Sunday, January 3, 2010

Armstrong Farms

I visited Armstrong Farms in Saxonburg, PA a few days ago. Following are the notes from my interview with owners Kathy and John Allen. Unfortunately, it was snowy and not a good day for photos; fortunately, others have already taken some great photos of the farm. Thanks to DJ Pifemaster at for the lovely exterior photos.

Armstrong Farms sits on a vast 1000 gently rolling acres, with three separate and secluded barns where the Allens host weddings and offer many different b&b options, including five guest houses and cottages. Scots-Irish relatives of John with the last name of Love founded Armstrong Farms in 1816, and John is the 5th generation of his family to run the farm.

John Allen bought Armstrong Farms in the 1960s after he was injured in a motorcycle accident while a student at the University of Wisconsin. Returning home to Pennsylvania and the farm, John was able to complete his Masters of Arts in History while commuting to the University of Pittsburgh 25 miles away. Before John decided to raise cattle and expand the farm, Armstrong Farm's 1000 acres were home to a few different and diverse farms. Today, the farm sells hay and purebred Angus beef cattle, which mainly serve as a replacement herd for other farms. The cattle are treated to a system of rotational grazing, for which Armstrong Farms was chosen as a demonstration farm by the Natural Resources Conservation District. The Allens also sell some freezer beef, though in recent years they have found that potential customers had lost interest in cooking steaks and soup bones. Still, the Allens plan to sell more beef in the future, as the demand for whole local foods increases.

Kathy Allen decided to open the Armstrong Farms B&B in 1996 after a brief case of empty nest syndrome. Since then, the business has grown tremendously, and in addition to the one original farmhouse guest room, the Allens now offer two guest suites and five guest cottages and houses; the largest sleeps 12. Kathy enjoys developing and suggesting itineraries for guests, many of which include a trip to historic Saxonburg. The village, two and a half miles away from the farm, was founded in 1832 by German immigrant brothers John and Carl Roebling. John Roebling is better known for engineering wire rope suspension bridges, most famously the Brooklyn Bridge. Kathy also directs guests to two local wineries, a golf club, and a farm market, among other local businesses. For breakfast, Kathy treats guests to "lighter-than-air" souffles and "breakfast pizzas," individual-sized pie crusts topped with eggs and bacon.

Kathy is a great believer in capitalism, and she's happy that her business has been successful enough to provide employment to so many people in the area -- including high school and college students -- during the peak summer wedding season. She also keeps the other area b&b's filled with wedding guests. "When the local businesses work together," reflects Kathy, "it provides a reason for each of us to exist." The vibrant association of Saxonburg area businesses provide experiences and products that both locals and tourists appreciate.

Kathy says that her greatest success has been "creating the wedding niche," which began, modestly enough, when one couple asked to have their wedding at the farm. Since then, the Allens started little by little to grow their wedding business, and focused simply on developing good services and products. Last year, Armstrong Farms hosted about 60 weddings, and that number has continued to grow every year.

Despite keeping busy with the b&b and weddings, Kathy still remains somewhat involved with the farm animals. She went to school in Colorado for collecting and transferring embryos, which is helpful when it comes to breeding the animals. She also has a Masters of Social Work, which she says is helpful for wedding hosting. As Kathy notes, "We care about the brides and grooms," and she prides herself in giving couples lots of options and really letting them take control of their event. She aims to create an entire wedding weekend, not just a wedding day, and her goal is for guests to come away from the farm content and relaxed.

Since their marriage, Kathy and John have worked together as partners on many of their projects. Adaptively reusing the Fieldstone Barn, one of the main wedding venues, feels particularly special, because the barn is emotionally significant for them -- it once served as the farm's main barn, and housed many generations of cattle. When the barn's roof started wearing out, the Allens decided to restore it, but they wanted to be pragmatic about the expense. They have, of course, reaped the rewards of their restoration.

Kathy says that she doesn't plan to retire. Florida vacations don't appeal to the Allens; she and John take a walk down the street from their house to a suite in one of the barns when they need a break. There, they have their own private retreat.

According to John, "Everyone used to have relatives with a farm, and they would spend vacations there. Now hardly anyone has the opportunity to spend time on a farm." The Allens are proud to offer guests the opportunity explore their farm, to visit the barn and feed the animals, and to camp, fish, hunt, and horseback ride for those who bring their own horses. Guests can take advantage of seven miles of hiking trails on the property and three stocked ponds for fishing. Through a collaboration with Ducks Unlimited and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Allens have restored and developed wetlands, planted tree seedlings, and established warm grassland habitat, with the aim of providing cover and nesting areas for many birds and mammals. The Allens also offer a guided wildflower and bird identification walk each May to support the local library. And history buffs will be intrigued by the farm's Civil War-era belt buckles and other curiosities that have been turned up in a field that was once the site for a soldiers' meetinghouse; a display case now holds the antiques.

The countryside surrounding the farm, particularly to the south, is developing quickly with both residential and commercial construction. The Allens have sold off close to 450 acres of development rights for their farm, which will make a big difference in future years, considering the increasing pressure on rural property in the area. The family holds regular meetings to make decisions like the one to sell the farm's development rights. Kathy and John, together with their children, have decided that they want to preserve their farm, and they want the farm to be green. Says Kathy, "It's tempting to develop the land, but it's really not necessary. We don't want to have the temptation to develop, and we don't want anyone else to, either."

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