Apr 7, 2007
High-Value Crops Perfect for High-Value Land

Over the years, northern Maryland has changed from a bucolic rural countryside into a high rent district.

Soaring land prices have driven out certain kinds of farming, but farmers who have changed what they produce are doing pretty well.

“We need a crop that grosses $10,000 an acre for us to consider growing it,” said Phil Johnson, owner of Walnut Springs Farm, located in Elkton, Md., near the border with Pennsylvania. The Mason-Dixon Line runs through the farm.

A member of the board of directors of the North American Strawberry Growers Association, he and his family talked about their farm during a “farm showcase” session at NASGA’s winter meeting in Savannah, Ga., in January.

The Johnson family’s crop choices these days are strawberries and black raspberries, joined recently by blueberries and sweet cherries. The cherries were planted last year and will be grown under high tunnels. Most everything is offered u-pick because labor in their area is in short supply. Educational tours for school kids also produce a stream of revenue.

Phil, 68, witnessed the evolution. His father, Warren, started the farm in 1934 and raised turkeys on pasture. When President Harry Truman started the tradition of obtaining a turkey for the White House Thanksgiving, he got it from Warren, and Warren got a photograph commemorating the occasion. The family saw the future in direct marketing and retailed the turkeys from the farm.

Daughter Molly Brumbley, who’s now doing the sweet cherry project, remembers slaughtering, picking and selling turkeys right from the farm.

When Phil graduated from Penn State and joined the farm in 1961, they grew grain and produced hogs and cattle as well as turkeys. Back then, Warren controlled 325 acres and six farms. In 1975, Phil bought half of the 100-acre home farm and planted a few acres of strawberries and tomatoes that became a sideline to the full-time hog operation that continued to 1990. Today, they grow crops on just 20 acres. In addition to the berries and cherries, they still raise a few acres of pumpkins, asparagus and rhubarb. Some of the farm’s hilly ground is used to raise sorghum as a rotation crop and rye for the straw needed to mulch the strawberries. One of Phil’s big interests over the year has been conservation. The farm is all terraced.

So, while the farm has gotten smaller, income per acre has multiplied greatly compared to the $300 or so corn and soybeans can generate.

The Johnsons – Phil and Ruth Ann – have three children who love farming and the farm but chose other careers, all agriculturally related. Daughter Betsy Freese moved to Iowa years ago and is the livestock editor for Successful Farming. She also has a farm, raising hogs and sheep. Son Ross lives close by but owns a business selling farm equipment. His company, Mid-Atlantic AgriSystems, sells manure tankers and injectors.

Daughter Molly and her cousin, Jennifer Arter, have developed much closer ties to the farm. Between the two, they have three new “projects” that are reshaping the farm operation.

That’s fine with Phil. He’s got a 50- by 50-foot shop in which he restores antique farm machinery and builds reproduction furniture. He’s also active in NASGA and works with a group trying to start a farm museum. Ruth Ann continues her work at the county public library. They have no plans to retire, but the farm operation seems to be shifting toward the next generation.

That started with Jennifer Arter, the daughter of Phil’s brother. Formerly a school science teacher, she decided to stay closer to home with her two youngest children. Seven years ago, she and Phil arranged a deal and started a school tour business.

“She started the program from scratch,” he said. “I lease her the use of the facilities for a percentage of the gross.”

Each year from May to November, Jennifer offers tours of the farm to schoolchildren.

“There are a lot of agritainment enterprises around here,” Phil said. “Hers is strictly educational.”

Phil provides tractors and wagon and farm buildings, including a converted sow barn and pig nursery. Jennifer keeps the barn full of animals and does all the scheduling and runs the educational program. She provides an educational agenda for elementary and middle school students and offers team-building courses. Teachers like the educational agenda.
Programming is custom-tailored for each age group, and there are several props to help out. One is the “Labyrinth of Learning,” a maze-like creation, inside the barn for climate control, filled with hands-on stations that are agriculture science-based.

Students try to identify antique farm tools. Kids can play vegetable games in the mystery barn, vegetable bowling, green tomato basketball and throwing corn through a scarecrow’s mouth. Mystery barn presentations include songs and stories about how strawberry plants grow.

Kids meet the farm animals in the barn, take a wagon ride to the blossoming strawberry fields and zoom down a giant strawberry slide.

The activities have an overall purpose to encourage team spirit and cooperation and to challenge kids physically and mentally.

“Our goal at Walnut Springs is to provide a quality educational program that gives students a hands-on experience relevant to their world,” Jen says on the Web site, www.strawberryfarm.com. The Web site was started in 2000 and has been a big help promoting the school tour business.

Jennifer also offers a traveling show called “Exploring Your World.” Based on portable educational displays, she uses it during the winter.

As both a former teacher and the youth minister at her church, Jen relates to children ¬– and puts them to work, among other things. Phil said it takes real effort to get enough reliable labor to run their farm, but Jennifer has managed to do it.

