MATTITUCK—It all started with a pumpkin patch. In 1990, hoping to attract Halloween shoppers, Ed Harbes planted the field adjacent to his small roadside farmstand with pumpkins. By October, he had piled a cart high with the most uniformly orange and rounded fruits—sure eye candy for Jack O’Lantern carving hopefuls.
But customer after customer avoided the pile to venture into the patch. “After saying no for the 20th time,” Mr. Harbes recalled. “I said maybe it’s not pumpkins they want. It’s the pumpkin-picking experience.”
This “accidental” discovery of u-pick pumpkins—which begins the third weekend in September—became a fixture. And that’s part of the reason that the tagline on the farm’s brightly-colored roadside signage isn’t just “Family Farm,” but also “Family Fun.” Who would have thought that pony rides, face painting, and three corn mazes— Wizard of Harbes, Wild West interactive, and Middle Earth— could help keep the family farm in business? Farmers and nonfarmers alike might dismiss such attractions as “agri-entertainment,” but Mr. Harbes thinks it’s common sense. “Every business has to deliver what its customers want,” he said. “Agriculture is not exempt from this.”
This evolution didn’t happen overnight. The Harbes family had been growing potatoes and vegetables in Mattituck since 1968 when Mr. Harbes’ father fled Huntington looking for cheaper land. When Mr. Harbes entered the family business in 1978, he had just married his high school sweetheart and began to worry about the future of his own family. Even though the Long Island spud commanded household recognition for the better part of the 20th century, by the 1980s potato production from Maine, Idaho, and Canada changed the landscape. “Time and effort and preparation in the American kitchen are all on a downward swing,” said Mr. Harbes, who speaks in the calm manner of a careful businessman. “No one keeps a bowl of potatoes on the counter and just grabs one and pops it in their mouth when they want a snack.”
So, with a skeptical father looking over his shoulder, Mr. Harbes and his wife Monica stopped growing vast fields of one or two crops on the family’s 200 acres and jumped into the “Brave New World of retailing.”
“It was kind of scary,” Mrs. Harbes remembered of the shift. In fact, in the summer of 1989, when the family started selling tomatoes and supersweet corn out of a 14-by-14 foot gazebo on the side of the road, Ed’s son, Jason, who was 10 years old at the time (and now works on Wall Street), sold just $57 worth of corn. But a visit to any of Harbes’ sprawling white-washed stands shows that the family didn’t lose interest. And they didn’t stop trying new things either.
Remember that rural adage about putting all your eggs in one basket that has become the parlance of investment brokers? At Harbes Farm, Halloween hayrides followed the year after u-pick pumpkins, and have become so popular that they now start on Memorial Day and include a Banjo player who recounts farm history. In 1992, the farm added a greenhouse in an attempt to harvest tomatoes early, and shortly afterward realized that they could open the stand in May—two months earlier than normal—by selling greenhouse flowers and bedding plants. (The farm now counts 14 greenhouses.) That same year, the family cut a labyrinth through a patch of corn and created the first corn maze of its kind on Long Island. Instead of a 50-pound bag of potatoes, the Harbes family now offers its customers five-pound bags of baby potatoes, corn salsa made from its own corn, tomatoes, and peppers, and roasted sweet corn which Mrs. Harbes calls an “alternative fast food.”
“My idea is to sell directly to people as much as possible in as many locations as possible,” said Mr. Harbes. So the farm added picnic tables, wooden jungle gyms, and a miniature windmill for photo ops. A website and green Harbes uniforms with chest logos followed. Last year, Harbes opened a farmstand on the South Fork in conjunction with Wölffer Estate Vineyard.
The culmination of this evolution is the Annual Sweet Corn Festival, which celebrated its second anniversary this past July. “We made our retail debut with sweet corn, supersweet corn to be precise,” Mr. Harbes said. “And that’s still what we’re known for.”
Still, neighbors greeted many of the Harbes family’s experiments with a raised eyebrow, which hasn’t surprised Mr. Harbes. “It’s just like my skepticism about the first vineyards going in decades ago,” he said with a knowing smile: this fall, Harbes will release the first wine made from its 5-acre vineyard.
But Mr. and Mrs. Harbes hope the experiments will entice at least a few of their eight children to stay on the farm. At least one daughter, Jess, has already said she would like to make it a career. “It would be nice,” said Mrs. Harbes of her daughter’s ambitions.
“Now you see what my favorite crop is,” Mr. Harbes added, pulling a worn family photo from his wallet. The girls are beaming and blond like their mother. The boys are tall and broad like their father. “Growing up on a farm is one of the best experiences a child can have,” Mr. Harbes said. “It teaches responsibility and hands-on skills and appreciation for life,” and it’s another reason Mr. Harbes wants to attract suburban customers.
“People can get produce from anywhere,” Mr. Harbes said, answering his cell phone for the fourth time in about a half hour. “But if we can give them a nice experience, a nice time in the country, in addition to nice fruits and vegetables, then they will drive 50 miles to get it.”