By Adrienne McGee Sterrett
PANDORA — The Suter family likes to keep things simple.
They raise produce, they pick produce, they sell produce.
“And we have the dirty knees to prove it,” said Tom Suter, with a laugh.
Tom Suter with his parents, Jerry and Nancy Suter, own and operate Suter’s Produce in Pandora. Now known as a haven for fall activities, the farm started simply. (It’s a familial theme.)
Jerry Suter explained his grandfather, Harry Suter, started raising produce on about 60 acres in 1930. Harry spoke German when he first came to the United States from Switzerland, Jerry Suter remembers. The next generation continued the farm, with Jerry’s father, Gene, working the land with Gene’s brother, Russel. Jerry Suter simply continued it.
He wasn’t always sure it was the career path for him. He went to Bluffton College (where he met his wife) and taught high school math for two years at Bluffton schools.
“And then I felt the pull of the farm,” Jerry Suter said. “I never really left. I wanted to do it full time.”
So he and his wife had the opportunity to buy a cider press from a neighbor, Clyde Basinger, and his father, Seth, in the late 1970s. The very next year, they planted 800 apple trees.
“And that gave us another avenue to keep active,” Jerry Suter said. “We’ve been making cider ever since.”
Suter’s does custom pressing and also makes cider to sell.
The apple trees started to get old, and the Suter family did what it does best — brainstorm. What else could they do with that piece of land?
The corn maze idea clicked, and the first year for it was 1999.
“We thought it sounded like fun,” Jerry Suter said. “We failed at a lot of things. But it’s OK if it fails. Then you just try something else.”
That’s how the Red Barn Markets came to be, after all. Jerry Suter’s mother, Wauneta, had the idea that they should build a little red barn, put wheels on it, take it to town and sell produce out of it.
For the maze, Tom Suter started sketching. They transferred the sketch to the field with flagged markers and hoed the paths in the planted cornfield. The family still does it this way, planting the entire field and removing what corn they don’t need when the stalks are about 18 inches tall.
“That’s when the pressure is on, really, because once you’ve cut it …” Tom Suter said, smiling. “The biggest trick is making the maze difficult enough for your high school age kids and not so difficult for your mother with three kids.”
The maze was a hit, and the family added corn cannons, tube slides, hamster wheels, duck races with hand pumps — all types of activities for families. A couple years after the maze started, the Suters added a pumpkin patch and wagon rides to it.
“We have an honest pumpkin patch,” said Jerry Suter, explaining there are at least one dozen varieties of pumpkins and 20 varieties of gourds. “The pumpkins grew right where they’re sitting.”
They didn’t set out on a planned path to agritourism; they are doing what they love.
“It’s kind of in your blood,” Tom Suter said. “You know how to do it, enjoy the process of planting the seed, watching it grow and harvesting at the end. That process is neat to watch. It’s a family business, and you want to keep it going. … And we work really hard to get as close to perfect produce as we have. We’re willing to put the extra effort in.”
But there is joy there, clearly. Jerry Suter performs a little puppet show with woodland animals at a stop on the pumpkin wagon.
“Sneak in a little education while they’re not looking,” he said.
They have the opportunity to mingle with about 60 high school and college students each season, hired to pick produce.
“It’s just a pleasure being around them,” Jerry Suter said.
Family is close by and helps with the farm. Nancy Suter especially enjoys their eight grandchildren, all living within five miles of the home place.
And tradition. Tradition is key. Jerry Suter, now 61, has been picking corn by hand for 50 years.
“Really not that much has changed, which is kind of comforting in a way. It’s still done the way it used to be done,” he said.
Known for the Red Barn Markets that dot the area in summertime – 10 stands selling sweetcorn, melons, peaches, tomatoes, honey and more – Suter’s Produce switches to fall activities in mid September, after sweetcorn season.
The farm features a corn maze, hayrides, pick-your-own pumpkins, corn cannons, tube slides, human hamster wheels, a cider press with fall items for sale, a giant ear of corn, corn boxes for children to play in, and more.
To find your way, map directions to 8250 Road R, Pandora.
Pirate Trails and Treasure II
Open now through Nov. 1
Hours: 1-8 p.m. weekends, with last admission at 7 p.m.
Cost: Adults $6, students (including college) $4.50
The maze is open during the week for school groups by appointment only. Call 419-384-3665 for details on group pricing.
1-6 p.m. weekends
Cost: $2.50, with children ages 2 and younger free
Open now through Oct. 31
Pressings are done from about 7 to 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Customers may bring their apples during those times for unpasteurized cider making. There is a $30 minimum charge, and new jugs must be purchased from Suter’s for this.
Cider press store hours (selling cider and fall foods): 1-6 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays, 1-8 p.m. Sundays.
ADRIENNE MCGEE STERRETT
Adrienne is the lifestyle/special sections editor for The Lima News. She believes everyone has a life story worth sharing. Reach her at 567-242-0510 or [email protected]