Four family farms choose to keep growing in the family.
Mark and Jake Lagoner
Jake Lagoner went off to college determined not to return to the family farm. He took an office marketing job but, as he says, “I got so bored I offered to do the landscaping.” He worked three months. “It was summer, all my previous summers had been spent picking strawberries, peaches and cherries. It was 90 degrees and sunny one day, and I was sitting in a cubicle. I didn’t like it, and that was it for me.” Jake returned to the farm as the fifth generation of Lagoners to farm the family’s fertile acres in Williamson, about two miles south of Lake Ontario.
Jake’s great-great grandparents, Anthony and Jennie, purchased the original 50 acres in 1909, growing crops and raising chickens and cows for their own family. As the area’s fruit industry grew, thanks to the ideal climate and soil near the lake, the Lagoners turned to fruit farming, growing primarily apples to be sold to processors. Jake’s father, Mark, who now farms with Jake, remembers his father farming with horses into the late 1950s.
Mark recalls taking three-year old Jake to the Fairport Farmers’ Market and watching Jake sell his first quart of apples for 50 cents.
“He got those two quarters, and he liked that. He said, ‘Let’s put another one out there.’”
By age 12, Jake had a chicken route, caring for about 20 chickens and selling the eggs up and down his road. And when Jake was in college, Mark turned over the strawberry crop and its profits to him.
In 1987, Mark’s father retired from farming, and Mark and his wife Diana took over, adding land to bring the farm to its current 175 acres. Since Jake joined his father in 2003, the farm has shifted gears; no longer just an apple farm, Lagoner Farms has diversified, growing many varieties of fruit and vegetables. Much of this is driven by Lagoner Farms’ participation in the local foods movement, which Jake has spearheaded. The farm sells at 11 farmers’ markets, operates a community supported agriculture (CSA), runs a market and bakery on the farm, makes jams, and is planning hard-cider production later this year. The whole family pitches in; Diana helps out in the farm market, Jake’s sister Val works in the farm’s flower shop, and his wife, Mitzi, runs the bakery, does all scheduling, and organizes the CSA, while caring for 4-year-old Isabella and 2-year-old Avery.
“I love being able to work with my family,” Jake says. “Sometimes it is difficult, but we’ve been getting better at working through everything. I love being able to have my kids right down the road if I want I can go home and see them at lunch.”
Mark agrees, “We’re enjoying each other, working together. It’s exciting for me at this stage to watch Jake initiate new ideas, develop them, and hopefully we can see them reach fruition. You really feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. You feel like you’re doing a valuable thing with your life.”
Lagoner Farms was recently designated a Century Farm by the New York State Agricultural Society, meaning it has been in the same family for 100 years. Jake said he would welcome his daughters’ participation in the farm when they are older, “but I would encourage them to try other things first. If they don’t like it they can always come back.”
But, he admits, “It’s in your blood.”
Fellenz Family Farm
Andy and Erik Fellenz
“Fellenz Family Farm” is not just a catchy name for Andy and Erik Fellenz’s small farm in Phelps; it describes Andy’s motivation for founding his farm in 2001.
Andy had been working as an engineer, but when his wife, Jan, returned to teaching, the time was right for Andy to make a change, take on the role of stay-at-home dad to the four young Fellenz sons, and try out his long-held interest in farming, with the boys’ active participation.
“It’s nice that the farm makes a few bucks, but a big part of doing the farm has been to provide the boys some opportunities,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of things that were stupid from a business perspective, but from a skills development or personal development perspective for the boys, were worthwhile.”
Andy’s second son, Erik, now 23, has been more involved in the farm than his brothers from the start, and now farms side-by-side with his father. Andy encouraged Erik’s early interest in the mechanical side of farming with one of his “stupid” decisions: rather than buy new equipment, he bought used equipment and put together a complete machine shop, investing heavily in expensive tools, so Erik would learn how to maintain and repair the farm’s equipment. Andy says, “I also installed a complete wood shop and even a forge” to encourage his sons’ interests and skills development. Andy’s investment seems to have paid off; Erik now oversees the maintenance of the farm’s equipment, including the ancient potato digger that broke down on a nearly daily basis during the last harvest. When a new irrigation system required a hydrant to prevent water freezing in winter, Erik made one rather than purchase one from a supplier, saving the farm over $800. Now if something is needed on the farm, Erik says, “my job is to figure it out and make it work.”
Andy and Erik, assisted by Erik’s partner, Jenny Frederick, intensively farm the seven acres of fertile, sandy loam surrounding the brick farmhouse, built in the 1830s. The Fellenzes grow a wide range of vegetables, as well as strawberries, apples, pears, and peaches. Six high tunnels and three small greenhouses extend growing into colder months. The farm has used organic practices from the beginning and became certified organic in 2005. Andy and Erik operate CSAs (community supported agriculture) at three churches in Canandaigua, Geneva, and Pittsford, and also sell at Brighton Farmers’ Market on Sundays.
Andy admits that he treats Erik differently than he does others working on the farm; “I push him,” he says. “Working with family means you take your work life home and your home life to work, for better or worse. Overall it’s definitely more for better than for worse. Most days we disagree as often as we agree. While on the surface this might sound negative, I feel like it has shaped up to be one of the most important posi- tive attributes of farming with family. The back and forth, push and pull lets everyone have a voice and usually leads to a solution incorporating the best bits of everyone’s idea.”
Andy sees himself stepping back from the farm in the next few years, allowing Erik to take over. Erik’s challenge will be to make the farm economically viable on his own, and he and Jenny are excited at the prospect. “We have lots of ideas for the future; some will likely prosper, some will likely fail. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to try them all as time goes on.”
