by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Founding a successful agriculture/culinary business relies on an owner’s ability to tweak the business to the times. Plenty have folded when demand drops, tastes change or another business offering more comes into the area. That’s why Alfresco FLX presented a panel on the topic at its recent virtual event. Alfresco FLX (Finger Lakes) focuses on farm- and food-based business in the New York Finger Lakes region.
The panel included John Ingle, owner of Heron Hill Winery in Hammondsport, and Brian Nicholson, owner of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva.
Although Ingle’s winery is doing well currently, it wasn’t always the case. He entered the business without agricultural knowledge, equipped only with a desire to raise his children on a farm. After a couple of seasons, he caught onto grape growing and supplied area wineries. In the 1970s, an influx of cheaper California grapes “pulled the rug out from under the grape farming industry,” he said.
Any grape-growing farm without contracts abruptly found itself without customers. Selling grapes to wineries nearby wasn’t working because buying from California was cheaper. In an era before “buy local” motivated consumers, wine producers had no incentive to pay more for local grapes.
Instead of giving up, he realized, “This isn’t going to go away. How we can we deal with this going forward?” He learned a friend was trying to grow European grapes in the Finger Lakes. Since that represented a departure from the varieties commonly grown in the region at the time, Ingle opted to take on the challenge. He also founded a winery to solve his problems, but discovered it started more problems.
“We learned a lot,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s been 43 years. It’s always been a love relationship of pride and passion. Whatever you do, it’s about selling your products.”
After visiting Napa Valley in 2000, Ingle realized he didn’t have just a farm and winery – he had a potential destination. “People want to learn how it’s made, taste some wine, have a little music, see the views,” he said – so he began to make Heron Hill Winery into a destination.
“Things ballooned over the years from a simple life of growing grapes and I was thrown into the business world trying to make it work,” he said.
Brian Nicholson grew up on a farm, left, and then returned to agricultural life. The third generation at Red Jacket, he launched the successful fresh bottled juice division of the company. Despite decades of Red Jacket selling fresh fruit through the farm market and several farmers markets (50 at its peak), Nicholson saw potential in making juice. Though the farm was 500 acres by 2000, he felt “everyone works too hard and there’s not enough money,” he said.
It’s a problem many family farms face. Instead of slogging forward selling only fresh fruit in markets, Red Jacket invested in a juice plant and began the pivot from grower to juice brand. “We have to be on the shelf all year long,” Nicholson said.
Although apples – one of the farm’s major crops – can last a long time in storage, offering a value-added product has helped Red Jacket fill shelf space and excite consumers.
Red Jacket scaled back on farmers markets but maintains its flagship store in Geneva. They now represent a beverage brand that ships from Maine to Texas. By changing to meet customers’ desires for a local, fresh product, Nicholson discovered a way to make Red Jacket more profitable for future generations.
Ingle advised those looking to make a dramatic shift in their business plans to put all their options on the table, even if they seem silly. “I throw out the ones that aren’t going to work,” he said. “It’s great to have a Plan A but always have a Plan B. Plan A isn’t always going to work for you. Don’t stand there going ‘Now what am I going to do?’
“Mother Nature is a cruel mistress,” he continued. “Many times, we’ve had to suck it up and bounce back when we were wiped out. It’s a challenge to be a farmer. You never know what to expect. You know there isn’t any way to control it. You have to rebound from drought and frost and now there’s global warming. But it’s also exciting because we’re planting grapes we never would have before. It’s a full-time job to keep up with the variables.”
“Farmers are the risk takers,” Nicholson added. “There’s an enormous amount of risk. If you look at ag in our area, that’s what makes it great. We have a system set up so people can take risks and there’s value. We’d made cider since the ‘50s. If you’re growing apples, only a certain percent of it will ever make it to the fresh market. You’re not rewarded at all for your waste product. In our juice business, we’re reclaiming our waste product. Farmers are frugal and don’t want to waste anything. My grandparents used the waste to make cider. We’re reclaiming value.”
Nicholson realized that cider is a seasonal item that people associate with autumn. To get them drinking a Red Jacket product year-round, juice was the way to go – and not only apple juice. Introducing more novel juices like cherry-apple juice has piqued much more interest.
“For the entrepreneurs out there, it’s never a straight line,” Nicholson said. “You need a Plan B, C, D – and it doesn’t always go in order. Handle your product and present it to consumers directly. We had so many areas of failure that was going to happen.” He recalled different experiments in juice flavors that were awful and past issues of produce inconsistency.
Nicholson also attributes Red Jacket’s success to timing in the market. “Timing is everything,” he said. “We were able to get into New York City when juice was hot. We got on a trend that sugar is bad. Eighty percent of the population still drinks juice. When you get them a really good juice, they become extremely loyal.”
The farm has also pulled back from greenmarket operations – a difficult decision considering Red Jacket grew its business there. But the decision to focus more on juice “was the big pivot over the past seven to eight years,” Nicholson said. “I loved our greenmarket operation, as it got us to where we are, but running farm markets in New York City is another expertise. We’re now putting a lot of energy in trying to become an iconic brand in the fresh juice business.”
The panelists also served up sage words of advice regarding the future of agriculture.
“Sustainability is real. Embrace it and join it and in 25 years, it will be a way of life,” Ingle said.
Nicholson said to focus on the local food movement. “I sat through meetings with buyers and the consumers are dictating local,” he added. “We all want to reinvest in our science and technology as long as we’re viable businesses with consumer demand. It’s community feeding. You know the people you’re buying from. Please continue to support the infrastructure. The focus on people understanding our region will only continue to spike.”