Aug 2, 2021Wagner Farms thrives after focusing on sustainability
Everything is in bloom at Wagner Farms in Rome, New York, where farm operations and the very business model have been remodeled around the concept of sustainability.
Wagner Farms used to be a commercial-scale grower, with 170 acres under cultivation using conventional growing techniques. But, fast forward to today, and the operation has been able to do more with less. A corn burner harnesses a sustainable energy source for his farm. New crop rotations protect the soil while reducing the need for fertilizer and technologies lower costs.
Ronald Wagner was recently recognized by the parent company of Vegetable Growers News, with its 2021 Specialty Grower Sustainability Award, sponsored by Valent U.S.A. The farm grows vegetable and fruit crops in addition to sunflowers and grain corn that’s burned to heat the greenhouse.
“Years ago we started out more on the organic side, and then we went conventional for a reason. The last 8-10 years have been a combination of the two. It’s been vital to our farming operation to get a higher-quality product using less inputs while safeguarding the quality and the production for human consumption.”
A decision point
The farm once grew about 170 acres of a mix of grain products, produce including everything from potatoes and onions to strawberries, and other u-pick items such as raspberries. Today that’s down to just 80 acres, mostly of grain corn and produce.
The decision to downscale the farm operation was made by events beyond Wagner’s control.
“We suffered a substantial loss in 2013, and multiple flood events in a season that wiped us out, financially crippled us for a couple years, and then we got behind with a loss of land for eminent domain as a development forced us off of our most-productive renting land – our farm was financed based upon that land acreage,” he said. “With reductions over the years, we had to figure out a way to make the same money, make the same living off of less acreage.”
Wagner and his family downsized in 2015-2016, letting go of all the leased property and concentrating just on the main farm, which was 106 acres with 70 acres tillable. About 10 more acres rented have since increased the number to 80.
He said the most difficult part has been calculating costs and efficiencies of growing. The devil has been in the details.
“That’s been the hardest … knowing the exact cost of things,” he said. “It’s a very fine line that we deal with. If there’s a penny to be saved, we do; however, I never sacrifice my plant health or soil conditions.”
Crops are sold only through direct sales to customers, including a Community Supported Agriculture program and an agritourism operation that includes a corn maze, sunflower field for photos, and local band concert series. Wagner said the local public understands the importance of knowing their farmer.
“Tourism, while not the same as growing for food, has become fun and enjoyable again, something that was missing from our farm for many years,” he said.
Rethinking all of the farm’s practices has been an occasion for Wagner to move into more sustainable growing techniques. The application of synthetic chemical sprays has been greatly reduced, as have also been the use of agricultural plastics. Energy has been saved.
“I got tired of what I was doing,” Wagner said. “Years back, being a commercial, traditional grower, we still did a lot of plastic mulch, a lot of drip tape. We found that we still had to use a lot of chemicals, as far as weed control goes, under the plastic. … We were still using exorbitant amounts of chemicals.”
While attempts to go completely organic haven’t worked out, “We came up with a hybrid system where we incorporate the organic ideas of cultivation, cover crops and reductions,” Wagner said. “It’s an overall better system.”
While he hangs onto a few key inputs, especially Lumax herbicide on corn, a substantial change has been made.
“I haven’t used Roundup on our corn in 10 years. We’ve eliminated Roundup just about completely off the farm,” Wagner said. “We haven’t actually used a fungicide or insecticide sprayed on a crop in two years. We still apply some in-furrow at planting, obviously, because one-time application upfront protects us.”
He’s seen beneficial insects in the ecosystem thrive. Monarchs are flourishing and bumblebees can be found in almost all of the farm’s ditch lines.
“We see praying mantises, we see ladybugs … you name it, we see it,” Wagner said.
He has found that he can do more with less, especially when it comes to the few sprays he still uses.
“This year’s onion crop and potato crop is actually on last year’s popcorn (field),” Wagner said. “Last year’s popcorn crop was treated with Lumax. This year our potato field has had absolutely zero sprays used on it in terms of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides at this point. Our onion crop has only had one application of herbicide, just as a preventative, and frankly, I probably could have gotten away without it because we found that using our corn crop as a weed eliminator crop the year before, the following crop is actually really good without the use of pesticides. … You have to approach it on a multiyear basis in your head.”
Taken as a whole, such decisions confirm the art and science of farming sustainably – and Wagner said they’ve been the hardest part of changes in his operation. He has decided organic certification isn’t in the farm’s future.
“It all comes down to the market in the end,” he said. “We don’t have a market for organic returns financially or profitability in our area. If you look at it demographic-wise, there’s such a small organic demand … it’s a niche item.”
Attempts to grow organically have been unsuccessful.
“We tried an organic field last year and we failed miserably,” he said. “We had four acres of organic produce; the deer enjoyed every bit of it. And what they didn’t get the weeds (got). It was such a dry season we couldn’t get a cultivator in the ground. There was really no way to salvage it, and you know what? It was a life lesson.”
However, some organic-style farming techniques have turned out remarkably well. Wagner plans around a 5-year crop rotation and has found that sunflowers make a good cover crop.
“I hate sunflowers, I’ve got to be honest,” he said. “I look at it as nothing more than a commodity crop that you lose the seeds – before you ever harvest it – to the birds. And I understand that. However, customers will pay to watch them, look at them, take photos of them. And our sunflowers have actually become a major part of our crop rotation on our farm. It saves us major fertilizer, major chemical use that comes in following years for crops that follow on that sunflower ground.
“We’ve grown sunflowers since 2012, when we bought our combine and we got into the grain business. We messed around with sunflowers a little bit, just strictly as a birdseed item – a value-added retail item. And we got out of doing sunflowers for a while because I felt I was relying on the crop insurance payment rather than on the crop, and didn’t like that myself, so I broke that habit before it became a bad habit.
“Then three, four years ago, we tried sunflowers again, and we asked the public to come out and enjoy them. While doing so, we found they really do a great job of breaking up the soil. Their root systems are massive … their root balls are over a foot in diameter, very fibrous, very hairy roots that will break up the top five to six inches of soil. It’s almost like growing soybeans on the ground.”
Tools of the trade
A few key tools have helped Wagner make his farm more sustainable.
A tine weeder for mechanical cultivation reduces the need for herbicides.
“We are eliminating so much herbicide use in specialty crops – little crops that have little to no profit margin to begin with,” he said. “It allows us to weed them and get them out of the ground fast.”
Wagner uses a Zone Builder tool to open up the soil in fields where hard crusts have formed.
“The zone till does two things: It flood-proofs the crop and it drought-proofs the crop,” he said. “The plant roots go deep and find the water in a drought. You get one of those fluke thunderstorms that drop three inches in five minutes on you, the water sinks into the ground.”
A biofuel pellet burner has replaced fossil fuels.
“We came to a point last year where our oil burners under our greenhouse are 20-plus years old, and they’re in need of being replaced,” Wagner said. “Cost versus returns, we had to look at it carefully.”
A Central Boiler Maxim system heats the greenhouse as well as being the source for a corn dryer that prepares raw popcorn and grain corn. He said they burn 2 bushels to dry 25-30 bushels at a time. Last year, burning corn saved them from burning 2,500 gallons of oil – a return on a crop grown as a part of the agritourism operation.
“It’s double-dipping on the profitability there,” Wagner said.
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor