While it makes sense to think fall would be the busiest season at a farm that grows pumpkins, turkeys and Christmas trees, but that’s not the whole story.
At TLV (as in Triadelphia Lake View) Tree Farm, of Glenelg. Owner Jamie Brown and his family offer much more year ’round, while he serves the multiple roles – marketer, financial analyst, buyer, meteorologist, etc. – that all farmers do. He recently spoke with The Business Monthly.
What’s your busiest time of the year?
We’re busy all year, but the busiest months are still November and December.
How many trees do you sell during the holiday season?
Last year, we sold 3,000 Christmas trees; cutting your own is $54 for firs, $46 for white pines. That’s a good year and that’s been the norm for the past two years. We’d love to sell 5,000, but it’s hard to plan far enough in advance when it takes seven years to grow a tree; today, we plant about 1,000 trees on each of our 45 acres. During the 2008-09 recession, we dropped down to 2,300 trees, so we didn’t plant as many in the ensuing years; but about three years ago, we started planting more. Only 75 percent of what we plant go to sale. The excess is used for wreaths, mulch, etc.
How do you prepare for each tree season?
Every year, I buy 10,000 seedlings and six tons of fertilizer. When you figure in chemicals., that’s about a $5,000 investment per year. Then we have to mow in between the trees every two weeks, with three heavy-duty mowers that cost about $20,000 each.
How does your pumpkin crop look this year?
I lost about 90 percent of it to the rain, as did all of the other farmers on the East Coast. I had to bring in most of our stock from the Midwest.
What led you into the turkey market for the first time this year?
Only one other farm in Howard County produces turkeys, and that’s Maple Lawn Farms. The Iager family has done a wonderful job for several decades, but I think the county has grown enough to accommodate another turkey farm. So, we invested $180,000 in a new barn this spring, and received 2,500 turkeys this past June. Now, we’re accepting orders for Thanksgiving at the farm, at farmer’s markets and online.
Do you find participating in farmer’s markets to be effective marketing?
No, because there are too many of them. If people would travel 10 miles to a central location once a week, that would be much better than having several markets scattered around the county. When we started going that route 30 years ago in Oakland Mills, there were 17 vendors; now there are many more markets with about a dozen vendors at each. Only so many can make money. If there are too many vendors offering one type of produce, like veggies, it won’t work.
How has the local “farm-to-table” trend affected your bottom line?
It’s helped. It’s made the public more aware of local farms and what produce is available to them. The worst part is that we’re still mainly a seasonal industry. Trying to grow veggies in greenhouses and hothouses during the colder months, for instance, isn’t worth the effort, because paying for the heat makes it too expensive.
What are your thoughts on the organic movement?
I don’t believe in organic farming because some of the organic farmers are using more chemicals to kill bugs than someone like I do within an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system. Also, when you read about organic tomatoes and greens, for instance, they don’t have the nutrients that people using IPM offer with their product. The public doesn’t read enough about this topic. Organics are not only not really better for you, they may not have much nutritional value as IPM products. That’ll draw an argument, but that’s how I feel.
What is the idea behind Community Supported Agriculture?
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) calls for customers to buy shares from a farm during peak season and help us with start-up costs by buying half or full shares, then coming to the farm once a week and picking up up to seven different items, from corn to honey, from apples to okra, from eggplant to hard squash. The cost ranges from $350 to $600 for the season. Customers can also buy egg shares and protein shares, too.
Tell us about your Farmer Brown Camp and the need to attract the farmers of tomorrow.
We started it two years ago. A former middle school teacher of mine, Charlie Ashcraft, is retired and had been helping me do October tours; two years ago, we realized the need to educate children and consumers about how farming works. It’s gone well. The first year we had 18 kids and we had 35 this past summer. It costs $300 per kid; for adults, our one-day camp is $50 per person and $80 per couple.
How often has TLV expanded or lessened its offerings?
We’ve been here since 1896. During my era, we’ve expanded our offerings every year. In the ’80s, we were a dairy farm, but we sold the cows in 1983; we planted the first Christmas trees in 1985, so in 1992 TLV became a tree farm. During the interim, we also grew vegetables, hay, straw and commodities, which we still do on our 89-acre farm; we rent the remaining 700 acres from other farmers who are no longer farming, but hold farmland are in preservation zones within a 12-mile radius of TLV.
What’s your take on the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act?
The federal government has to work on the J-1 Visa Act. Many farmers are having trouble finding help to work on their farms. We have three people working here now; ideally, we’d be employing six or seven workers.
What are your thoughts on the 2018 Farm Bill?
Hopefully, trade agreements will boost commodity prices. To get something, you have to give something; the government is subsidizing farmers, mostly in the Midwest, for soy beans and corn. Hopefully, that will keep them going and next year will be better. I’m more on the retail sales side, so it doesn’t affect me much.
What do you consider your greatest challenge?
Dealing with Mother Nature. This year, she has taken a higher toll on our business. The rains cost us about $150,000 in products. In this industry, estimating your gross revenues is always a crap shoot. However, in 2019, there could be a drought. That’s why we diversify.
How many times have you had a developer offer to buy the farm?
Never, since we’ve been in preservation since 1982. My parents did sell some of the land years ago for $1,300 per acre; now, the price would be $40,000 an acre. But it’s not for sale, anyway. I want my family to take it over.
Have you ever thought of getting into another business?
No. Farming is in my blood.