BALLSTON SPA -- This weekend marked the opening of the 15th season of the Ellms Family Farm's agritainment business, including its corn maze and pick-your-own pumpkin patch.
This year's opening marks a major transition for the 252 acre, family-owned enterprise, which also sells Christmas trees, as Chip and Sally Ellms have sold their business to their son, Garth, and two daughters, Sasha Ellms Presessien and Ashley Ellms DiPaola.
The Ellms, who first purchased the former Chalton Road Farm in 1983, planted Christmas Trees which they began selling in 1990. In 2005, the Ellms opened the corn maze and pumpkin patch.
In 2014, Chip and Sally sold the farm's land to Garth, and in January, he acquired 80 percent of the fall agritainment business with each of his two sisters acquiring 10 percent each.
"With the fall business, it lasts for six weeks and it's very labor intensive. That was something my parents wanted to slow down on at 71-years old," Garth said.
Garth said the Ellms Family Farm's fall business hosts about 3,000 school children on field trips per week during the six-week season, and 120 birthday parties. He said his sister Ashley Ellms DiPaola organizes the school trip and party aspect of the business.
In another two years, Garth said he will gradually grow into owning 80 percent of the Christmas tree business, as saplings he owns and planted five years ago reach maturity.
Garth lives with his parents, while his two sisters live on houses built on acres carved out of the the farm property. The sisters are married and between them have seven children.
"Living at home is one of the ways I have enough money to do all of this," Garth said.
Another way is by establishing successful businesses and careers outside of the farm. Garth said he recently heard a woman at the fall business remark on the success of the Ellms Family Farm.
"Basically she said the farm was supporting the three nicest houses on the street, but we laughed because the only way we have money to do these things is by working off the farm," he said.
Garth said his family is originally from the Boston area. He said his father was a chemical engineer who ran the East Coast division of a pulp and paper company, while his mother taught third grade for 30 years.
Garth said it cost nearly $1 million in cash and sweat equity to purchase his parent's land and businesses, enabling them to cash out of their investment and still keep the enterprise in the family's possession. He said when he graduated from college in 2005, he knew the only way he'd be able to purchase the Ellms Family Farm was to start his own company, make it successful and then sell it, which is what he did.
Garth Ellms created a business that organizes beer festivals and 5K fun runs, what would eventually become known as Townsquare Active. He said he helped create the first Saratoga Brewfest in 2010 and Saratoga Beer Week.
Last year he stepped down from his role as vice president at the company he had sold, and devoted himself full-time to running his family's business. He said that while the Ellms Family Farm is self-sustaining, it is not profitable, because it reinvests its earnings into the company.
He said his need to create business equity of his own is illustrative of the plight of many family farms.
"It's hard to transition ownership of an agribusiness, like Christmas trees, because typically the family member that wants to do it is working on the farm and there's no money to purchase a farm unless you take out a big loan or get outside investors. The farm doesn't even support one family basically," he said.
Garth said he has plans to get a farm brewery license and wants to expand the retail offerings at the business. He said he's also purchased another 112 acres around the property in the towns of Ballston and Charlton, in order to secure the family's long term investment. He said his father was involved in creating the farmland protection plan for the town of Charlton.
"I actually sat on the committee and helped write the town of Ballston farmland protection plan," he said.
Charlton Supervisor Alan Grattidge said the Ellms Family Farm is a great family business.
"We've been very supportive of all of their activities. They've been great community neighbors. The Town Board supports their operation. When the town updated its comprehensive plan we highlighted agriculture as being one of the important legacies of Charlton and we encourage agritourism," he said.