Five years ago when Mark and Laura MacDonald did the first planting on their 20 acres of land — 5,000 strawberries — it was a daunting task. The new farmers enlisted help from family and friends, prepared for hours of work.
This season, strawberries are just the tip of the iceberg, and the rows are just about all picked at Bee Tree Berry Farm. Now it’s time for U-pick red raspberries, followed by black raspberries, blueberries, sweet cherries (the first harvest), blackberries and elderberries. Not to mention the onions, broccoli, lettuce and other veggies the MacDonalds’ grow for themselves and to sell in their farmstand and at farmers markets.
“We started out really small,” Laura MacDonald said. “With each passing year, the more we learned.”
With backgrounds in related fields — Mark MacDonald worked 32 years in the golf course industry; Laura MacDonald had been a greenhouse manager — they knew the fundamentals, but describe the rest as trial and error.
“This was all new to us,” Mark MacDonald said. “We had to ease into it and find out how much work was involved in each crop.”
If it seems unusual for a couple to leave their jobs and life in York County and move to the Zion property with the goal of opening the area’s only multiple crop U-pick operation — after cultivating land that Mark MacDonald said had been hay fields since the 1950s — consider that the move was decades in the making. They met as students at Longwood Gardens, where they talked about wanting to be farmers, Laura MacDonald said.
With their kids out of college, circumstances started to align in 2012 so that “it was either we do it now or never,” she said.
“This was always the dream,” Laura MacDonald said.
They spent seven or eight months looking for the perfect place and were drawn to the Centre County area after visiting for years to camp and fish. When they pulled up to the Benner Road property and spotted a walnut tree with a thriving honeybee hive inside, they took it as a sign of a healthy, fruitful piece of land. They had a future home, workplace and name for the farm. (And yes, MacDonald’s farm was on the shortlist of names.)
Every year since, more and more crops have been added to the farm, so that now, Mark MacDonald said the entire 20 acres is either planted or planned for. There’s been experimentation (sweet corn didn’t work out), there’s been lessons (learning first-hand which crop varieties insects prefer) and there’s been success. They use sustainable organic practices on the farm.
“We eat the same stuff that we sell. It’s very important to us,” Mark MacDonald said.
As the offerings at Bee Tree Berry Farm have grown, so has its customer base. The farm’s Facebook page has become the lifeline for those looking for daily updates on what’s available for picking. Mark MacDonald said most of those who come to U-pick are families, with no age restrictions — so far this season the youngest visitor was a 1-month-old, the oldest was a 95-year-old couple.
Laura MacDonald describes U-pick as “agri-tainment,” an affordable family-friendly outing that can be educational, too.
“Families come out here for the experience,” she said. “Parents can teach kids where their food comes from, and they can appreciate the job that farmers do.”
In addition to stopping by the farm, 494 Benner Road, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, people can also browse Bee Tree Berry Farm fruits and veggies at the North Atherton farmers market, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays in the Home Depot parking lot, and the Boalsburg farmers market, 2-6 p.m. Tuesdays at the Pennsylvania Military Museum.