Keith Frey takes pride in being a fifth-generation farmer.

He’s passionate about his family’s heritage and the crucial role that the agricultural community plays in our society.

But those noble attributes don’t pay the bills.

And with the economics of farming in a slump, he and his wife Jenessa  knew they had to find a way to supplement their farm’s income.

“It’s definitely not roses. But I’m not complaining. We just have to get creative. ... Diversification is really the only way we can justify farming,” said Frey, 31, of Manheim.

Earlier this year, they took a hard look at repositioning their farming operation and how they might strengthen their finances.

The Freys sold their 40-head dairy herd, following years of losses, after ruling out a costly expansion that would have improved the operation to marginal at best.

That decision left the Freys with crops of corn, soybeans and oats, plus hay to feed their small herd of beef cattle, on their 214-acre farm.

They thought about raising poultry and/or hogs, but constructing houses for layers, broilers and/or hogs would have cost in six or seven figures.

Then the Freys found their answer, located about 10 miles east of their Elizabethtown Road property.

It’s a small but promising business named Whiff Roasters, a Lititz-based coffee roaster, which the Freys acquired in October for an undisclosed price.

“This is what Jenessa and I are doing to tackle our challenges,” said Keith Frey.

Common struggle

It’s a rough time to be a farmer, say experts at the Penn State Extension, which provides research-based guidance to farmers and gardeners.

Culprits making life hard for farmers everywhere include depressed prices for milk, beef, eggs and grains.

But the owners of Lancaster County’s 5,000 farms face extra hurdles, the  Penn State Extension experts add.

These include farming a small number of acres, which rules out achieving economies of scale.

Then there’s high land prices, which makes solving the size issue by acquiring more land an unlikely response.

A more realistic approach, the Penn State Extension experts say, is to look beyond the farm.

More than half of the state’s farming households have “significant” non-farm income, said Leon Ressler,  extension agronomy educator.

Typical sources include a side business (such as carpentry) and a spouse with a full-time job (ideally one that offers benefits for the family).

“Certainly, for young people, it’s common, but it’s not limited to young people,” Ressler said.

“I’m visiting more and more farmers who are wondering what they’re going to do next,” said John Berry, an extension business-management educator.

Farmers with less than 10 years of operating history, such as the Freys, are especially vulnerable to market downturns, the experts say.

That’s because they haven’t had time to develop a substantial financial cushion.

On top of that, farmers with a family history of farming can feel extra pressure to make the farm succeed and keep the legacy alive.

Told about the Freys’ strategy, Berry said:

“I have to applaud them for thinking outside the box and being brave enough, and being confident enough, to try that.

“But the challenges are great,” he said.

Agricultural roots

Whiff Roasters, founded in 1999 as an offshoot of the Spill the Beans coffee shop, roasts coffee beans of superior quality and variety, said Keith Frey.

That provides the foundation for its wide selection of 120 flavors, he said.

Its beans cost more than mass-quantity coffees, Keith Frey acknowledged.

But as consumers acquire a taste for fresh-roasted coffee, they’re willing to pay extra for it, especially when it comes from a local provider, he said.

Whiff Roasters’ business model not only has customer appeal. It appeals to both of the Freys too, because coffee beans are an agricultural product.

Keith Frey of course has a farming background — he’s working the same soil that his ancestors began farming in 1895.

But that holds true for Jenessa Frey too, as her family was in the greenhouse business.

On top of those facets, Whiff Roasters offered another enticing quality to the Freys.

Whiff Roasters, which has three employees plus the Freys, has “room for a whole lot more growth” if it can raise awareness of its product, according to Keith Frey.

“Our customers have always come to us because they learned of us through word of mouth. ... We’re one of the best kept secrets in Lititz,” he added.

“It’s a hidden gem,” said Jenessa Frey.

Increasing the company’s marketing is the responsibility of Jenessa Frey, who works full-time as an agent at Ruhl Insurance in Manheim.

“It’s easy to market something you enjoy,” said Jenessa Frey, who became a regular Whiff Roasters customer about five years ago when a co-worker at the time took her there.

How big a fan is she?

Well, a couple years back, when she learned that Whiff Roasters was phasing out a specialty flavor that she liked, she bought all five of its remaining one-pound bags.

Jenessa Frey, 28, is a graduate of Lancaster Mennonite High School and Penn State University, where she majored in animal science business management.

Keith Frey is a graduate of Manheim Central High School and Penn State University, where he majored in agricultural business.

He will focus on production as the master roaster and on managing the business.

The seasonal nature of farming, plus the support of family with farm work when needed, will give him enough time for Whiff Roasters, Keith Frey said.

Supportive Stauffers

Whiff Roasters has 1,600 square feet of space at the rear of 219 E. Main St., behind the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery.

It generates of 95 percent of its revenue from its wholesale business, selling to restaurants and grocery stores, including Stauffers of Kissel Hill.

Warren Crills, Stauffers’ grocery buyer, said Stauffers has been selling Whiff Roasters coffee for more than 15 years.

“They have a quality product. Their coffee is roasted to perfection. It’s not bitter and has an excellent taste. That’s why it sells so well,” said Crills.

That’s not the only advantage the product has.

Whiff Roasters has a loyal following, with customers who date back to the Spill the Beans era, according to Crills.

And like Stauffers, Whiff Roasters also is a home-grown business.

“That is important to Stauffers because we like to support and promote our local business partners,” Crills said.

The other 5 percent of Whiff Roasters’ revenue comes from its retail business, which includes sales at the shop, via the phone and online.

Keith Frey declined to specify Whiff Roasters’ annual sales.

The Freys bought Whiff Roasters from founders Dennis Tessen and his wife Peggy Woods.

The Lancaster residents are staying with the business for a transition period, then retiring.

The Freys learned months ago through a mutual friend, Elaine Ranck, that Tessen and Woods were thinking about selling their business.

Ranck handles billing, accounts and other office work at Hoober Feeds, where Jenessa Frey used to work.

Jenessa Frey, who was an equine specialist and marketing director for Hoober Feeds, credited Ranck for not only introducing her to Whiff Roasters, but for alerting her to the availability of the business.

“My friend (Ranck) said, ‘You should look into it’...,” said Jenessa Frey.  “She saw the vision before my husband and  I did.”

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