Family Farm Bears Fruit, Fun

The garden center at Linvilla. The farm has evolved to become an entertainment complex as well as a produce mainstay.
The garden center at Linvilla. The farm has evolved to become an entertainment complex as well as a produce mainstay. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 05, 2014

Having weathered the economic ups and downs of farming and, yes, the weather itself, members of the Linvill family are celebrating what they call their crowning success: surviving 100 years in a volatile business.

These days, the family stead in the heart of Delaware County is as much county fair and education as it is produce, but from all indications it is a thriving enterprise.

Growing from a 10-cow dairy farm dairy to a 300-acre fruit-and-vegetable complex on West Knowlton Road in Middletown Township, Linvilla Orchards has evolved into quite the popular venue.

"It is a business, but it has become a destination," said W. Bruce Clark, Middletown Township manager. Just about every school group in Delaware County has had a field trip there, as well as many families, he added.

This probably isn't what Lydia Linvill envisioned when she and her three children returned to her hometown of Swarthmore from Florida after her husband died.

She and her son, Arthur, purchased a 110-acre dairy farm. But cows were not Arthur Linvill's passion, nor was electrical engineering, which he studied at what is now Drexel University. Instead, he followed his heart, planted apple trees, and named the land Linvilla.

The farm soon became the family business. Arthur's sons, Paul, Larry, and Donald, all worked on the property. Along the way they purchased adjoining parcels and added two swim clubs.

About 50 years ago, the Linvills moved into "agritainment" - combining farming with moneymaking activities and attractions for the public. Paul Linvill picked up the idea at a trade conference of what later became the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association.

In recent years, agritainment has been a growing national movement among farmers, said Charlie Touchette, the association's executive director.

In balancing farming and entertainment, the Linvills "really are a standout," said Touchette. Within the industry, Linvilla is looked at as a model, he said, adding that it had hit the perfect combination of producing food and providing open space and amusements.

Linvilla weathered a crisis in 1987 when Larry Linvill was ready to retire. Paul Linvill and his wife, Margaret, wanted to buy him out but didn't have enough capital.

Then, Middletown Township stepped in and purchased 157 acres of the tract for $2.4 million, allowing Paul Linvill to pay his brother and preserve a large open-space parcel.

Jean Linvill Hanneman recalled that she was a senior in college in 1987 when she got the call from her parents.

"'If you don't come home, we will sell the farm,'" she recalled them saying. "All four of us came home."

The four siblings committed to 10 years, jumping in with both feet.

"It became who we are," said Hanneman.

Hanneman is the general manager and oversees the garden center and Pumpkinland; Susan Linvill Jochum handles finances, payroll, and the food services; Nancy Linvill Dole is the art director, working on the displays, decorating, the market, and Pumpkinland; and Steven Linvill is responsible for maintenance and facilities, and works with farm manager Norm Schultz.

"It has always been that you can do whatever you dream on the farm," said Dole.

The members of the family of 18 - ages 10 to 87 - have all worked or helped out at the farm.

"When you host as many people as we host in the fall, it's all hands on deck," said Hanneman. Linvilla has a full-time work force of 40 and up to 300 seasonal workers to help with 500,000 annual visitors.

A wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, apricots, plums, blackberries, nectarines, and pears, is grown on the farm.

The biggest sellers are peaches - 58 varieties that yield about 315 tons - and apples, with 27 varieties and about 200 tons each year, according to Schultz.

Eight years ago, Linvilla began planting Christmas trees, and now has about 40,000 in the ground, selling about 5,000 a year, said Schultz.

It is closed only two days, Christmas and New Year's Day, and two half-days, Easter and Thanksgiving.

Its amenities include hay rides, miniature golf, snack bars, a petting zoo, a playground, a garden center, a gift shop, and concerts. The orchard also has two swim clubs, Knowlton and Hidden Hollow, on the premises.

While admission and parking are free, fees are charged for some activities, such as Pumpkinland, the Expert Fishing Derby, miniature golf, and pick-your-own.

The farm did suffer one setback from which it hasn't recovered. The 80-foot-tall octagonal barn - the beloved signature structure on the farm, built in 1889 - was destroyed by fire on Aug. 16, 2002. Only the stone walls that formed the base of the mostly wood building remain.

Plans for a new barn have been approved by the township, but no determination has been made by the family on whether to build. It is both a financial and emotional decision.

"We all really want it in our hearts," said Hanneman. "The community wants it."

But what family members want - the barn the way it was - is something they can't have. The new building would need to meet codes the old barn didn't. To build it today would cost $5 million.

"That is an awful lot of apples," said Steven Linvill.

So for now, the decision remains on the table.

This year, the farm has been featuring a different activity each month to mark the anniversary.

"We don't do anything little here," said Jochum.



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