Sowing the seeds of sustainability

By Andrea K. Hammer

Many of America's oldest family businesses are farms, nurseries and orchards. What keeps these multigenerational families on the farm? Several agricultural business owners discuss their legacies, and the pressures they confront in today's economy.

Even as the “green” movement and obesity prevention campaigns have renewed public interest in farming and gardening, family-owned agricultural businesses in the U.S. continue to face daunting challenges. Giant agricultural conglomerates and mega-markets have encroached on their niche, the specter of estate taxes looms large, and Mother Nature periodically wreaks havoc on the land.

Understandably, many later-generation owners of farms and nurseries have opted to exit the business and sell their property to a developer. According to the Farmland Information Center, more than 4 million acres of farmland were developed between 2002 and 2007.

Last summer, siblings Will, Lucy and Becky Tuttle, 11th-generation owners of America’s oldest continuously operating family farm—the Tuttle Farm in Dover, N.H., founded in 1632—put 134 acres up for sale. But they preserved the property as open space; a conservation restriction prohibits it from being developed. Will Tuttle and his wife, Michelle, told the Boston Globe that they hoped the new owners would maintain it as a working farm. Even so, the Tuttles told the Globe, the economic downturn has made operating a small farm even more difficult.

Despite these pressures, some two dozen farms, nurseries and orchards remain on Family Business Magazine’s list of America’s oldest family businesses. Family Business talked to several multigenerational agricultural families about their legacies and what keeps them tilling the soil.

Preserving their heritage

The 27-acre Westcroft Gardens in Grosse Ile, Mich., founded in 1776, is the oldest family-run farm in the state. “It’s been harder and harder to make ends meet—and a little harder since the recession,” says seventh-generation owner Denise de Beausset, 55. “We’re hanging on because of our history.”

Her niece Erica Mesedahl, 26, moved to Michigan after graduating from college and worked on the farm full-time for three years. However, de Beausset encouraged Mesedahl to explore other positions focusing on her interest in environmental protection. For the past two years, she has worked at an alternative energy engineering company in Troy, Mich., as an office manager; she also assists in analyzing regulations and policies on alternative energy and automotive standards. She plans to participate in a local conservation stewardship certification program and a master gardener program.

“I can see myself taking over when Denise decides to retire, which may be in ten years—this is, of course, assuming that the land/business is not sold,” Mesedahl writes in an e-mail to Family Business. “If I am to take over, I would rejoin her full-time there at least one to two years in advance of her retirement to make sure that I understand all of her responsibilities.”

Mesedahl currently works on Saturdays in Westcroft’s plant nursery, botanical garden, woods and petting farm. “I have yet to find work more rewarding than the work I have done on the farm, and I look forward to the chance to be the next-generation [owner] with great anticipation,” she writes.

Founded in 1853, the 24-acre Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, N.Y., is the oldest nursery and garden center on Long Island. It has 75 employees; in the peak season, that number increases to as much as 150. The nursery has hosted a flower and garden show for 21 years. Sixth-generation member Stephen Hicks, 38, manages the business with his sister Karen, 43. They hope that someone in the seventh generation—now ranging in age from two to 12—will one day succeed them.

“We’re not immune to the economic winds blowing,” Stephen Hicks notes. In order to maintain sales, he says, he is offering different products—such as pond supplies, gardening ornaments and café items—and reining in expenses. “We’re working harder just to stay in place,” he says.

The 1,100-acre Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, Conn., established in 1741, today has 50 year-round employees and up to 200 workers in the peak season. “We’ve always been fortunate that someone in the next generation was interested in being an active participant,” says eighth-generation executive vice president John Lyman III, 53. “Our core resource is stewardship of the land…. We need to use the land wisely and build for the next generation.” As a young man, Lyman worked summers at the orchards; today his son, two daughters, nieces and nephews do. Non-family member Steve Ciskowski serves as president and CEO of Lyman Farms Inc. Other Lyman family members serve on the board and have investments in the business.

To sell, or not to sell?

“Sheer determination has kept the business going over the years,” says Linda Concklin Hill, 63, who runs the Orchards of Concklin in Pomona, N.Y., with her son Scott Hill, 40, and her brother Richard Concklin, 60. The family has been farming in New York’s Rockland County since 1712.

After struggling with severe financial problems during the 1980s and 1990s, Concklin Hill’s family sold most of their land to the county. They are now tenant farmers, with a long-term lease that permits them to plant trees and make capital improvements such as installing deer fencing. The family still owns a five-acre parcel with greenhouses.

