by Kelly Gates
Approximately 45 miles northeast of Syracuse, NY is a small city called Rome that is home to the multi-faceted Wagner Farms. Owner Ronald Wagner has spent more than 20 years modifying his crops, acreage and overall business strategy to create optimal efficiencies and profitability. Continual adjustment, he said, is the key to surviving and thriving in the world of farming.
“If you can’t reevaluate things and adjust, it’s hard to succeed in this business,” Wagner said. “For us, it’s been all about constantly looking out for the niche nobody else has done. Growing fig trees is one of those niches for our farm.”
Wagner Farms currently has 70 fig trees in house. The company grows virtually every variety available in a range of fruit colors including brown, black, yellow and purple. Seventy more fig trees are being added to the mix this year, an effort that will bring the total to 140 in production by 2015.
“We started buying exotic cuttings during the winter and planted about 30 different varieties. Around 100 of those cuttings were successful,” noted Wagner. “Some of the first fig trees we bought six years ago have been planted up from one-gallon to 15-gallon containers for permanent production, which takes up about half of our 30 ft. x 96 ft. greenhouse.”
The remaining 50 percent of the indoor facility is filled with cucumbers and tomatoes, plus four banana trees and a single pineapple tree. The produce from these plants is sold at farmers markets to customers, many of whom have been buying fruits and vegetables from the farm since its inception.
According to Wagner, produce was once his central focus. He began his farming career by planting half an acre of vegetables in his family’s garden when he was just a seventh grader.
“I sold produce throughout middle school and high school during the summer months, and I also ran a lawn care business for a number of years,” he said. “One thing fell into another and after expanding each year, I had around three acres of produce. I stopped doing lawn care and focused completely on growing.”
By 2006, Wagner Farms had expanded to more than 100 acres. But two separate periods of flooding wreaked havoc on the region, destroying all of the fall crops — and the crops of many other farms in the area — causing the experienced farmer to ultimately file for bankruptcy. Along with devastation, the disaster brought invaluable insights into efficiency, said Wagner. He took a long, hard look at his business and began implementing changes that helped the farm evolve into a profitable business.
“We grew a lot of produce, including some berries and other fruit crops, selling at five to six farmers markets each week. That required us to have three trucks on the road each week, with two trucks out at the same time some days,” Wagner explained. “It took so much money to fund the labor and for fuel and overhead costs, so we decided to downsize our staff and only sell at two markets instead.”
The internal cutbacks put Wagner Farms back on the map. Then, the onset of the “buy local” movement prompted the grower to reassess his strategy yet again.
According to Wagner, while he grew much of his own produce, around 50 percent of what he sold was purchased from growers outside the region. So when consumers began asking exclusively for locally grown fruits and vegetables, his business took a huge hit. The $3,000 and $2,000 he was making at two farmer’s markets fell to $1,500 and $500, respectively.
In response, he turned to row crops —soybeans, corn, wheat, barley, oats, rye and straw — to make the best use of his vast acreage.
“We had been growing popcorn as a niche crop, so I knew how to grow corn. I bought a Gleaner combine and put in corn and soybeans and grew small grains and straw too,” said Wagner. “That year, prices of the crops I was growing skyrocketed, and the farm was very profitable. When I looked at the books and realized it only cost me around 10 percent in labor to grow things like small grains versus 50 percent in labor for produce, it made more sense for us to use the bulk of the land for these crops, crops I could manage myself.”
Today, around 150 acres at Wagner Farms are used for these crops. Produce is still grown on about 10 acres. And the rest of the emphasis is on greenhouse growing.
Unfortunately, 2013 was a bad weather year, bringing downpours that flooded the farm’s row crops and even the cherries and raspberries, despite their seemingly safe position atop hills on the property. Wagner was able to replant his corn and soybeans. He then opted to move most of his other efforts indoors.
“That’s when we really started to look at figs as a strong niche crop,” he said. “Last year, we had nine fig trees in our greenhouse that produced 300 half pints. In the fall, we purchased another 60 and now have 70 in production.”
Wagner also grows Brugmansia (angel’s trumpet) trees. Initially, he had seven varieties of Brugmansia and now has more than 30. Today, he sells species with single, double, triple and quadruple flowers, among others.
Wagner plans to add another greenhouse in upcoming years to accommodate the ever-growing number of fig and Brugmansia trees. He expects to construct a 40 ft. X 144 ft. Omni greenhouse, an endeavor that will add 6,000 sq. ft. to his outfit.
“I prefer Omni because they have a guaranteed snow load and we get a lot of snow here,” he said. “I’m going to go as energy efficient as possible with that greenhouse, using white poly to keep the space cool and roll up walls instead of fans. Radiant floor heat will help keep the figs at around 50 degrees during the winter and I’ll have a flood floor system instead of drip irrigation since we still have to spot water bigger fig trees with drip.”
With a new greenhouse in place and a diverse list of plants, produce and grains to sell, Wagner Farms will be better prepared to handle any adversity Mother Nature or the market might manifest in the future, he added.
When in Rome
by Kelly Gates