Ways to Reduce Your Labor in 2019

Everyone who is managing a commercial apple orchard in New York State is concerned with whether they will have enough labor to harvest the new crop. I operated my family farm for over 30 years. Too often I was guilty of the concepts I will challenge you with. I know that what I am suggesting is not easy, but it may be the difference between you just surviving and seeing a profit.

To begin let me pose a question to you. Are you managing orchards that are productive but not profitable? Have the markets shifted away from these blocks? Will these blocks struggle to break even? If this is the case than you need to ask yourself why you are continuing to operate these blocks. Bushels alone do not guarantee profit. If those bushels have to be sold at a discount to move them are they doing you any good? Have newer strains found shelf space in their place? Am I having to house extra men to harvest these apples? Am I mowing, fertilizing, spraying and pruning these blocks often times more in an effort to meet color requirements? More than 100 apple varieties are grown commercially in the United States. Fifteen of those varieties represent 90% of the production.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Most of agriculture’s history enjoyed the fact that if you were able to grow a crop you could find a use for it. Distribution systems were such that you could find a “profitable” utilization for your efforts. In essence, if you grew it there would be a consumer waiting for it. Those days are gone here and globally. Today we need to farm from the shopping cart to our farm gate. They decide if they want your product. They have more choices than demand for each product. They are no longer in a consumer position to accept marginal quality.

Recently it was announced that the Gala variety has replaced the Red Delicious (dates back to 1870) as the most popular variety. Long standing varieties such as the Macintosh, that was discovered in 1811, and the Cortland, that was discovered around 1900, are understandably under great consumer challenge. Newer varieties have arrived. Consumers have diversity today in the market place. As they review and cast their vote at the checkout counters we need to take notice. They are sending us clear messages as to what they prefer. If we ignore this then we should not be surprised when our sales for older varieties decline.

I am not suggesting that any one variety is no longer profitable. I am asking each of you to evaluate your particular marketing program and react to those trends. At one time in my farm history I grew profitably over 100 acres of pears. The markets I was associated with made this a profitable venture. In the last years I was managing my farm it all changed. I was investing in removal of pears in favor of other newer apple varieties. What was once a sound program had shifted due to consumer buying trends.  As I alluded to earlier, I was guilty of holding on too long as well.

In conclusion, before you expand your housing take a good look at what you are needing to harvest. If you are gearing up to harvest crops that are productive but not profitable you need to step back. We all need to shift to meet consumer demands. The entire globe is eating better. Consumers everywhere have a higher income that allows them to select what they will eat. Be certain you are striving to match those trends.

 

Another Season Is Here Already

By the time you read this, assuming it does not get put on your future read pile, I will be back assisting in another harvest. I find these periods of helping with harvest vital to my staying in touch with you.  Yes, I was fifth generation farm family. The truth is I suspect that no matter what your craft, if you are more than 10 years removed from active duty your true perspective is flawed.  Much is the same as when I farmed but much is new.

I am a believer that if you wish to truly judge a topic it is best to experience it, if possible. A good example might be in education. If a teacher has not taught a classroom in over 10 years, I question if they understand all the baggage each child brings to class. Similarly, if a principal judges his faculty on his experiences of years teaching in the past I question his true perspective. My years of farming are a base, but I need to take off my dress shoes and lace up the work boots, in my opinion, to truly see the challenges. I am grateful for the opportunity to attempt to stay current.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

If all that I have stated to this point makes sense to you than I ask you a second question. How can our elected officials make sound decisions on your behalf? They can if they have access to people who wear those work boots and make the effort to enlighten them. If the “boots on the ground” crowd decides to stay away that void is quickly filled by those who have zero feedback from the farms. In the last few years I have been very encouraged to see new faces (many times with familiar last names) stepping up to make the effort to discuss the issues when called upon. There is no substitute for living the realities of agriculture 2018.

