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Christmas trees and pumpkins to booze and ice cream: A look at Lehigh Valley agritourism

LehighValleyLive.com logo LehighValleyLive.com 11/26/2022 Kurt Bresswein, The Express-Times
Roger Unangst, owner of Unangst Tree Farms along Route 512 in East Allen Township, stands alongside mums for sale Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at the Lehigh Valley agritourism business. © Kurt Bresswein | For/The Express-Times/TNS Roger Unangst, owner of Unangst Tree Farms along Route 512 in East Allen Township, stands alongside mums for sale Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at the Lehigh Valley agritourism business.

The following story is part of our Stronger Than Steel series, an in-depth look at how the Lehigh Valley has made a remarkable comeback since Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces went cold in 1995. Read more about what inspired the series here and check out additional Stronger Than Steel stories here.

His eyes obscured behind dark sunglasses beneath a weathered cap, above a beard bristly and blond, Roger Unangst was quick to describe the challenges of running one of the Lehigh Valley’s farms that welcomes visitors.

Weather’s the biggest, along with fuel, fertilizer and other chemicals the fifth-generation farmer relies on to grow Christmas trees and pumpkins.

But he was even quicker with the biggest reward for his line of work.

“Kids. Kids,” he said during an interview this fall on a picnic bench between rows of pumpkins and mums for sale and the petting zoo with chickens, pigs, sheep and goats, near one of the farm’s two corn mazes and the entrance to the tractor-drawn hayrides that ferry guests into his fields.

“If you don’t like kids, if you don’t love kids, I’m in the wrong business. I mean, look at what I do: We do a petting zoo, we do field trips, we do pumpkin patches and we do Christmas trees,” Unangst said.

Unangst Tree Farms off Route 512 in East Allen Township is in the business of agritourism, a user-friendly portal into what in Pennsylvania comprises a $132.5 billion agriculture industry.

What is agritourism? The “official” definition in Pennsylvania comes from the 2021 Agritourism Activity Protection Act: “A farm-related tourism or farm-related entertainment activity that takes place on agricultural land and allows members of the general public, whether or not for a fee, to tour, explore, observe, learn about, participate in or be entertained by an aspect of agricultural production, harvesting, husbandry or rural lifestyle that occurs on the farm.” A broader definition is every occasion a farmer welcomes visitors to their farm, said Claudia Schmidt, assistant professor of marketing and local/regional food systems at Penn State University.

Research cited by Schmidt shows agritourism promotes knowledge about agriculture, strengthens local food systems, and contributes toward conserving land and agricultural and heritage resources.

The Unangst farm dates to the 1860s, but it wasn’t until 1984 that they planted their first Christmas trees, followed by pumpkins in 1999. The idea for the trees was Roger Unangst’s sister Susan’s, and they got things started with her and her husband, Mark Bahnick, and brother Charlie Unangst.

“This was a farm that would not make money,” Roger Unangst said. “It wasn’t big enough — it’s only 100 acres, at the time. Now it’s bigger.

“It wasn’t big enough to make a living off of so my dad had another job and we just tried to turn it into something of more value that you could actually make money at, which was Christmas trees.”

That first year they talked about planting 250 trees — they ended up planting 500. Now, during peak weekends in the run-up to Christmas, Unangst Tree Farms will sell 250 an hour.

It takes eight years from the time a tree is planted until it’s ready to brighten someone’s home at the holidays, unlike pumpkins that are planted in June and ready in October. Each crop requires its own special planning, though, like guessing what kinds of tree species will be most popular nearly a decade away. For pumpkins that might mean having enough land to rotate the crops, since pumpkins can only be grown in the same land every three years, and trying to absorb the costs of a drought like that of this past summer.

“Just the way it is,” said Unangst, who with this wife Trudy employs 21 part-timers in pumpkin season and around 34 at Christmas tree time. The parents of two, including daughter Tori, are preparing at some point to pass along the business to their son, Kody, who is 28.

Farmers looking to branch out into agritourism have plenty more to think about than the everyday challenges farmers face — things like zoning and building codes, liability and insurance, accommodating visitors with disabilities, animal welfare and protecting visitors from pathogens. The Penn State Extension offers a primer on how to get started at extension.psu.edu.

As it’s narrowly defined, agritourism generated income for 711 farms Pennsylvania in 2017, generating $27 million in sales, down from 729 farms in 2012, said Schmidt, from Penn State. Another agricultural census is due to be conducted this year, and Schmidt said she expects a large increase in the number of farms offering agritourism activities. To find farms that offer activities, Penn State offers an agritourism map at extension.psu.edu, as well as helps to organize open gate farm tours.

Adding in businesses that generally take advantage of Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry, visitpa.com offers listings of events and places to visit, searchable by location and region like the Lehigh Valley, and filterable by season. There are craft breweries, including members of the Lehigh Valley Brewers Guild that offers on its website a map of spots to hit, plus craft beer trails highlighted by Breweries in PA at breweriesinpa.com (or even family- and dog-friendly breweries); distillery destinations; farmers markets; the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail and other wineries; and even premise-made creameries on Pennsylvania’s Scooped: An Ice Cream Trail.

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Kurt Bresswein may be reached at kbresswein@lehighvalleylive.com.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit lehighvalleylive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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