Family Farm and Fun Business

Steve and Jill Pennings, Pennings Farm Market, Warwick

What began as a simple roadside farm-market-and-garden center in Warwick during the mid 1980’s has mushroomed into a much bigger operation with the addition of a cafe, pub, ice cream counter, petting zoo, beer garden, orchard, and cidery — all under the tutelage of Steve and Jill Pennings and now their children, Steve, 23, and Tori, 26.

Steve grew up in a dairy-farm family. But this venture had its roots from his working with his older brother Jack, who bought a 75-acre orchard after their parents got out of the dairy business. Steve joined after he graduated from college in 1981. “I was excited to be part of a new project,” he says. He and Jill married in 1988 and began working together. “It wasn’t easy coming into a large family with the different dynamics,” Jill admits, “but I stuck with it and came to understand what was needed.” 

By the late 1990s, when Jack’s son Jack Jr. joined the business, the brothers decided to divide operations, though they continued to share the land. Jack’s family took the orchard and a pick-your-own operation; Steve’s took the market, with Jill in charge of ordering, displays, running the ice cream counter, and other retails tasks, while Steve remained “the good old farm boy” who plants and manages the garden center. 

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They pulled together when farm finances took a hit—from a downturn in the economy to severe weather to an increase in competition. “We were determined to keep going as long as we weren’t too much in debt,” Steve says. When their children left for college, Steve and Jill advised them not to count on the business to survive. 

Though Steve knew the wisdom of leaving work at work, he found it too challenging not to share daily events with Jill. “The farm is our home, and we needed to vent rather than turn it off, especially when we worried how to make our next dollar,” he says. 

Success eventually came, by expanding inventory to increase margins and making the farm more of a family destination. They now take two weeks off each February and a week in July. “It was the saving grace for our marriage,” Steve says. In the past year, they’ve experienced more of the fruits of their labor. Steve Jr. came back after graduating from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences last year and planned the cidery. Tori teaches school but is a partner and helps her brother.

Summing up the couple’s partnernship, Steve says, “We’re very different, but, through those differences, we’ve made good decisions.”

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