When Mike and Gayle Thorpe started farming in East Aurora, NY as first generation farmers in the early 1980s, organic operations in western New York weren’t common.
“They started switching to organic in the 1990s,” said Abigail Thorpe, one of Mike and Gayle’s six adult children who are now on the farm. “My dad was growing field crops and my mom was focusing on fruits and vegetables. They started switching strawberries to organic in the 1990s, and that was when the organic movement was starting to take hold in western New York. The entire farm became certified in 1999.”
Today, the Thorpes farm about 2,700 certified organic acres, which includes both owned and leased land. The acreage includes a 200-acre certified organic woodlot, which was one of the enterprises that pulled the family through the lean times as the farm was becoming established. “In winter, they sold firewood,” said Abigail. “We have a gravel pit on the farm, and my dad built ponds, constructed driveways and plowed snow.”
Abigail recalls that the transition to organic wasn’t a big stretch because her parents had already been limiting pesticides and herbicides on crops. However, there was a considerable learning curve when it came to balancing cover crops, pest management, crop rotations and building healthy soil. She added that other area farmers were doubtful that the family would be successful as organic farmers, considering the additional time and effort require for organic production.
But the Thorpes were determined to build a successful farm, and received organic certification in 1999. Today, the Thorpes grow 700 acres of corn, 700 acres of soybeans, 400 acres of oats, 300 acres of triticale along with 25 acres of berries and 75 acres of vegetables; all certified organic.
The grain crops are sold to local feed mills for organic feed, and some of the straw is used for mulch and for bedding the livestock raised on the farm. Last year, after years of selling vegetables and small fruits from several versions of roadside stands, the family constructed a year-round market facility that includes a bakery.
Since cover crops are an integral aspect of weed and pest control in an organic system, the Thorpes are careful to plan such crops for both their field and vegetable rotations. “For vegetables, we use Austrian winter peas, oats, hairy vetch,” said Gayle, describing the cover crops. “For the field crops, red clover is seeded in spring and drilled with oats or triticale. It grows and is mowed down, then it comes back in fall and puts on a larger plant and roots. Sometimes we’ll harvest it for haylage. Then in spring it grows back again before it’s plowed back under. Austrian winter peas and vetch are planted in late summer and grow through fall, then in spring they start to grow again. We plow them under before they get too large, but we want them to have the maximum amount of carbonaceous material between the tops and roots. The also produce nitrogen for the coming crop. We grow alfalfa, and vegetables will often follow alfalfa hay. Sometimes we plant oats for vegetable cover crop, then plow those under the following year.”
In addition to the farm market, the Thorpes have marketed vegetables and small fruits through the farm’s CSA for 14 years. “It wasn’t a familiar concept around here when we started it,” said Abigail, adding that they had about 20 members at first. “It wasn’t easy to convince people to give up money ahead of time to buy vegetables. People have to creative – they have to be okay with having an abundance of one thing and a shortage of something else. But it has worked well for us over the years.” Today, the Thorpes average about 500 CSA shares for their summer program.
Abigail says that when they started the CSA, the family was growing vegetables that were unfamiliar to many of their customers. Items such as watermelon radishes, kohlrabi and celeriac weren’t common in local grocery stores but grew well in the region. “For the first few years of the CSA, people didn’t take those items,” she said. “Especially kohlrabi. Now, the vast majority of our customers are familiar with it, they know how to prepare it and enjoy using different vegetables.”
In addition to growing customer favorites, the family experiments with and promotes new and different vegetable varieties. “The explosion of food literature has been huge,” said Abigail. “All of the different cookbooks, food blogs, television food shows and social media have been great for farmers. They do a great job introducing people to fruits and vegetables that have been overlooked for so long.”
During the growing season, Gayle spends a lot of time taking notes about each crop. “She keeps detailed records of every variety grown, how well it produced in that year’s growing conditions, flavor, appearance, how well the customers liked it,” said Abigail. “She loves to experiment. For instance, with broccoli, she’ll grow two or three of the standard varieties we know we like, and try a couple of new ones.”
Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm added a winter CSA when they started growing citrus fruit in Florida about seven years ago. Gayle explains that the first 15 acres they purchased was already certified organic, which made the learning curve easier. “Then we bought the adjoining 40 acres, and that had to be mostly replaced,” she said, explaining how she and Mike spend five months of the year. “We transitioned it all to organic – it will be organic in January.” Because some of the varieties on the 40 acres were susceptible to citrus greening, those trees were removed and replaced with more popular eating varieties. Since they were already working in the citrus grove, the Thorpes added peach trees and planted vegetables between the rows. Although Mike and Gayle used to haul fruit and vegetables to New York themselves, they’ve switched to using a transporter so they can focus their efforts on growing.
The citrus grove includes a variety of oranges, red and white grapefruit, lemons and pomelos. Since Mike and Gayle are in Florida during the winter months, they grow several vegetable crops along with the citrus fruit. “She grows salad greens, tomatoes, strawberries, eggplant, zucchini, peppers and herbs,” said Abigail. “But growing in sand is a lot different than growing up here in New York, so she’s been experimenting with different varieties.”
Abigail says that she and her siblings have a lot of ideas, and take advantage of down time during the winter to discuss potential changes for the farm. “That’s something I really enjoy,” she said. “The implementation of change, and trying to figure out what our customers want. The CSA wasn’t popular at first, then it became popular. Now I’m wondering if more people will want to shop at the farm store so they have more flexibility. It’s a fun challenge trying to adapt to what our customers want and how to meet their needs.”
The Thorpes will attend the upcoming NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York) in Saratoga Springs in January, where they will be recognized as that organization’s 2017 Farmers of the Year.
Visit Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm on line at www.thorpesorganicfamilyfarm.com .