- The Washington Times - Friday, November 30, 2001

Butler's Orchard in Germantown is at the heart of a quiet revolution that has been occurring in suburban American agriculture over the past two decades. Wade Butler, one of three siblings who helps run the 300-acre farm, calls it "agri-tainment."
"It's been a natural evolution," Mr. Bulter said of the farm that his father and mother bought in 1950. "You determine what people want, and how far you are willing to go."
The fields of Butler's Orchard are not bursting at the seams with wholesale fruits and vegetables, as they once were five decades ago. Nor does the farm raise endless bushels of corn, wheat or soybeans to feed America. Those crops cannot put Mr. Butler's three teen-age children through college.
Agri-tainment can.
Agri-tainment means Easter egg hunts in May, complete with his wife, Angela, in a bunny suit. It segues into a summer of pick-your-own strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. In October, Butler's Orchard is very nearly overrun with Halloween-crazed children and parents who pick their own pumpkins. In December, would-be lumberjacks will roll their ever-larger sport utility vehicles into the parking lot, grab a saw and head for the fields to fell their own Christmas trees.
This year, agri-tainment also requires plenty of already-cut fraser fir trees on hand for choosy consumers, whose tastes sometimes run ahead of Mr. Butler's ability to plant almost ten years in advance.
"We had no idea that fraser firs would be all the rage," he said.
By offering suburbanites a brief escape into a rustic paradise that is within earshot of I-270, the Butler's Orchard brand of agri-tainment "gives them what they want, not what they need," Mr. Butler, 45, said with a laugh.
All they have to do is snake down the winding roads off the interstate to a compact farm that is conveniently out of sight of the cookie-cutter houses that blanket Washington's Maryland suburbs.
Yesterday, Mr. Butler, sporting a red baseball cap with the company name printed on it, was surveying a field for strawberry planting next spring. In a few years, that ground will yield a bounty of juicy, red berries. Visitors by the thousands will pay top dollar for the joy of picking them.
Other days, Mr. Butler is juggling paperwork, arranging for repairs to the farm's machinery or supervising the construction of a $100,000 deer fence around the entire perimeter of the farm. Herds of deer cost the farm up to $25,000 each year as they trample or eat produce.
The farm, no longer a mere orchard, is a full-fledged, highly diversified business run by Mr. Butler in a partnership with his brother and sister. Todd Butler manages the market adjoining the farm, while Susan Butler runs the front office and "really makes sure that things get done," Mr. Butler said.
Beginning in 1950, Mr. Butler's father, who passed away two years ago, ran the show. George Butler, a trained horticulturist, got into the peach business that year. As a grower-wholesaler, he supplied local supermarkets with his product.
"Then one day he pulled into Safeway and they told him the store didn't need any peaches," Mr. Butler said.
The evolving supermarket business, which increasingly looked to big growers for all its produce, forced the elder Butler to change his tack by the late 1950s. As a horticulturist, he had few preconceived notions of what farming was about, unlike many older farmers who enjoyed the land precisely because it was away from other people.
So he planted a small patch of strawberries and offered people the chance to pick their own. On the eve of the back-to-nature 1960s, the idea clicked with the public, and radically changed Butler's Orchard.
"The breakthrough was that he saw the potential for getting retail prices for his product," Mr. Butler said.
By the time Mr. Butler and his siblings assumed control of the business in the 1980s, the idea had blossomed. Pick-your-own is now complemented by all sorts of bells and whistles. The Butler's Orchard market, currently decked out in all manner of red and green, gives visitors the added authentic farm touch by offering things like fresh fruit preserves, some assorted produce and, these days, poinsettias.
As Butler's Orchard gets further and further away from being a traditional farm, Mr. Butler said he has found himself thinking more and more about how to create the right atmosphere for his customers, and how to make sure they keep coming.
For example, Mr. Butler has struck up a mutually beneficial relationship with local television reporters, who like the authentic, local feel of the farm, and need a good source for the occasional story. When they ask about the drought, the savvy marketer in Mr. Butler knows exactly what to say.
"'Well, yes, there's a drought on,' I tell them. 'But we've still got plenty of raspberries for the picking.'"


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