North Andover, MA
A Farming Family Banks on Agritourism Trend
As a boy Michael Smolak and his sisters and brothers dutifully completed their daily chores around the family farm, just like generations of Smolaks did before them. There were cows and chickens to tend to, fruit orchards to prune in the spring, and truckloads of fruits and vegetables to harvest in the fall.
In many ways, it was an idyllic, story book upbringing on 160 acres of pristine land nestled in the hills of northeastern Massachusetts. Little did Michael imagine at the time, though, that he would one day preside over a multi-dimensional family business that would derive a surprisingly modest portion of its revenues from traditional farming.
Like many family farmers, Michael has been working for years to diversify the farm’s sources of income. Today, Smolak Farms in North Andover combines agriculture, education and entertainment in a way that goes well beyond the expected hayrides and petting zoo.
It’s a trend that can be seen nationwide. As of the latest census report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 45% of the country’s 2.2 million farms show positive net cash income from farming. The rest need to supplement their revenue from other sources to cover expenses.
Smolak has used his University of Pennsylvania training in business, finance and agriculture to expand offerings, increase sales and contain costs. What has evolved is a modern, sophisticated operation that bears little resemblance to the farm that Michael’s grandfather Martin presided over.
In 1985, a farm stand was opened on the property to sell fruit and produce to locals. Later that year, a bakery was added to fill customer requests for pies and muffins. Word of the bakery’s exceptional cider donuts spread – and the modern version of Smolak Farm as a destination for families and tourists began to take shape.
A greenhouse was built in 1992 to extend the growing season. An ice cream stand was added in 2004. Juvenile brown trout were added to an irrigation pond in 2005. In 2007, Smolak signed up Treadwell’s to run the ice cream stand, a move designed to capitalize on the management experience and well-known brand name of a high quality product.
“Mike has a very good feel for the trends that have the potential to add revenue,” says Roy Henshaw, the RBF partner in charge of helping Smolak manage many of the financial planning aspects of the family business.
“He also recognizes the importance of containing costs,” adds Henshaw. “Traditionally, farmers have enormous fixed costs to deal with; the assets underlying those costs often go underutilized. Over the past ten years, Mike has found ways to more than double the farm’s revenue, and at the same time, reduce overhead by 30 percent.”
These days, visitors flock to Smolak Farms to pick fruit from the orchard, shop at the farm stand and stop by the bakery. Busloads of school children attend educational sessions about farming and animals in the main barn that has been retrofitted for this purpose. Birthday parties and other private functions are a common sight throughout the year.
Earlier this year, Smolak launched a culinary series featuring some of greater Boston’s best chefs demonstrating their signature dishes. Attendance has grown to over 400 people per evening.
In 2011, the farm has a full-service “restaurant under the stars” concept in the works, as well as a CSA program and music concerts – just a few examples of the innovative projects that Smolak hopes will keep customers coming, and spending, at this 300 year-old family farm turned “agri-tainment” destination.
For more information, please visit www.smolakfarms.com.