Agritourism leader reflects on career spanning five decades
By Deborah J. Sergeant
Q: You’ve been in agriculture since you were 6. What are the biggest differences you have observed between then and now?
A: The sophistication of it. Back in the 50s and 60s, what we thought at that time was very challenging and difficult, that was the precursor to what’s happened over the last 15, 10 and even five years. There are so many differences, like the requirements for safety and production and the variety and choices for plants. We’re using much better seeds now, like the super sweet corn. We can pick varieties that three weeks later in the fridge are still just as good.
Q: You operate an agritourism farm. What is the public’s view of agriculture?
A: It probably needs to be addressed better. The farm provides all that they eat. There are generations not in touch with agriculture. When I was a boy, everyone knew someone in agriculture or they were in agriculture. There’s a big gap between those who have knowledge of agriculture and those who do not. People don’t understand it. People come to the farm and farm market and don’t realize how much is involved. They thought apples were just picked off a tree and sold from a table. When they come to the farms, they see the good and sometimes the complications of agriculture: insects, diseases, weather, machinery break-downs. They get to see what really goes on at farms.
Q: How does technology affect farming?
A: It works into the favor of agriculture. Production is becoming much more affordable because we can track weather, soil conditions, and plant needs for nutrients. The equipment has a lot more technology. There are a lot of new strategies in product marketing of ag products.
Q: What are the keys to staying in business for small, family-owned farms?
A: It’s impossible unless you are very upbeat on profit-loss margins. If you’re really paying attention, you can exist and do well. There’s a failure in that line. I’ve seen a number of farms over the years that think they’re making money but they’re really so far in debt that they fold. There is so much competition in pricing and marketing. The cost of labor, utilities, and seeds. The young generation of professional agriculturists are well in tuned. The lack of ability to create and understand mark-ups have caused a lot of farms to fail. One farmer brought me a bin of apples that was priced for 10 years ago. I told him I could not pay him that because his apples were worth a lot more and I gave him a fair price. Professional level farmers are aware of the demand for good, high quality products and they get those prices.
Q: How helpful is formal agricultural education?
A: The hands-on learning allows an immediate step into agriculture. Hands-on is the greatest asset. There’s more than just going to school. I’ve seen some go to school and come back and still don’t know how to start a tractor. There are some great agricultural institutions out there, but just getting a degree isn’t as helpful as hands-on if you have no background in agriculture. But getting an education coming back to take over the parents’ farm can really help out a lot.
Q: What is one of the biggest barriers to new farmers?
A: The cost of equipment, if you are a beginner going into agriculture. I have two neighbors who did that. They bought a lot of equipment and went belly-up in three years. They had no clue how much machinery cost, when to plant stuff, what to do when something doesn’t go right.
Q: What are your goals for the farm?
A: I want to become more efficient. That’s the biggest goal, make sure we’re staying on top of newer varieties. Apples can be five years out before harvest, and Christmas trees, seven years out. You have to be aware of what’s new. Keeping up with all the requirements by EPA, FDA, and DCC. I’d like to transfer the farm over to the family, of course.