One Farm Family’s Story of Survival and Evolution
As dusk falls upon Unangst Tree Farm in Bath, a soft summer night glow sets upon the acres of corn stalks and Christmas trees. There are no colorful signs posted along the crops, no tractor engine roar, no animals resting in the red-painted sheds. From the road, the farm may look empty, even still.
However, there’s the owner of the farm, Roger Unangst, sitting on one of the many picnic benches, ready for bed. He’s been up since 3 a.m. setting the farm in motion to greet the thousands of people who will visit this fall.
For most of the property’s history, it was a typical Pennsylvania Dutch operation: cows, chickens, pigs, wheat, oat, egg, corn, and alfalfa.
The Unangst family came into ownership in the mid-1800s. The first family member was originally a farmhand on the property, only taking food for his family as payment under the condition that one day he would own the roughly 100-acre farm. But after a century, the standards of living had changed.
“It takes a thousand acres to feed a family,” Unangst, fifth-generation farmer, explains. In order to support his family, his father took a job at Bethlehem Steel while maintaining the farm. By the 1980s, however, something had to change for the better. A teenaged Roger and his siblings realized that there was no other farm in the area selling Christmas trees. However, his father was not keen on the idea. He would respond, “Did we do it last year? Why would we do it this year?”
Finally, in the winter of 1984, his father agreed to buy 250 tree seeds. However, Roger’s sister realized that 250 trees would not be enough to make ends meet. “She ordered 500.” He shakes his head, smiling. “I remember that day. He was not very happy.”
But because the money was already spent, the family planted them anyway. That year, Roger’s father died. The next ten years, as the trees matured for sale, the family worked other jobs and invested in their new business while seeing no return. “We didn’t go on vacations. There were quite a few late electric bills.
There were pretty stinky Christmases,” Roger says. But it was well worth it. Roger and his wife Trudy welcomed their son, Kody, in 1993. That winter the first crop of trees were sold. It quickly became obvious that the real issue was how many they could harvest. Selling 700-800 trees a year was not sustainable, but that was all the family could afford at the time. They needed another source of income. In the mid-90s the Unangsts started looking into adding fall attractions.
At the time, there were no corn mazes in the area. The closest one was Mazezilla at Klingel’s Farm, about 35 miles from Bath in Saylorsburg. Luckily, the Klingels were open to teaching their craft. In 1999, Tori, Roger and Trudy’s
daughter, was born and that summer the Unangsts created their first corn maze, which stretched three acres.
It was a learning experience. They aimed for the maze to take an hour to solve, but it took most customers 40 minutes. These days, the large maze is six acres and takes an hour to 90 minutes.
The kids’ maze is intended for 15 minutes so they won’t feel lost. Though the designs are more intricate, the process is basically the same as it has been. At the annual staff picnic, employees and family members brainstorm ideas for the theme of the maze and game that accompanies it. Then, Trudy or Tori draws a design on graph paper. Each block of graph paper represents an area of land, marked by survey flags.
This past June, while the corn stalks were only a couple feet high, Roger and Kody spent a day and a half cutting the maze. Every ten days the path is mowed for a month and a half until the corn, a grass, “gives up” and the path stays clear. This is in addition to maintaining the 42 varieties of pumpkins and squash, shearing thousands of trees for the winter, among other duties. Most of this work is split between Roger, Kody, and long-time employee, John Derhammer. The summer work stretches as long – if not longer –than the sun stays in the sky.
The fall season is fairly short at the farm; it opened September 30 and closes to walk-in customers the last weekend in October. On the weekends, the 250-car lot is packed. During the week, the farm is an outdoor classroom for up to 400 children a day. Many teachers take classes year after year because what they see is what they get.
“We sell what we grow to the best of our ability. It’s not just stuff being bought off the truck and being laid out,” Unangst says. The authenticity does not go unnoticed. “These kids get to figure out how hard it is to pull a pumpkin off the vine!”
Dusk descends into night, and it’s way past Unangst’s
Tomorrow he needs to rise before dawn to tend to his ever-evolving farm. Throughout the nearly 30 years of change, something that never waivers is the Unangsts’ focus on family. For many years, to Unangst’s dismay, the sales of the
pre-picked pumpkins and trees were growing dramatically in comparison to the pick-your-own options. It seemed that families were spending less and less time together. But in the past two years, there’s been a shift. More and more people are opting to go out on the field. Unangst puts it simply: “You got to find ways to spend time with your family. You’ll never