Throughout the years, others have also considered selling their land. “The economy is so terrible in Michigan that we would have to give it away, and we can’t,” says Westcroft Gardens’ de Beausset.

In the mid-1960s, the Lymans were approached about selling a couple hundred acres of their property for a golf course. The financing fell through, but the family decided to pursue this plan on their own. Their first course, designed by renowned architect Robert Trent Jones, opened in 1969; a second course, created by golfer and designer Gary Player, opened in 1994.

“That was one of the best business decisions we made,” John Lyman says. “Unexpected change leads to opportunity. We can’t pick up and move away—that’s not an option. So we needed to figure out how to make the business a success.”

Coping with pressures

Hicks Nurseries weathered a particularly stormy period from the 1930s to the 1960s. After surviving the Depression, the nursery confronted a changing environment, as Long Island grew less rural and more suburban. Stephen Hicks’ father, Alfred (Fred) Hicks, who had an MBA from Cornell University, infused the enterprise with new ideas and energy; he shifted the focus of the enterprise from landscaping to a retail garden center. Stephen credits his father’s “strong commitment to the business” in the mid-1960s. “I think it would have been sold if not for my dad,” he says. “We needed to innovate continually, offer relevant products and maintain high standards.”

Linda Concklin Hill responded to economic pressures by expanding the Orchards of Concklin’s bakery, adding cookies to a line of fruit pies. She also began offering special items like heirloom tomatoes and Fuji apples to provide her produce customers with more choices. “We need to stay ahead of the curve and make the right decisions, and market what customers want,” she says.

The Lyman family has been diversifying their operations throughout the history of their enterprise, John Lyman notes. In 1917-18, a frost destroyed 500 acres of peach trees that the family had grown since the 1890s; the family adapted by planting hardier apple trees.

“In agriculture, there is a dose of reality that many things are beyond our control, which requires humility,” Lyman says, referring to the forces of nature. “We respect rather than fight that.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, the Lyman family transformed their agricultural operation from a wholesale to retail business and phased out dairy operations. They added a bakery, which is not weather-dependent. “The pie business is growing rapidly through my father’s vision to be creative,” Lyman says.

Crop insurance has become more expensive, according to the Orchards of Concklin’s Linda Concklin Hill. “All of our money is in the crop, and there is crop insurance for hailstorms and other acts of Mother Nature,” she explains. “But, like health insurance, it’s becoming more and more expensive. So we need flexibility in dealing with weather challenges and competition. We need to build customer loyalty.”

Even though Westcroft Gardens is just 20 miles from Detroit, owner Denise de Beausset says its location on an isolated island is one the greatest challenges for her business. “Ninety percent of our business is from repeat customers—islanders who already know about us,” she says.

Because of the recession, de Beausset says, she has had to lay off nine employees and is down to one. “I’m growing less stock, keeping less inventory and promoting more ‘agri-tourism,’ such as Halloween hayrides,” she says. But she says that insurance companies, citing liability issues, objected to her effort to develop paint balloon birthday parties.

Lyman says “agri-tainment” allows visitors “to have more experience with the land…. My business focus is to find creative ways to entertain people and build on staff development. We’ve been part of a legacy and have to take care of the land for the next generation.”

Hicks says the “green” and organic movements have helped his business. “We’re educating customers and have the opportunity to discuss these issues,” he says.

“It’s good for ecology and the economy,” Lyman says. “We’re in for the long haul and are looking for ways to be less harsh on the environment and reduce pesticide use.”

While agricultural products are currently in vogue, Hicks says, “Just putting products out for sale won’t work. We need to tailor them to customers’ needs.”

Westcroft Gardens’ de Beausset reports that pricing has been an issue for her business. “People don’t understand that I need to make enough money in the growing time for all year and object when the price of hanging baskets goes up,” she says. “But the profit margin is less each year.”

Mesedahl, her niece, understands that the land might someday be sold. “I will support whatever decision is made,” Mesedahl writes in an e-mail. “It has been discussed and agreed within the family that I should continue to explore all career paths open to me until a final decision is made regarding the farm’s survival, so that I make my own decision for my future.”

Despite the pressures of managing a family farm, the owners of these agribusinesses note that the lifestyle and the connection to family history make the effort worthwhile. Linda Concklin Hill says that she and her son are optimistic that their orchards will survive. “Scott recently planted some fruit trees—a sign of hope for the future,” she says.

Andrea K. Hammer, founder and director of Artsphoria: Arts and Business Vitality (www.artsphoria.com), is a writer, editor and desktop-publishing specialist in Wyncote, Pa.

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Summer 2011

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