The last view point I wish to make is that of your consumer. We need to continue to inform and share our farming experiences with our consumers. Each year most of our consumers have no contact with you, the producer. They are not your enemy but they clearly have no sense of reality of your pressures.  On a daily basis I see farm vehicles drive by my home that exceed the net value of the homes they are passing. Is it any wonder the average consumer is left with the initial opinion that the farmer is doing quite well. The second startling reality that most of the American consumers has no idea how small a percentage of the Farm Bill goes to serving farms.  They assume their tax dollars are helping each of you at a very high cost to their taxes.

In closing, I am making the case that each of us must make the time to discuss our issues. We also must make certain we are current on our opinions. I find today a very big question that is floated to me is on trade. Make certain you research your answers before sharing one. As I have already stated, the halls of Congress are filled with people who have never stepped one foot on a farm.  Each year changes the narrative. It is essential we each keep informed and then be willing to share our opinions for the advancement of all.

When Will We Stop Being A Work In Process?

I am going to ask you a simple question. You may GOOGLE this later to fact check my answer. What do the following companies all have in common? Dell, GM, Ford, Kodak, Block Buster, Micro Soft, Motorola, Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us, Sony, Yahoo, Xerox, Border Books, Blackberry, Polaroid and of course the home of the Twinkie, Hostess? They are examples of once strong companies that felt they owned the MARKET and did not need to invest in research. I might even be so bold to include the Washington apple industry. I can recall a few short years ago when Washington felt the entire world would always crave a red or yellow delicious apple. They scoffed at eastern growers for having such a vast line of varieties. I need not tell you, orchards in Washington State bear little resemblance to life in the not so distant past.

At the close of WW11 farms could actually conduct business with the attitude, ‘if we grow what we want the markets will consume it’. Business ran from the plow to the consumer. Today all is changed. Informed agriculture realizes that the flow is from the shopping cart back to the plow. Today we are many generations removed from an American society that nearly every family could lay a connection to some farm roots. The modern consumer craves for the taste of the produce from the past. The rise of grown local and the home grown labels that are today common. They want flavor and safety in knowing the produce they are consuming is safe. What they do not understand they shy away from. (GMOs for example.)

To meet this trend we must not be an industry from the above list. We must find ways to produce for the modern consumer. She is as diverse as the many cars on the road. Henry Ford was certain we all would be happy to drive ‘black’ cars. GM and Ford had to almost declare bankruptcy before they were willing to make much improved, longer lasting more fuel efficient cars.

The New York industry to its credit has been re-inventing itself. We have much more to accomplish. Not only must we be willing to offer newer, crisper better flavors to our consumers. They want us to do so with safer chemicals to both the end users and the environment. To accomplish this we need to invest in research. Not too long ago the industry voted to double its self-assessment for applied research. This spurred a respect for our willingness to change. The NYS Senate when presented with our story matched our contribution. Great news. The issue is are we doing enough and fast enough?

There are two major categories for research. Private and publically funded. Private is of course important but it carries with it the baggage of being both biased and self-serving. I am not certain if the general public always trusts BIG BUSINESS to make all of these decisions.  Publically funded research may be the way to go to meet the needs of a hungry industry for knowledge and in keeping the consumer’s confidence.

As a grower I tended to make my farming decisions heavily from Extension or University studies. I felt they offered a much more objective opinion.  We must find ways to embrace knowledge from all sides. The challenge is how to finance this? I think we are on the correct path. We need to continue to be willing to invest our own funds from our own pockets.  As I have indicated we have a new partner. That consumer who no longer has a distant agriculture tie to her food supply, I think is willing to see public funds to drive this innovation. The gains we make are not for the sole benefit of the few farmers but all consumers. You may grow apples but your family consumes food from the entire food supply.

So the correct reply to my title is I hope we never feel so complacent that we resist innovation. As farmers we claim to be GROWERS. We must always strive for new ways to be better growers. Investing in research is essential to our continued survival.