DOAG: “WE HAD A CHOICE OF EITHER GETTING OUT OF FARMING OR MAKING SOME HARD DECISIONS ON WHERE WE WERE HEADED”



 

“WE HAD A CHOICE OF EITHER GETTING OUT OF FARMING OR

MAKING SOME HARD DECISIONS ON WHERE WE WERE HEADED”

 

January 10, 2018

 

After years of work and growth that made them the largest producer of snap beans in New England, Michele and Billy Collins were ready for their best season ever in 2011 at their Fair Weather Acres farm in Rocky Hill.

They had been averaging a harvest of about 2.5 million pounds of beans on 700 acres of fields, and were optimistic that they could do even better that season.

Hurricane Irene had different plans for them.

Their fields, (pictured above before and after the storm) which lie low along a curve in the Connecticut River, initially did not fare badly when Irene hit in late August.

But when all the rain that dumped up north made its way downriver and over the banks in the days that followed, the floodwaters devastated their crops and literally changed their lives.

“We were set to have our best year in 40 years,” Michele said as she and her husband spoke to a crowd of about 450 at the annual Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers Conference, organized by UConn Extension and held this week at Maneeley’s Conference Center in South Windsor.

“Instead we lost 450 acres of string beans, 15 acres of vegetables and 30 acres of pumpkins. It was a total loss – nothing was salvageable.”

The disaster made the Collins’ rethink their entire operation.

About 75 percent of their business at the time was in wholesale sale of beans, supplying most of the large chain stores in New England.

With only a small staff, the couple with two young children was typically putting in 120 hours a week in summer and fall and about 70 in the off seasons.

And despite their growth and success, the hurricane made them realize that near-stagnant wholesale prices may not be worth the effort, the risk associated with relying mainly on a single crop, and the drain on time with their family. 

That was hammered home when they came across some bean sales receipts from three decades ago as they were cleaning out some old file cabinets.

“We were getting only about a dollar more on some of the boxes,” Michele said, as prices of land, fertilizer and insurance continued to skyrocket.

“We found the margins just weren’t there anymore with wholesale. So we started to look at things really hard.”

And when their long and difficult analysis was over, she said, it came down to two options for the former dairy farm, which has been in Billy’s family for more than a century.

“We had a choice of either getting out of farming altogether or making some hard decisions on where we were headed,” Michele said. “And for us downsizing and diversifying so all our eggs weren’t in one basket was the way to go. Change was the only way we were going to be able to stay in farming.”

The need to diversify and the myriad changes they made in the following seasons were the focus of their conference presentation, called “Finding Your Sweet Spot.”

About 75 acres of their bean fields were turned over to the production of about 150 varieties of vegetables, fruit and herbs that are sold retail at the farm, allowing them to set their own prices. 

They added three new greenhouses for hydroponic tomato production and growing flowers and bedding plants, concentrating on making their offerings an alternative to the products being sold at the big-box stores all around them.

In their case, that meant creating specialty planters, as opposed to six-pack plastic starters and items in 4-inch pots.

“You can get a 4-inch geranium anywhere,” Michele said. “So you really need to set yourself apart by having something different than what everybody else has.”

The farm also began carrying its own beef, as well as local ice cream, chicken, eggs and dozens of other products grown or made in New England.

Another step forward was starting a 16-week CSA, which began with about 120 customers six years ago and now enlists about 525 in summer and 275 in the fall.

“Everything we offer we grow ourselves,” except for a few fruit items bought from local farms, Michele said, noting the benefit of the farmer’s risk being shared with their CSA customers. 

Even with the success of their CSA and many others around the state, she sees that section of their business already morphing. 

“People now not only want fresh local food, they want you to prepare it for them, pack it for them and deliver it to them,” she said. “I think all of us are going to have to start looking at doing things differently in marketing CSAs.”

Perhaps the biggest step in the farm’s transformation was the couple’s decision, after much research that took them to farms in several other states, to start an annual fall festival a few years ago that features a wide array of family activities and entertainment including a 4-acre corn maze.

Run from mid-September to late October on a parcel in Cromwell not far from their farm that is highly visible from Interstate 91, the festival and maze drew more than 35,000 visitors last season.

The Collins’ bring in an enormous amount of their own 30-acre pumpkin crop to the festival every year, and offer attractions like a pedal go-cart tractor track (kid and adult size tractors available), a farm-animal exhibition, a children’s jumping pillow and a 2-foot deep grain corn pit with a playscape plunked in the middle.

“By far, people will pay for entertainment before they will pay for your produce,” Michele said at the conference, drawing chuckles from the audience. “It’s insane but it’s true, so might as well go along with it.”

Like farming, however, the festival doesn’t come without risks and other problems.

The jumping platform demands a high insurance premium due to the possibility of injuries, which are not uncommon.  

Last fall, things got a little tense on a busy day when they temporarily ran out of pumpkins, which are included in the admission price.

A truck was sent down the road to get some more pumpkins from the farm, and when it returned to the festival, Michele said, “it was mauled” by the crowd.

“We had to back people up off the truck to unload it,” she recalled. “I was thinking – you’re fighting over a gourd.”

The evolution of their farm prompted by Hurricane Irene has spread the Collins’  risk and produced “a little less praying for rain,” as their dependence on crops has decreased.

But the goals of reducing their workload, hampered by employee issues that affect almost all farms, and spending more time with family remain somewhat elusive.

Michele says that means that she and Billy simply have to continue to innovate and adapt their operation to try to achieve the balance they seek. 

“There’s no resting on your laurels,” she said. “We’re in a constant state of transition and change.”