Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A Bucks County town shut down a farm’s events and wine shop. So the farmer is running for office.

For nearly two years, the Torrice family in Bucks County has fought Hilltown authorities over zoning citations for the family's farm, Tabora. Caleb Torrice, incensed by what he saw as increasingly punitive measures, has struck back, with a political campaign.

Patricia and Caleb Torrice at Tabora Farm & Orchard's store.
Patricia and Caleb Torrice at Tabora Farm & Orchard's store.Read moreWilliam Thomas Cain / CAIN IMAGES

As the months passed by and an increasingly bitter zoning dispute threatened to upend his Bucks County family farm, Caleb Torrice fretted — about the future, about the loss of revenue, about the fee for his lawyer, now charging well into the triple digits an hour.

Torrice and his wife, Patricia, co-owners of Tabora Farm and Orchard in Hilltown, were cited in March for operating the farm’s long-standing delicatessen and wine shop without permits, illegally building an apartment without a fire sprinkler, and hosting events that town officials said were billed as agricultural entertainment but only loosely related to farming.

The Torrices addressed the citations and cut 15 of their 25 annual events after the town zoning board ruled in December that they had to close the wine shop and end nonagricultural events but allowed their farm store, bakery, and deli to remain.

A month later, Hilltown’s three-member Board of Supervisors, headed by chairman Jack McIlhinney, appealed the zoning board’s decision and sought to shutter the deli and all outdoor events. Despite evidence that some of the violations had been present before the Torrices took over the farm in 2008 and that town authorities have been long aware of operations there, the supervisors pressed on.

So Torrice decided to run for one of the Board of Supervisors seats.

He won the GOP nomination in May with 611 votes, or 49%, by beating David R. Christ, the chair for Hilltown’s Planning Commission, and John Wietecha, a farmer who has served on the town’s agricultural security board for nine years. He will face Democrat Steve Kendra, a political newcomer who has served as president of the Hilltown Civic Association, on Nov. 5.

Torrice carries with him the support of thousands of customers, many of whom have long traveled to the rural, woodsy town of a little more than 15,000 just to visit Tabora.

“It’s fair to say that part of the reason I was extra motivated was the township and how they reacted to our farm," he said. “It’s unnecessary. It’s ridiculous. We’re not a land developer. We’re a family farm."

The Torrices, who bought the farm for $2.1 million in 2014 after leasing it for six years, have grown fruit and flowers, while at the same time running the store, bakery and deli that the farm’s previous owners started. In 2010, the Torrices added a wine shop in a corner of their farm store, while expanding their event calendar to include cultural festivals, yoga gatherings, and holiday brunches. Business thrived for years, in large part because of the events, the family said — and then they were told to stop.

Now the family is permitted to host only pick-your-own crop events that span summer and fall.

So Torrice’s election platform is personal: Establish official rules in Hilltown specifically about agritainment — a mashup of agriculture and entertainment that has increasingly kept small farms afloat — and demand transparency from the supervisors.

“Agritainment, agrotourism — it’s certainly been utilized on quite a number of farms across the state,” said Mark O’Neill, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. “For some of them, it has been a huge part of their business plan. For others, it’s been a more supplemental means of getting income.”

The rules about agritainment in Pennsylvania are highly variable, O’Neill said, rarely with a centralized source of authority that can establish a consistent set of policies.

“We have over 5,000 municipalities,” he said. “When a lot of them have their own laws that basically control what is and is not allowed, some of the biggest issues we have is the lack of conformity where something is an issue in one township and not an issue in another.”

Murky or absent ordinances can cause expensive conflict, as in the Torrices’ case. They have spent close to $70,000 in lawyer fees fighting Hilltown.

If Torrice wins a supervisor seat in November, he will serve alongside McIlhinney, the supervisor who has most assiduously mounted the effort to shutter much of Tabora’s operations.

Ostensibly, Torrice said, it could be awkward. Not that he’s dissuaded.

“Farmers are actually pretty good politicians," he said. “We wear a lot of hats. We manage things fast, and we deal with the public, and a lot of farmers have been very successful politicians.”

McIlhinney did not respond to a request for comment, nor did supervisors Jim Groff or Ken Bennington, who is leaving his post.

If Torrice is elected, he would have to recuse himself from matters related to Tabora. But the supervisors’ case against his farm could be drawing to a close as Hilltown’s lawyer, Stephen B. Harris, says he is navigating the terms of a negotiation with the Torrices and their lawyer, Robert W. Gundlach.

Harris declined to speak about the specifics of the negotiation, calling it confidential. Gundlach did not respond to a request for comment.

“We want it resolved in a way that allows Tabora to continue, but at the same time does not create a hardship for neighbors to Tabora," Harris said, referencing reports from some neighbors who complained that Tabora hosted noisy events late into the night that drew hundreds of customers.

However, Hilltown has no plans to set an official agritainment policy, Harris said.

“None of the supervisors has said, ‘Hey, Steve, draft an agritainment ordinance,’” Harris said. “Hopefully, there will be an agreement and that will set the parameters for what Tabora can and cannot do. As far as everyone else, it will just be judged on what they’re planning to do or not do.”

“Pennsylvania is somewhat slow” when it comes to agritainment ordinances, Torrice said, but “the public clamors for it.”

“Our objective is to right the ship and get us back on the right course," he said. “And maybe work with one gentleman who has a little bit too much power.”