While most of the strawberries are offered u-pick, Jennifer caters to older folks who are long-time customers by mustering young people who pick about 1,500 quarts a week. She’s also involved in a new project. In 2004, she planted two acres of blueberries on the farm

“She’s doing blueberries like I’m doing cherries,” Molly said. “Both crops tie into the harvest window of our established customer base and they extend the season somewhat.”

Three years ago, Molly got a revitalized interest in the farm when she saw potential for growing sweet cherries under high tunnels. In the fall of 2003, Molly and Phil traveled to England to see the Haygrove high tunnel operation and came back enthusiastic about sweet cherries. Typically on the East Coast, sweet cherries are done in by a combination of freezes, bacterial canker and rain that cracks the cherries as harvest time nears.

“We went to see strawberries but were really impressed by the cherries,” Molly said. “It is potentially the highest-value pick-your-own crop and would fit right in with our operation.”

That became Molly’s project.

“I was looking for a way to have my own investment in the farm and to do something innovative,” she said. “I also wanted my children to be able to grow up the way I did.”

Her two daughters are 10 and 13.

Molly has worked for Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit as a commercial farm real estate appraiser since graduating from Penn State 23 years ago. Her financial calculations showed the cherry project would cost money to start, but the market was good in their area and the high tunnels could control frost, rain, birds and disease.

“We had a 900-foot strip of land with no frost problems, good soil and trickle irrigation,” Phil said. “I leased her the two acres. She got a loan and is doing the whole thing on her own. We’re figuring on an 80 percent crop each year and the potential for a high gross income.”

Molly looks at the numbers this way. The cost of a high tunnel with three bays, 84 feet wide and 900 feet long, is about 70 cents a square foot, or $50,000. It covers 1.65 acres, or 72,000 square feet. It costs about $15 a tree for dwarf varieties and the stake to put them on. The 1.65 acres took 968 trees.

On a per acre basis, the figures came down to $30,000 for the tunnel, $8,700 for the trees and stakes, and $3,600 for site preparation, which included installing trickle irrigation, growing and incorporating cover crops and applying lots of spent mushroom compost to boost organic matter. That’s about a $42,000 per acre investment.

By the third and fourth year, she expects the trees will yield about 20 pounds each, selling for at least $2 a pound and generating $22,400 in revenue per acre. In the fifth year and after, yields will be 40 pounds per tree or more, and revenue should be at least $44,800 per acre.

Annual operating costs could take up to half the gross, but should be much less than that, Molly said. Likewise, $2 a pound is modest, she said.

“Hopefully, we can get much more than that. There is enough demand. We know that.”Phil is very complimentary about how his daughter approached the project, both culturally and economically.

Molly wants her dad to get most of the credit.

“He’s a grower,” she said. “He’s never had a full-time hired hand. He is an outdoor guy used to doing a lot of work. His strawberry fields were always meticulously organized and free of weeds.

“This is a team effort. Dad’s knowledge of irrigation and growing plants is extensive and will be very useful. But he left the cherry project up to me.

“Growing cherries on the East Coast is a risky proposition,” she said. “The cherry trees must live, and cherry trees love to die.”

Molly chose “livable varieties” – those she thinks will do well – and put them on Gisela 5 rootstock “to get the high density planting that makes the tunnels feasible economically.”

“Tunnels are an insurance policy so I can get a crop harvested.”

The trees were planted three rows per bay, at about twice the usual orchard density, on a planting with six- by eight-foot spacing and 10-foot tractor alleys. Drip irrigation was installed underground, two lines for each row of trees.

Tree management is time consuming. The goal is to keep them to 10 feet tall. The trees are being trained to a modified Zahn axis, which means continual renewing by taking out larger limbs and keeping trees short and in their space.

“Each tree must be managed as an individual,” Molly said.

Hopefully, they will be able to control bacterial canker by summer pruning and an aggressive copper fungicide program.

Molly said she is optimistic. With plenty of customers and cherries overlapping the berry season, sales ought to be brisk. The cherries will be offered u-pick, like the berries.

The tunnels will help reduce frost problems, allow cherries to stay on the trees longer for better ripeness and flavor, allow harvest no matter what the weather, reduce the bane of cracking caused by rain, reduce disease pressure and chemical costs and provide protection from birds. At least, that’s the theory.

Trees were planted last year and the tunnels have been purchased but not yet installed. They’ll go up this spring. While they won’t be needed to protect a fruit crop this season, they should provide some disease protection. In the future, when less invigorating summer pruning is used to contain the trees, the tunnels will help protect pruning cuts from invasion by disease.

The whole family is pleased. Their goals were to keep the family farm intact, provide ongoing income as Phil and Ruth Ann gradually retire, continue to be innovative growers trying new techniques, transition the farm to the younger generation and teach their kids what farming’s all about. At the same time, they’ll serve customers and provide them an opportunity to participate in the farming experience.

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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