The United Nations has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming. As the New England Farmers Union (NEFU) kicks off a year of celebrating the family farmer, we look to Brookdale Fruit Farm, a Century Farm, to learn the secrets of its longevity.
Brookdale is a diversified operation based in Hollis, N.H., that has been owned and operated by the Hardy family for more than 100 years. Brookdale has seen a lot of changes since its beginning as a subsistence farm in 1847.
The Hardy family grows more than 300 acres in apples and small fruits and another 100 acres in vegetables. They sell to about 20 Hannaford and Shaw's supermarkets and to many farmstands. Customers come from all over New England to pick their own berries, cherries, apples and pumpkins, and to visit the well-stocked on-site farmstand.
Chip Hardy, a member of the fifth generation, helps run Brookdale today. He knows there are many factors involved in the farm's success.
"For us, operating for so many years means we have had to make a lot of changes and do many different things," he said. Certainly diversification supports the viability of many family farms, and Brookdale is no exception.
"Weather is Brookdale's biggest challenge, but the fact that we are diversified helps minimize it. If one crop fails due to an early freeze, then there are other crops," Hardy explained. Brookdale has also diversified its production area (the farm occupies two noncontiguous tracts), production practices (organic production has been started), and marketing and distribution. The family also runs a garden supply company and an irrigation products company.
A diverse operation maximizes success, as does access to a large market. "With our location, we have a good customer base close by," Hardy noted. A populous area not far from Boston, Hollis gives Brookdale ready access to wholesale and retail markets, and the region's customers increasingly demand the fresh, local food that Brookdale supplies.
Hollis is a town with a long agricultural history. As the farm has expanded, the Hardy family has been able to buy or lease land from now-defunct family farms, and the town's residents enjoy the agricultural aesthetic that Brookdale stewards.
Members of the Hardy family have been good caretakers of the land. In 2000, Brookdale won the Ag-Earth Partnership's Millennium Farm/Ranch Family Award.
A coalition of more than 70 agricultural organizations, the Ag-Earth Partnership highlights ongoing stewardship efforts that are helping America's farmers and ranchers contribute to clean water and air, healthy soil, sustainable forestry, environmental quality, and improved habitat and open space.
One example of the farm's commitment to the land is the fact that Brookdale was one of the first farms in the region to adopt integrated pest management practices. In addition, the family has protected the land from development through the transfer of development rights under the state Land Conservation Investment Program.
The formula for success is more than diversification, location and land stewardship. "The whole family shares a focus on always doing things better, and everyone seems to find their own area of expertise," said Hardy. Perhaps most important to Brookdale's success is the entrepreneurial energy- an openness to new ideas and an eagerness to create new opportunities- that has been a Hardy family hallmark, generation after generation.
Hardy's father, Elwin "Stub" Hardy, embodied that spirit. A longtime apple farmer, he became interested in new dwarf and semidwarf apple varieties. After becoming active in the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA), he converted several acres to dwarf fruit tree production. Yields increased dramatically, from 425 to 2,000 bushels an acre, while management costs decreased. Last winter, IFTA honored Stub for his 30 years of service. Unfortunately, Stub had passed away just a month before.
Hardy brings entrepreneurial energy to his crop management responsibilities. Embracing new technology, he engages in "precision farming" to create the best possible product with the least environmental impact and lowest labor requirements.
An advocate for fertigation, Hardy said, "We precisely apply nutrients through the irrigation system; that way we virtually eliminate runoff. And we can target nutrients to the particular crops. Honeycrisps require more nutrients than some other apple varieties." Using drip systems, the Hardys have also greatly reduced their water usage.
Each family member has found a small business to run. Hardy's brother, Rick, manages the farm store, which features local meat, cheese and baked goods along with Brookdale's harvest. Rick oversees several acres of organic production, planted in response to customer interest. The farm was awarded Best Organic Farmstand in 2009. Hardy's wife, Leigh, runs the pick-your-own operation and the apple shipping business. Their son, Trevor, who holds an engineering degree, runs a relatively new business supplying local farms with irrigation products and offering advice on irrigation system design.
Paired with the Hardys' entrepreneurial spirit is a sense of family legacy. Family members teach the next generation the intricacies of the business. Hardy and his son Tyler oversee the wholesale business. Hardy's uncle, Frank Whittemore, and his aunt, Eleanor Hardy Whittemore, oversee the farm business with office help from their daughter, Joan.
Challenges certainly exist; labor and regulations top Hardy's list of concerns-after weather issues, of course.
"We can manage our land and grow the most perfect fruit, but if we don't have the labor force to harvest it, it's worthless," Hardy said. He follows immigration reform and H-2A regulations. He also worries about new food safety rules. "We are already GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] certified," he noted. "But the food safety regulations look like they will be another very big hurdle to get over."
For NEFU, supporting family farmers is nothing new. As a grassroots organization, our family-farmer members set our policy priorities. NEFU works to aggregate our member concerns into effective advocacy. As we join the international community to celebrate the International Year of Family Farming, we maintain our grassroots structure to best mirror the entrepreneurial energy of our members. Join us (http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org/membership/join) and be heard.
Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for New England Farmers Union.