Time marches on, and American farmers are feeling it. The average age of the American farmer continues to rise. In 1984, it was 50. This year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, it’s 58.3. FFVA talked with three growers who are still active but are looking ahead to the future.
Pam Fentress grows citrus and owns Lost Lake Groves Inc. in Lake Placid, which her family founded in 1964. David Hill is owner of Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, which was launched in 1999 and grows blueberries. Paul Orsenigo grows sweet corn, green beans and leafy vegetables in Belle Glade. He’s a partner in Grower’s Management and owns Orsenigo Farms. He started farming in 1985.
FFVA: How important is it to be looking ahead to the next generation of leadership for your company and for the industry, and what steps are you taking to do so?
Hill: Planning for the future is huge with any farm, but we are blessed to have our two sons who are now working on the farm. We’re doing a lot of things looking to the future. We’re changing some things, growing and evolving, and they are a big part of that. They’re taking advantage of all of the new tools that are out there. Farming is so different now than it was 30 years ago. You’ve got information at your fingertips in a smartphone and computer that we never had. And it has helped our farm tremendously.
Fentress: I'm a seventh-generation Floridian and a fourth-generation citrus grower. Being a small grower with multiple generations of family members wanting to farm the same piece of land is tough. Over the years we've expanded our operation to accommodate, but there comes a time when it doesn't make economic sense to do so anymore. Sometimes you have to refocus, find your niche, cut your losses and move forward as lean and mean as you can.
Orsenigo: One way to approach it is to “grow from within.” My son, Derek, is part of our succession plan. We’re also constantly trying to identify people who are good candidates for employment. If you’ve done this long enough, you can quickly see whether there is desire and managerial potential in an individual. Another key quality is a connection to the land and the crop. To farm successfully, you have to continue to have an appreciation for what you do every day, even as you deal with the ups and downs and the daily details. Mentorship also is important. Someone has to mentor young people—take them out to your operations. Cultivate those relationships and try to stay in contact with them so that when they do start on their career paths, they have an opportunity and it is a mutually rewarding fit.
FFVA: When you were starting out, what was a valuable lesson you learned that made a significant impression on you?
Fentress: My grandfather used to say never marry a piece of land. And while my head can wrap around those words, my heart has a harder time keeping up. But that advice still holds true today.
Orsenigo: I learned the sense of urgency and the vigorous pace of vegetable production. You’re talking about efficient use of labor, efficient use of equipment, preparedness and responsiveness to weather events—especially drastic weather events as well as the volatile nature of our markets. I learned how critical it is to prepare and to quickly respond afterward, and the impact on the crop.
Hill: My father-in-law taught me how to farm, and he turned over the reins kind of quick. And he taught me how to delegate. In turn, I’ve learned to turn over the reins for our blueberry farm. My son Michael is the blueberry grower. When we first started out, he and I talked every day about what to do, what to spray. Now we talk about farming issues, not the nuts and bolts. He’s taken that, and I’ve got total confidence in him. His sole focus is on growing blueberries, and that has helped us. We’ve gotten really good in a real short time growing blueberries because of that.
FFVA: What words of advice or counsel would you give to the young men and women in the next generation of Florida agriculture?
Orsenigo: Work hard and work smart. People will see that in a performance situation. Have a positive attitude. It’s also important to be able to get along with people and to lead by example. You have to earn their respect. Be capable, dependable and diligent. If you’ve got those three things, you’re going to be successful. You have to have all three legs of that stool.
Hill: Today it’s so important for the next generation to know the rest of the next generation and to grow up in the industry together. Something like FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program is so important. The contacts that are made and the knowledge that’s shared are so important. It’s amazing how much growth these young people can experience just because they know others in the industry.
Fentress: Never give up. If you have a passion for farming, follow that dream. No profession is more honorable than the small American farmer. Know that at the end of the day it isn't how many acres you farm but how you took care of the land that's been taking care of you. Don't discount the hard-core environmentalist; instead, find your common ground. (And yes, there will be common ground.) Whatever job you have, do it with integrity, pride, intelligence, joy and courage. A little dash of laughter and not taking yourself too seriously will also go a long way. Don't forget that the people who work for you are actually the people who work with you. If you have financial gains, make sure you share in those rewards. If you have losses, make sure you shield them as long as possible.
Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland. She can be reached at 321-214-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.