by Pat Malin
CAZENOVIA, NY — The Critz Farms produces maple syrup, grows blueberries, apples and pumpkins. It boasts a corn maze, a cider mill, a variety of farm animals, an annual music festival, a gift shop and even two enclosed playgrounds.
It’s easy to forget that raising Christmas trees is the farm’s bread-and-butter activity.
Even as Matt and Juanita Critz and their three adult children juggled these diverse responsibilities, their farm provided an ideal location to host the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York summer convention in July.
One of the themes of the conference on opening day was how farmers can develop an agritourism site. In the last 20 years, Critz Farms has ballooned into a profitable, 10-month business that combines agriculture, entertainment and education. The New York State Department of Economic Development once honored Critz Farms with an agritourism business of the year award.
Juanita Critz explained that it didn’t start out this way. “Honestly, it evolved over time,” she said. “We didn’t sit down one day and decide this is what we were going to do.”
After spending a few years working for a forester in the Adirondack Mountains, Matt Critz decided to start his own farm in Madison County, the heart of Central New York in 1985.
Since then, he has watched suburbia creep ever closer and land values escalate. Rather than continue to quietly mind its own business, the farm went in another direction and expanded to 325 acres. It has come to align itself with other tourist attractions in Madison and Onondaga counties, and lies within a pleasant 25-mile drive of bustling Syracuse.
The Critz Farm grows balsam and Fraser firs, white pine and spruce for Christmas trees, as well as for landscaping and wreaths. Other crops include gourds, decorative corn, blueberries and flowers. Farm products include sweet apple cider, eight different hard cider products, New York cheddar cheese and maple syrup.
The Critzes appear to have made the right choices. Parlaying her background as an elementary school teacher, Juanita has helped shape the farm’s public persona.
“Matt purchased the property in 1985 planning to grow Christmas trees,” she said, explaining the start of Critz Farms. “This was an unused dairy farm, and we leased it for crops.”
The main farm was 125 acres and Matt later purchased additional land, luckily, considering the squeeze now from suburban homes and businesses off State Route 13. Most of their farmland is protected through the New York State Farmland Protection Program and will be limited to agricultural purposes.
Almost from the start, the Critzes envisioned opening their doors to the public. “We knew it was going to take years before the Christmas trees became big enough to harvest, so we had to grow something,” Juanita said. “At that time, we only had the house and the main barn.”
So they started growing pumpkins. In 1990, they added strawberries and raspberries. Tours by school groups began in 1997.
“We both have an entrepreneurial spirit,” she added. “That’s when the cider mill came to mind. We like people to hang around and visit. We added each piece of the puzzle over time.”
The corn maze sits across the street, patiently awaiting the turn of the seasons. The Harvest Moon Cidery opened in 2011, but its centerpiece is an antique rack and cloth press. The Critz Farm specializes in making handcrafted hard ciders in small batches, then serving them in an adjacent tasting room.
Guests can purchase snacks, also local beers and wines, and enjoy the view of the countryside from picnic tables and the hillside patio. The winery has proven very popular and already comprises 30 percent of the farm’s annual revenue. Matt said the growth was directly attributable to state legislation that encouraged craft beer and winery development.
The trees and the maple syrup make up the other half of the farm’s revenue. In addition, there is a gift shop, a sugar house, a hops house (in name only), and another large barn suitable for parties or conferences.
Critz Farms is open from March through December. The season starts with the maple syrup harvest, complete with pancake breakfasts, in late March. Christmas trees, both pre-cut and cut your own, make up about 20 percent of the business and tops off the year.
How does the family make decisions about what it should offer?
“We figure it out together,” Juanita said, although considerable input comes from their 25-year-old son, Patrick Allen, who took over as farm manager after graduating from SUNY Plattsburgh a few years ago. All three children, including James Allen, 29, and Jessica, 34, continue to be involved in the farm.
“I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else or being stuck in an office,” Patrick commented. “I love what I do. The possibilities for me are endless.”
Patrick helps his father in the field by driving the tractors and helping to transplant the tree seedlings. He also manages the maple syrup business. Matt said he has 12 fulltime employees and as many as 30 during the Christmas season.
Patrick studied music and business in college and came up with the idea of having an all-day music festival to reach a new and younger demographic. The Critz Farms hosted its third annual “Blueberry Jam” this year.
“It gets people excited about local agriculture and local music,” he explained. Patrick is already considering expanding it to a weekend or three-day event.
Christie Kinney, an employee and Patrick’s girlfriend, suggested a fun 5K run through the fields that will make its debut in September. The fields are also open for hiking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Heading into the farm’s 30th year of operation, Juanita Critz admitted she sometimes gets tired of working. But the Critz Farms looks like it’s going to have a healthy future in the hands of the capable younger generation.
Critz family pitches in to run a diversified Central New York farm
by Pat Malin