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  • ELIZABETH HENDERSON

Farmer Profile: Large-scale Organic - An Interview with Tom Jeffres


The NY Agricultural Society chose R.L. Jeffres and Sons, Inc. in Wyoming, NY as Business of the Year for 2022. Since this farm has 1,200 acres in organic management, we interviewed the farmers to learn their stories.  Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain is high in her praise for the quality of organic grain production at Jeffres. “Everything they do is high quality and professional, especially the quality of their corn, the efficiency of delivery, and the professional attitude toward organic documentation. They are a delight to work with, and I can always be confident that their organic grain will produce top-quality feed for our dairy and poultry customers."


TNF: Briefly tell us about your farm.


Tom Jeffres: We farm 11,000 acres within a 20-mile radius of the home farm in Wyoming, NY, which includes 1,200 acres of organic crops. We provide a lot of forages for conventional dairies; that’s our bread and butter. We chop roughly 70,000 tons of corn silage annually and 25,000 tons of haylage for those dairies. We also run a custom pea harvesting service for the local vegetable processing plant, both conventional and organic. We harvest peas in 6 counties.


My grandfather founded our farm in 1914 on 100 acres, and we now have the 5th generation working here on the farm. The original owner of the property where the farm sits was Jedediah Walker. He built this homestead in the 1860s and the beautiful old house and original barns he built are still here. I don’t know the history before that.


TNF: How did you first get interested in farming?


Jeffres: I am part of the fourth generation of our family on this farm. I grew up on the farm and just naturally started becoming a farmer. I was pretty active starting at 11 – they had me move small cultivating tractors from field to field and then the older people did the cultivating. I also did hand labor – picked rocks, weeds - all that fun stuff.


I took a 2-year program in welding, mostly to have a backup plan, but I stayed on the farm and used my welding skills here. I used to do a lot of fabrication. We have built auxiliary fuel tanks, different improvements for equipment, a rock rack with hydraulics, brackets for saddle tanks for tractors, and toolboxes.


TNF: How do you work together as a family?


Jeffres: We divide up the work among the family. It has just progressed naturally. With a critical employee, I oversee and do crop planning. My brother Jim handles most of the cultivating of crops and schedules hay harvest. I coordinate the corn harvest. My nephew oversees our trucking business and lime sales. My son Jack oversees our irrigation sales business and sells irrigation equipment. He can lay out center-pivot pumps and irrigation pipes for other farms. My mother is part owner. She did bookkeeping and cultivating and was very active on the farm for many years. Kristi, my daughter, works in the office as the controller. Kristi trained to be an accountant and tax adviser. Kristi added: “I drove a pea combine one summer – but I am more of a numbers person.”


To make decisions, we get together for group meetings. We take a vote and go on majority rules. Sometimes, you get your feelings hurt, but you get over it and go on. We all think that we are right, but we are willing to compromise.


TNF: Why did you decide to grow some organic crops?


Jeffres: In 2005 or 6, a local milk cooperative was looking for organic milk in this area. There were several farms interested. We were approached by the dairies to provide organic forages for them and also by a local vegetable processor to grow organic snap beans. We decided to give it a try. We had a lot of alfalfa in our rotation that had not had any sprays in 3 years, so we started with 100 eligible acres, which has grown to 1,200.


TNF: Why only organic on part of the farm?


Jeffres: We have a commitment to the conventional dairies we supply with forages and to the local processing plant for conventional and organic vegetables. But organic takes more people and time than we have currently. With organic vegetables, there is more weeding. If we were growing only organic grains, it might be different. For 10 years, we have had an H2A crew from Jamaica come up during the summer to help primarily with the organic crops. They mainly do hand weeding and hoeing, and they harvest 100 acres of organic butternut squash that has to be hand-picked.


TNF: Do you hire H2A only or also local people?


Jeffres: We hire locals, but they are unavailable for the hand labor required with the organic crops. They might work for a day or two, but that’s it – it is very labor-intensive. When you can’t get local people, the H2A program is a godsend. The work is seasonal, so it is beneficial that they go home to their families in the winter months.


TNF: Where do you distribute your vegetables?


Jeffres: The peas and snap beans are frozen. Most of it goes to private labels – Tops and others.  We don’t make any direct sales right now. We are not in a well-traveled area for customer-based sales, and there are a few local farm markets, so we don’t want to compete with them.


TNF: What do you love best about farming? 


Jeffres: I feel like I never go to work. In the morning, I get up because there is stuff to be done. I don’t feel like I’m working. I don’t care what it is – I just get up and do it. I am not doing as much of the hard labor anymore. Getting the priorities straight with an operation our size is a constant battle.


TNF: How are prices for your organic crops?


Jeffres: Prices fluctuate. I would love to see more money available for small grains. Those are great rotation crops but are less lucrative. Unfortunately, prices are dictated by the price of imports.


TNF: Where did you get the information or financial assistance you needed to convert to organic? Was there an organization or agency that helped you?


Jeffres: Klaas Martens from Klaas and Mary-Howell Farm (they also run Lakeview Organic Grains) in Penn Yan, NY, was a very valuable asset in getting us started, as well as Dave DeGolyer from WNY Crop Management.


TNF: Do you have any advice for other farmers converting to organic?


Jeffres: First, know your markets ahead of time. Be sure you have a place to sell whatever you grow. Focus on timing. If you miss that initial weeding or two, you have problems for the whole season. We used unproductive ground and some of our best ground when we started. We quickly figured out that the poor ground did not do well. It was wet, so we put it into the grass. After that, we only focused the organic crops on well-drained, high-fertility soils.


We cover crop with a wide variety of crops. The peas and snap beans allow us to plant an early cover crop. We use a combination of turnips, oats, wheat, clover and sunflowers. It looks beautiful by late fall. When Kristi got married, she had me plant cover crops across the street from where she had the wedding. It was lovely.


Links:


Elizabeth Henderson is an organic farmer, urban gardener, and student of the changing world, relentlessly outraged. elizabethhenderson13@gmail.com

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