Advice for Young Farmers: EP66 | Show Notes

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This is the Ag Engineering Podcast, that rolls right into the details on tools, tips, and techniques that improve you, your farm, and our world. I’m your host, Andy Chamberlin, from the University of Vermont Extension. And this podcast is sponsored by Northeast SARE. Thanks for listening. This episode comes to you from Westminster, West Vermont, where I visit with Howard Prussack of High Meadows Farm. He grows on six acres in the climate zone five, and his gross sales are around $350,000. This is the last episode in this series with Howard Prussack. After walking around the farm and talking about all kinds of equipment, I mentioned how, you know, someday I’d really like to sit down and like talk about his experiences farming over his career. And well, the conversation took a turn here and we ended up just talking about that now. So, this one is a little bit more philosophical and a little bit more about what he thinks would be valuable as a farmer in today’s modern age. I asked him the question, what would you tell your 20-year-old self knowing what you know now, and he kinda weaved in and out of that question throughout the conversation. So I hope you enjoy this one. Let’s jump right into it.
Well, good, I mean there are other things that people never ask me, and now I’m getting more philosophical in my overview and I’m trying to think of my legacy and what the future is.
Yeah, well that’s what’s interesting for me, I guess, as I work with a lot of young farmers, and you have a lot of expertise, so there’s a lot to learn from somebody who’s been in it for so many years.
Yeah, yeah, I get this feeling that they’re not looking at the long, like the long, well some of them are looking at the long-term view of what they’re doing. And like, you know, why are you, like what are you hoping to achieve? Are you trying to make a living, you gotta have a family and all these things? And sometimes I think they’re setting themselves up for really hardship, like you know, well we’re gonna, they’ve seen too many online YouTubes and too many people who’ve written books, and they want to do a sustainable ecological, like this whole thing of what they think they want to do. And we’re gonna do it on a quarter of an acre and make a living and my wife’s gonna bake bread and make muffins, you know. And it’s just like, it’s a big order, you know, a lot to do. And if they’re gonna have a lot of money to sustain. You know, sustainability, what does that mean? It’s like if your business isn’t sustainable, then all those things that you say you wanna do, and trust me, you’re not saving the planet. Everything, like all those adjectives, it’s all marketing. It all may be good, don’t think it’s bad, but don’t set yourself up. Don’t beat yourself up.
I’ve kinda picked up on that trend that a lot of the growers who have been at it for 10, 15, 20 years have really narrowed down their focus and selected a few crops and gotten good at that and they’re not trying to do everything so much.
Doing everything is impossible. You can’t do everything well. And that’s why we focus on, you know, we’re not doing microgreens. We’re not doing a lot of things. I don’t do beans, I don’t do peas, you know. We do basic, we do, even though sometimes they’re really just commodities, but if you can do ’em well and efficiently, you can make money at it. People do buy potatoes. People like, Vern once told me, he says, you grow squash and no one seems to think there’s money in squash, you know, growing winter squash. And I said, well, you know, there’s not a lot of money in winter squash. Well there’s not a lot of money in a few winter squash, but if you grow a lot of winter squash, there’s a lot of money. So it’s volume, you know.
So if you know, you grow 20 tons of winter squash, there’s good dollars there. And if you can do it efficiently, it’s a crop that there’s not a lot of hand, you know, once you plant, there’s not a lot of hand maintenance in it.
Right, right.
Because labor is the killer now. It’s the absolute killer, so you need to set up. Your system has to be set up so minimal labor.
Labor is definitely a big lever now. Was labor as big of a concern back in the eighties?
No, no wages were cheap, cheaper. And even though produce was cheaper, I mean I saved my invoices from the seventies, and I used to sell organic green mountain potatoes at 10 cents a pound.
It’s like crazy prices. 7.50 for a 50 pound bag of potatoes, you know, delivered in New York City.
What’s the rate now for a bag of potatoes?
I get $60 for a 40 pound bag. So yeah, things are different. And you know, wages are up considerably.
Everything’s up.
Everything’s up, yeah.
But, you know, one of the biggest problems in produce, people still remember what they paid for sweet corn 10 years ago and all this stuff.
You know, nobody remembers what they paid for gas, but somehow they remember how much potatoes should be. So we ignore and we raise our price, and we find our market, you know. Don’t pay my price, that’s fine. It’s sort of a self-curating system. People who won’t pay the price, they’re gone. People who are left, will pay. You know, they believe in what we’re doing.
