wild forages mushrooms.
The farmland was acquired by Ryan’s ancestors, the Overbachs, in 1780. The patriach fought in the Revolutionary War, and fell in love with the Shenandoah Valley when he traveled through it on his way to Yorktown. He vowed if he survived the war, he would move his wife and their two children from Philadelphia to the Shenandoah Valley. His dream came true; he and his wife homesteaded the land, built a log home from local timber, and raised cows and pigs.
In 1890, the family began selling commercial fruit; the enterprise was called Hepner’s Specialty Peaches. By the end of the 1940s, the family business was christened Ryan’s Fruit Market. Ryan’s grandparents sold produce out of the shed next to their house until 1981. At that time, Ryan’s father built the produce stand and office, which sits across North Mountain Road from the grandparent’s home.
Fast forward to 2019, where today Ryan owns and operates Ryan’s Fruit Market. Ryan purchased the business from his father in 2017, making him the youngest family member ever to own the business. He was able to secure a loan for first time farmers from USDA. With good credit and a solid business plan, he said he had the loan within a week.
His primary customers are shoppers at the Downtown Harrisonburg Farmers Market and about 20 local restaurants. He explained that his father sold produce at the farmers’ market in the 1950s.
At that time, several local farmers sold produce from the beds of their pickup trucks. Over time, the farmers’ market grew, and it was incorporated in 1994. The Ryan family was a fixture in the farmers’ market, with Ryan taking over the market duties full time in 2007.
In addition to the Saturday and Tuesday markets, Ryan sells produce at the James Madison University Farmers’ Market for several weeks in the spring and fall.
Ryan’s other main customers include about 20 restaurants in Harrisonburg. He explained that the “farm-to-table” movement, which promotes serving locally raised food, has become increasingly popular. “In 2007, there was only one ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant in Harrisonburg. When the chef held a cooking demonstration at the farmers’ market, I met him and several other chefs and sous chefs,” he recalled. He began selling to the Local Chop House Restaurant, and, over time, added about 19 more restaurants to his customer base.
Ryan believes the culture surrounding fresh produce has changed over the years. “It’s moving from the country to the city,” he said. “Older folks don’t buy as much produce as they did in the past. They don’t can and freeze as much. Younger people are moving to the cities, and they want to know where their food is coming from.” He added commercial processing/canning companies aren’t as prevalent now as in years past.
“In 2008, the Harrisonburg farmers’ market built a permanent pavilion for the market,” he said. “Our business increased by 75%; the recession had just happened. Americans get scared about their food sources during recessions, and farmers’ markets boomed all across the U.S.”
In 2009, there were fewer than 20 farmers’ markets in Virginia; now there are more than 300.
When asked about his greatest challenge, Ryan said it was getting a new orchard established, and the weather. His advice to would-be farmers: “Make sure you’re not investing too much, and that you will make enough money to cover your investment so you don’t get into financial trouble. Always look for ways to improve efficiency and cut costs.”
He said he keeps detailed handwritten accounts of every transaction every day. “I can’t miss a write off. I must pay attention to finances and be careful,” he said. “If you aren’t a businessperson and farmer, you won’t make it. You can’t just be a farmer.”
Ryan said the future looks good. He emphasized the importance of being flexible, and aware of and responsive to customers. He added, “Don’t run your business emotionally. Be sure to make business decisions without emotion.”
Ryan’s business currently allows for pick-your-own cherries. He plans to add a pick-your-own apples section in the next few years.
“I plan to plant more trees behind the fruit stand. This will make it more accessible to people; they can walk around and pick apples.” He said, “People today want to have an experience and not just buy the fruit, but pick it, too. Parents want their kids to enjoy fun activities.”
Ryan’s advertising plan includes the local newspaper, the Daily News Record, Facebook, and local radio. He may consider doing some television in the future.
Ryan said he loves being his own boss. He grew up in the business, running the fruit stand at the age of 14.
“I remember boiling apples for apple butter and planting potatoes as a young child,” he said. “Today I do it all — I want to stay small scale so I can do it and retain complete control. I raise it, I sell it, I deliver it — I do it all. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Ryan is already planning for the annual signature event — the apple butter boil in October. This event includes games for kids, corn hole, face painting, a food truck, Harry Potter movies, and, this past year, free food. Ryan said, “It was very well attended. We sold out of 450 pints of apple butter.”
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