'Agritainment' saves the family farm in Montco

Fred Seipt, owner of Freddy Hill Farms and Freddy's Family Fun Center.

Twenty-five years ago, developers offered Fred Seipt millions of dollars for his struggling Freddy Hill Farms in Lansdale.

He said no.

Instead of taking the money and watching his three-generation farm become yet another Montgomery County subdivision, Seipt gambled on building two lavish miniature golf courses, a driving range, a pro shop, and baseball batting cages.

He bet the farm, and he won.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, Freddy's Family Fun Center helps support 180 acres of feed corn and 20 acres of pumpkins, plus an ice cream-making operation. Even more than that, it has preserved a fragile, sweat-equity way of life for Seipt, his five children, 19 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and thousands of families that visit every year.

Seated at a picnic table under a tree on a sun-baked afternoon, Seipt, 82, watched a sprung-to-life Norman Rockwell painting - young children chasing about under the doting gaze of parents and grandparents.

He smiled. "This is what I love to see."

Joining him in the shade, his daughter-in-law Nancy said that giving up the farm would have broken his heart. "It would break all of our hearts," she said.

Agriculture plus entertainment equals "agritainment," which has meant survival for endangered family farms the likes of Freddy Hill nationwide. Of Pennsylvania's 62,000 farms, approximately 800 have invited the public in for a good time, and that number is trending upward, especially around urban areas such as Philadelphia, said John Berry, a former dairy farmer who is an agricultural marketing educator at Penn State Extension.

"Being in Pennsylvania is different from being in Nebraska or Kansas," Berry said. "The average consumer here is at least three generations removed from actually having lived on a farm. So you're selling the opportunity for people to come to your farm and traipse around a little bit."

In this region, Merrymead Farm in Lansdale has daily cow-milking demonstrations. Shady Brook Farm in Yardley has pick-your-own festivals, Uncle Dave's Homemade Ice Cream, and a Summer Wine Concert Series on Friday nights.

Upside vs. risk

At Hellerick's Family Farm in Doylestown, kids play in 50-foot corn chute slides and a giant sandbox filled with corn kernels, climb a tractor tire mountain, race rubber ducks, and slingshot potatoes at targets. Linvilla Orchards in Media has a barnyard with "friendly calves, charismatic goats," climb-on wooden boats, tractors and trains, and fishing for bass, bluegills, and catfish in its Orchard Lake.

The upside for the farmer, Berry said, is increased income from far fewer acres than it takes to grow crops or raise cows.

The risk is the liability.

"What if somebody trips and breaks a leg?" Berry said. "What if somebody eats a homemade pie and gets a bellyache?"

The uptick in agritainment also has been accompanied by an increase in legal challenges from non-farm neighbors.

"Some people like to see a wide meadow with a sheep or two grazing next to their house instead of a vibrant, sustainable farm business that is trying to remain relevant," Berry said.

"Suddenly, they have a parking lot and traffic . . . and we're in court."

Fred Seipt said he has never regretted turning down the big money that developers have offered for Freddy Hill since the 1960s. "I'm a farmer," he said, contemplating two towering silos that once held feed for his cows and that now are empty.

In 1956, his herd numbered 24, which grew to 120. But declining income from the dairy operation made it necessary to sell them off until, four years ago, they were gone.

"I still miss them," Seipt said, recalling how his three sons "would milk the cows before they went to school, then feed them when they got home from school. . . . We were a farm family that worked beside each other. Worked hard."

Nancy, who handles the farm's business with another daughter-in-law, Lesa, said dryly: "We stopped milking the cows when our kids all became smarter than us and learned to take vacations.

"We're feeding somebody else's cows now, processing the milk from a local dairy farm and pulling the cream for our ice cream mix," she said. "We use the same process we always had for making ice cream. We just have less manure."

Nancy is married to Seipt's son Vernon, 58, who still enjoys doing the field work. They live a quarter-mile down Sumneytown Pike from Freddy Hill Farms, in the house where Seipt and wife Joanne, who died in 2012, raised their family.

Another son, Bill, 50, runs the homemade ice cream operation, started in the mid-1980s, where the big hit flavors are vanilla, the very blue Cookie Monster, bacon maple, and Chocolate Rainforest. The all-time flop was Seipt's concoction: grapenut - "like vanilla ice cream with a side of cardboard," he admitted.

His son Matt, 56, who runs the golf operation, and wife Lesa live on an adjoining farm. It was Seipt's childhood home, where his father, Wilbur, had 15 Guernseys and 2,000 chickens that supplied his milk-and-eggs route in North Wales.

'Hey, wow!'

In 1991, with Freddy Hill Farm facing parlous times, Matt suggested a save: miniature golf.

"My idea of miniature golf was something made of plywood you could get off the back of a truck and set up in a couple of days," Seipt said. "But Matt was talking about waterfalls, scenery, a landscape architect. I thought, 'Hey, wow! How in the heck are we going to borrow the money for this?' "

Seipt was shocked when his banker approved the loan. More than 700 residents signed a petition in support. But the Towamencin Board of Supervisors voted it down, 3-2.

"I was very disgusted," Seipt said. "I was outside the meeting, spilling my guts to the local press, when someone said, 'You want to come back in?' "

A supervisor had changed his mind.

On July 6, 1991, Freddy's Family Fun Center opened. The dual centerpieces were two lushly landscaped miniature golf courses: Discover America, winding up a scenic mountain and through a cave, and Waterfront Adventure, meandering among waterfalls.

Now, the Fun Center's big parking lot is full on most nights, which keeps Freddy Hill Farm healthy, which sustains the only way of life Seipt has ever known.

Yet, "even if the Fun Center hadn't rescued the farm," Seipt said, he would have found some way to hold on to it.

"I'm a farmer," he said. "And I'm stubborn."

geringd@phillynews.com

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