Fisher Hill Farm
Phil Munson began driving a tractor on his father’s farm at age five. Acknowledging that his mother probably didn’t know about this, Phil explained, “Well, it was just a small tractor,” which no doubt would have been a comfort to his mother.
Phil’s father, Mark Munson, started Gale-Wyn Farm in Bristol in the late 1970s, raising pigs and growing corn, wheat, and barley on 100 acres to feed the pigs. Phil helped take care of the pigs, and says, “I used to take days off school once in a while to help with the planting and harvesting.”
Despite this occasional truancy and not seeing farming in his future, Phil went to Finger Lakes Community College and studied business management, but farming called to him despite his initial reluctance.
“A friend had all these potatoes left over in his root cellar and said, ‘Do you want them,’ so I planted those, and that’s how it started.” He harvested his potato crop, but, as he says, “You can’t just grow potatoes,” so he added some other vegetables to his planting, and Phil was a farmer.
He started out selling vegetables from a little stand in front of his house, then added more varieties of vegetables the following year and began selling at Canandaigua Farmers’ Market, adding Geneva Farmers’ Market the next year.
Phil says, “With Dad I learned a very strong work ethic. He helped me learn the basics of farming—operating and maintaining equipment, plowing, disking, and caring for animals. He never pushed me to be a farmer, but he’s easygoing and supportive, and I think he’s happy with my decision to farm. It was a natural fit.”
Phil today farms on 25 acres of his father’s land, but his business is completely separate from that of his father, who still raises some pigs and does not play a role in Phil’s business.
Now called Fisher Hill Farm, the business uses conventional methods to grow a wide variety of vegetables and strawberries, as well as chickens, turkeys, and eggs. Phil sells his products at five farmers’ markets, including Brighton, South Wedge, Canandaigua, and the Rochester Public Market.
To increase the farm’s year-round viability, Phil installed facilities for food storage, and now is able to offer his produce throughout the year. When asked if he ever considered doing anything other than farming, Phil says, “Yesterday, when we got two inches of rain,” threatening the strawberry harvest.
Phil’s wife, Sandi, has been an active participant in the farm from the beginning, today running the farm’s booth at three of the farmers’ markets where Fisher Hill Farm participates. On Sunday mornings at Brighton Farmers’ Market, you can usually find either Phil or Sandi bagging freshly harvested crops with baby Paige on a hip, while three-year-old Lily charms customers with her strawberry tulle dress and impish smile. Considering a possible future role on the farm for his daughters, Phil says, “It would be nice to have the girls play a role, come to the farmers’ markets, wait on customers. I would never assume that they would want to continue in farming, but I would expect them to help out.”
However, Sandi says no five-year-olds in this generation of Munsons will be driving tractors.
Amy Machamer and Susan Hurd Machamer
To many, Hurd Orchards means a scenic drive in the country to a picturesque farm for a tasty lunch, a jar of jam, and maybe a basket of fruit. To Amy Machamer and her mother, Susan Hurd Machamer, Hurd Orchards represents a deep, meaningful link to family, history, and land.
Amy and Susan today grow fruit on the same land in Holley, where their ancestors settled and grew fruit nearly 200 years ago. Referring to those early Hurd relatives, Amy says, “Our family, along with so many other families who are still farming, discovered this was magic country,” uniquely suited to growing fruits, especially tender fruits such as peaches, plums, and cherries. The soil is a sandy loam, a remnant of the shore of pre-historic Lake Iroquois and perfect for fruit, and the prevailing winds off Lake Ontario soften temperature extremes that can damage crops. Anticipating the boon the yet-to-be-built Erie Canal would be to business, the early farmers planted fruit trees, and, as Amy says, when the canal came through “all their dreams blossomed. They could get that fruit out of there; they could put it on a boat, and it was in New York in a week. The fruit industry exploded in the 19th century.”
In 1985, Susan’s parents, the latest generation to run the farm, were aging, and at a family council, Susan, her husband, and their three daughters considered whether they should make the effort to carry on the work of the farm. Amy says, “We decided that for all of us, the farm was an important place for our lives, more than just a business. It was the place that formed us, made us who we are as people.”
Susan and Amy took over Hurd Orchards, and have operated it as partners since then. Susan says, “It is a privilege to work with my daughter. We are so much in sync. Our vision is identical, our goals, and our aesthetics. We love what we do, we believe in it, and we think it’s important that our farm continue. We don’t want it to become a used-car lot.”
Today Susan and Amy farm about 200 acres of their much larger parcel. Among other crops, they grow strawberries, sweet and sour cherries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, plums, and apples. Their bakery turns out pies using farm fruit, and they host theme luncheons in the ancient, high-beamed barn, including a Strawberry Shortcake Luncheon, Brambleberry Luncheon, and Cherries and Chocolate. They offer workshops, tastings, gift baskets, and children’s events. Fruit from the farm is turned into thousands of jars of jam, a part of the business that began when Amy and her sisters were teens. The girls planted several acres of large Brandywine raspberries, a spectacular variety no longer available. Local grocery stores refused to take the berries, claiming they were too perishable, so the enterprising sisters restored an old farmhouse kitchen and started cooking and bottling jam, a project which grew into a major part of the business today.
Amy and Susan enjoy a close working and personal relationship. “Having a workplace that is family work is a very beautiful thing,” Amy says. “Working with people you love and can count on, there is a remark- able sense of trust. You have the freedom to say, ‘What’s it going to be in five years? How are we going to shape it?’”
As Amy’s 11-year-old daughter Amelia begins to play a role on the farm, the family is considering ways to keep the farm strong and face the many challenges today’s farms confront, especially one as unique and multi-faceted as Hurd Orchards. Susan says, “This was always the anchor, where the roots were,” and the women are working tirelessly to be sure those roots remain strong for future generations.