Learning a Crop

by Gary Mount

At Terhune Orchards, I grow 36 different crops that we sell at the farm, at farmers’ markets and by delivering to schools and restaurants. Learning each crop has kept me busy and interested for much of the past 36 years.

When Pam and I started farming in 1975 we made friends with Bob and Dottie Dobbs, farmers in Camden County, New Jersey.They were a bit older than us and had been farming for quite a while. Bob grew some 15-20 different crops! At that time I was growing three crops–apples, peaches and pears and I just could not understand how he could do it. How could he keep all the different ones separate and know what to do and when for each crop?

In the early 1980’s Pam and I realized that I had to learn how to grow some other crops. To make our business prosper, we needed a greater variety of things to sell. There was a gasoline shortage then and for our customers to burn two gallons of gas to come and get one gallon of cider just was not making sense. We have added crops ever since–one or two a year with our most recent crop being wine grapes. Each crop grows a bit differently, has its own requirements and is harvested and stored differently. My favorite author, John McPhee, wrote of riverboat captains who learned one turn of the river at a time. They would understand learning a crop.

Such learning is not automatic. Although I grew up on a farm and am the 10th generation of my family to farm in this area, these things do not come automatically. My father grew only one crop (apples) and even at that, I did not learn how to grow apples. I learned how to work, but not the why of what I was doing.

My most important teacher has been the Rutgers Cooperative Extension system. Each county in the country has an agricultural extension office. In New Jersey these offices are connected to Rutgers, which is the land grant university for New Jersey. Started by federal legislation in 1914, cooperative extension has provided assistance to farmers (and now homeowners) ever since. Extension’s contribution to American agricultural productivity cannot be overstated but for me it has been very personal. When we started farming we were lucky to have an agent in Mercer County who specialized in fruit production. I think he visited my farm once a week, on average, the first few years.  Having someone like that “in my corner” was so helpful. In addition, I started to go to meetings and build my library. The New Jersey State Horticultural Society has sponsored an annual convention for many years and for the past 36 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, jointly with the Pennsylvania and Maryland societies. I attend every session that I can and have hardly missed a year. I also travel to the International Fruit Tree Association meetings–35 years in a row there.  This year an older fellow member there told me how well he remembered Pam and I, years ago, in the front row, asking questions whenever we could. There are “twilight meetings” for fruits and vegetables held at different farmer’s farms. There are a lot of meetings.

I have learned crops in other ways. I have been lucky to have had talented and dedicated employees. One, Emiliano Martinez, has been a great teacher of how to grow many vegetables. I have learned to listen.

I mentioned building my library. That brings me to my latest crop, wine grapes. Books on wine grape growing are like grapes in a bunch–many. I have a good number of them. My farm staff often laugh at me when I tell them to wait a minute and run to my office in the farmhouse to look something up.

Growing so many crops spreads me a bit thin. I am not as good at growing each crop as I might want to be. But I would have it no other way. Growing just one or two crops–I just couldn’t do it. This week I have just finished my planting plan for the year. While many of my crops are on bushes and trees that do not need to be planted each year, most vegetables and flowers do . They are in the plan(not asparagus or rhubarb).  Each variety of each crop has an entry in the plan for each time it is planted. Some are planted eight times in a season. The total number of entries is north of 650. I can’t believe it. But then, I am thinking of my next crop. I have just planted artichokes.