by Kelly Gates
The Mercer family of Prosser, WA has owned and operated farms for more than six decades, raising sheep and cattle in the early years and presently, growing everything from carrots, potatoes, onions and kale to wheat, sweet corn seed, alfalfa and even wine grapes.
According to Jerry Fitzgerald, vice president of farm operations for the company, it takes a significant amount of coordination and self-sustenance for the employees at Mercer Canyons to manage the diverse operation.
“We’re not like most farms that focus on just a few crops. We grow a lot of different crops and have created three different divisions with two primary managers in each one to keep everything running smoothly,” Fitzgerald told Country Folks Grower. “We break up the farm as evenly as possible, depending on the amount of effort it takes to manage the various types of crops. It is very much a team effort.”
Having two supervisors per department keeps the workflow consistent from season to season, even when people take vacation time or sick days. And, while many of the employees there have worked for Mercer Canyons for many years, when there is turnover, there is always someone on board to continue managing until a replacement can be found, he added.
The staff meets weekly to determine work schedules and equipment rotation. These regular organization sessions also provide the opportunity to discuss how equipment and production processes can be adjusted to create better efficiencies for the farm.
“Because we are able to use some of the same equipment for various crops, we sit down and create a weekly schedule that determines who will use which machines when,” said Fitzgerald. “We also encourage our crew to look for ways to improve our equipment. Aside from tractors and discs, I’m not sure there is a piece of equipment we own that hasn’t been tweaked in some way to better suit our planting or harvesting needs.”
Usually, the mechanically inclined workers are able to add parts or change existing equipment to enhance their output in the farm’s fields. Sometimes, components are sent out to third party machinery or tooling companies for alterations before being reattached in-house.
Modifications are made to improve planting accuracy, improve cultivation methods, and in general, to reduce costs and produce a higher quality crop, he said.
We share equipment across departments because we, like most farms out there, would go bankrupt if we tried to purchase the amount of equipment we would need to meet all our needs all the time,” noted Fitzgerald. “We have learned to be self sustaining at the farm, maximizing the efficiency of our equipment and staff. But we also provide many of the resources for people in our part of the county too, almost like we’re running our own small municipality here.”
Mercer Canyons has a number of workers who volunteer as firemen. One of their crop managers spent 10 years as a full time paramedic in a very busy metropolitan area before going to work there. So when there is an emergency on the farm or elsewhere in the region, the company’s staff is often first on the scene.
The Mercer family also owns a domestic water company and an irrigation operation. Both provide water for the farm’s crops and for local residents, farmers and businesses.
The owners certainly understand the importance of water in a farming outfit like theirs. According to Fitzgerald, it’s easy to forget that we live in a desert and without the water we don’t exist.
“Each crop requires a different pattern of irrigation, planting matrix, cultivation, crop protection, fertility, and harvest methods,” he said. “Our recipe for cultivating high quality crops has been refined over many years and is constantly being manipulated in a continuing effort to improve quality and yield. We have customers who have come to expect only the best from us and we take great pride in delivering those results. One of the advantages we have on the farm is the availability of many small fields, 40 acres and less on which we can experiment. Whether it’s trying out different produce varieties or different growing methods, these trial fields enable the farm to continually improve its list of offerings.”
The crop managers also work closely with customers-mainly processing businesses-to determine what and when to plant. The precise varieties of carrots, potatoes, onions and other items are selected based on when they can be planted and harvested and when the processors will need to receive shipments.
“As soon as a crop is harvested in the summer or fall, we start taking steps to prepare ground for the next season and customers begin notifying us about what they will want the following year,” said Fitzgerald. “This year, we know that we will need to plant carrots first, then peas. Potatoes and onions will go in the ground in the middle of March, weather permitting, in order for us to align with our processor customers’ schedules.”
The processors use Mercer Canyons’ produce in various ways. Some juice them or turn them into baby food. Others dice and cut the carrots, broccoli, potatoes and various vegetables before mixing them into frozen food blends.
Many of the conventional potatoes grown there are cut into french fries and sold to large restaurant chains like McDonalds, Burger King, Red Robin as well as grocery stores.
“We grow carrots for a Washington company that sells them as fresh whole carrots and some as fresh, peeled baby carrots,” said Fitzgerald. In addition we sell carrots to several other companies who process the carrots into various different finished products. “Because several of these companies are located quite a distance from us we clean the carrots before shipping them to reduce as much of the dirt, rocks, and foreign material as we can in order to reduce the cost of freight as well as to make it easier for our customers to receive and process the carrots.”
Onions and potatoes are also cleaned before being sent out. However, instead of a central wet washing facility, like the one used for carrots, these mobile cleaning stations don’t use water but the same goal is accomplished which is to remove as much of the dirt, rock, and foreign material as possible before shipping the product to their customers. The cleaning stations are mobile and are move around the farm for convenience and efficiency.
The farm has also grown wine grapes for regional wineries since 1972. In 2005, the Mercer family opted to open its own winery and many of the red wine varietal grapes it grows are used internally to make cabernet, merlot and focus wines.
With so many crops to consider and intricate operational elements to boot, the owners, supervisors and staff at Mercer Canyons always have something to do. But the coordinated efforts of everyone involved and many decades of practice perfecting production have made the farm a successful business, one that stands to thrive well into the future.
Mercer Canyons ~ Fine tuning for improved quality and yield
by Kelly Gates