Randell Spackman admires a flower on Thornbury Farm.
It is the haunting time of year, time for Thornbury Farm’s tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn to step aside for the business of boo.
The 300-year-old farm and its impressive ghost gallery will again hosts Ghosts 101, a class that explores the world of the paranormal, introducing guests to the stories of local ghosts and clues on how to find them. Like a growing number of farms that carve out corn mazes in the fall or offer haunted hayrides, Thornbury has reached beyond growing food for market. These days, marketing the farm as "agri-tainment" is fast becoming a secondary revenue stream and a roundabout way of generating interest in agriculture, a farm’s core business.
"It gets people on the farm," said the farm’s owner, Randell Spackman, about Ghosts 101. Once on the farm, people realize "we have more to offer, we’re not just ghosts. We have apples."
There is an increase in "agri-tainment," said Winifred McGee, extension director at Pennsylvania State University’ Lebanon County Cooperative Extension office, who teaches business classes for farmers or individuals who would like to become involved in agriculture. "There is a Lebanon County farm family that started a small manufacturing plant on the farm property," McGee said. "They bottle milk, make ice cream ... visitors can go outside where there are goats to pet." "There is more and more interest in agri-tainment."
The non-farming community has embraced it, as well. "People are looking for something exciting to do in the community, something close by," McGee said. McGee teaches "Your Future in Focus," a business class that helps people with new ideas develop business plans for agri-tainment, agri-literacy and agri-tourism. "A lot off people are looking for alternatives," McGee said, noting the number of people interested in the class is increasing.
Agri-literacy is the effort to educate the community about farming, such as farm tours for school classes or scout troops. Agri-tourism brings in visitors from outside the community. Locally, the Chester County Wine Trail and the proposed Chester County Cheese Trail would qualify.
Even Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, has its place as value-added agriculture. "It enables people to learn how food is grown," McGee said about the system where CSA members pay in advance for farm-grown products, sharing in the farmer’s risk. "It puts a face on the food consumed by the family."
While McGee has heard of haunted hayrides and fall corn mazes, Ghosts 101 is a first for her. Spackman said he got the idea for the Ghosts 101 class after the SyFy Channel’s production company came out to the farm and filmed a Ghost Hunters’ TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) episode in the spring of 2009.
Matt Meltzer of Pilgrim Films & Television, the production company that films Ghost Hunters episodes and licenses them to Syfy, said the company had heard about paranormal activity at Thornbury Farm. "We found it intriguing enough to follow up," Meltzer said in a phone interview from the production company’s Los Angeles headquarters. The Ghost Hunters show about Thornbury Farm, located in the 1200 block of Thornbury Road in Thornbury, Chester County, was televised in the fall of 2009.
Ghosts 101 is scheduled for Oct. 23 but more tours will be added in November if the demand is there, Spackman said.
Ghosts 101, with instructor Deborah Estep, starts with a look at what the TV show found, Spackman said. Topics include dreams, speaking
with ghosts and what they are telling you.
The farm’s historic house is not open to the public or the class.
"You don’t have to be in a building to get answers," Spackman said. "This is spook central."
The farm, founded in 1709, has been in the Spackman family for 75 years. The property is the site of the final troop engagement of the Battle of the Brandywine. Heavy losses of troops were recorded on each side. Two mass burial sites exist on the property.
Years before Ghost Hunters showed up, parapsychology researchers at Duke University came out to investigate paranormal activity in the 1980s, Spackman said. They reported the activity of the spirit of the original owner, who hung himself over the farm’s hand-dug well, the ghost of a man found frozen to death in a window well of a former building and the ghost of a soldier in the back staircase next to home’s "coffin" door, an architectural term used to describe a specific type of door. The soldier’s spirit on occasion blocks the path of the home’s occupants use of the stairs, according to Spackman.
When it comes to agri-tainment, Thornbury Farm’s Ghosts 101 is just the start. The farm also offers a stargazing class, canning and bread baking classes, all to give the participants the experience of Colonial days, Spackman said. All the classes, including Ghosts 101, take place at the farm market in the outdoor classroom that Spackman built.
In addition to farming and related activities, Spackman is the owner of Thornbury Services, a landscaping design business the builds backyard walkways, decks, bridges, outdoor stone fireplaces, water gardens, waterfalls and home putting greens. It is Thornbury Services that keeps the roof on Spackman’s house and allows him to try new things in an effort to expand the agriculture side of the farm, he said.
Spackman also uses education to market the farm by offering school tours for younger students as well as internships in organic gardening for college students. The community was invited to Thornbury Farm in late August when it hosted its first festival, an event that showcased local wines, food and restaurants. Proceeds were donated to The Concept School in Westtown.
"There was a lot of community interaction at the festival," Spackman said, and that included people who had never been on the farm before. Thornbury Farm became a CSA three years ago as another avenue to generate interest in the farm. The CSA has 100 members who pay either $675 for a large share or $375 for a smaller one to get a box of organically grown vegetables once a week from June through November. Like other CSA farmers, Spackman agrees the endeavor is a delicate balance between the farming experience and business acumen. "You have to be extremely organized, very lucky and have extremely good weather," Spackman said.