Right, right.
It’s not everything for everybody.
I apologize for the audio on the remainder of this episode. I somehow didn’t save or lost the file from Howard’s mic. I did happen to hit record on the camera, but I was holding it and so it doesn’t have the greatest audio. But hang in there, because the conversation’s really good.
So this information you can glean from anybody, but it’s not an easy lifestyle to get into, that’s for sure.
Right, right.
But I’m glad I did. I’ve traveled the world being a farmer. Who would’ve thought that? I mean I could’ve been in any career and I wouldn’t have been to the countries I have been to. But I did it because of what I’ve done.
How do opportunities like that come up? How’d you network with those type of people?
I don’t know, it’s all erratic. But like you know, it just kinda falls in place, karma, one thing leads to another. It’s really bizarre. I ran into this guy from Bangladesh when I was in Nepal, and a few years later he calls me up. I want you to come to Bangladesh. And we were about to go, but I got scared because somebody had their head cut off. And it’s like, not this time, you know.
Thanks, but maybe later.
So he was very disappointed because we had our Visas. We were ready to go. I was bringing my wife, I was bringing somebody who worked for me. And then we were going on a trip, so. But yeah, it all just fell, one thing leads to another.
In case you don’t know Howard, I thought now would be a good time to ask a few introductory questions so you can get to know who he is and his business just a little bit more.
Howard Prussack, we are now sitting in the central office command center at High Meadows Farm in the heard of Westminster, West Vermont, which is southern Vermont. And I bought this farm in 1979, and I’ve lived in Westminster West since 1971. And that’s when I started on our farm, in 1971. So I’ve been involved in farming in this village for 50 years now. It’s my 50th anniversary. Tada, happy birthday.
And we were certified organic in 1976 by Grace Cacone. We were the first certified organic farm in Vermont.
That’s a fun statistic to hold.
Well that’s not gonna change, that’s the cool thing about it.
You’ve earned that title.
Yeah, you know, it’s like hey, that’s not going away no matter what.
Yeah, how many acres are you growing on?
Right now we have about six acres in production, and about six acres in rotation of green manure crops, and the rest is in hay. And we’ve got 25,000 square feet of greenhouse space and so a lot of, the business is horticultural and in vegetable.
And your markets are a lot of wholesale, some farmer’s market, right?
90% of our business is wholesale. And because of where we are, the geographic location of the farm, we’re on the corner of like three other states, so we deliver to four states from here with our own trucks every spring through the plant season. We’re in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
And what’s your climate zone?
It’s a five.
If you don’t mind sharing, what’s a rough sales range?
Well, it was pretty steady north of 500,000. We peaked at about 550,000 three years ago, but we’ve been slowly and purposely cutting back some parts of the business. We had a contract with Whole Foods that we’ve had for like 20 years, and we walked away from that. So that was a $70,000 contract every spring. But what was interesting was that our other business picked up that buy. Every time we try to simplify and shrink things, like the other accounts organically increase their sales, and we get rid of like, we’ll get rid of the last two years 50 different items. But the other sales on the remaining items go up. So, you know, it’s all category management. And I told somebody, like less is more.
And it works that way. But we have shrunk the business down to like 350,000 for this year.
But even 300,000, that sounds like a pretty good number for six acres.
Yeah, but it’s the greenhouses.
It’s the bedding plants.
Yeah, it’s greenhouses represent like 70% of our business and probably 70% of the profit margin. Right, cause your other main crops are squash, like you said, those aren’t the golden fruit.
Yeah, yeah, you know, it’s okay. Margin wise it does the best of our vegetables, but none of our vegetables could compete margin wise with our bedding plant business.
So, but we like growing vegetables. We like being outside during the summer. And it keeps everybody, it keeps us working and in vegetables. So it keeps us at the farmer’s markets. So we like that part of the business.
What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self? Or a 20-year-old getting started now?
Put your money in Microsoft. And pay attention when Amazon becomes a thing, buy all the stock you can. If I could tell my 20-year-old self that. Well I wound up buying a farm up in the hills as opposed to buying it along the river. And it’s a doubled edge sword. I mean, my life has been good up here. It’s a little harder to farm in the rocks and the hills, but on the other hand, we had much less disease and insects than friends of mine have down along the river. And so it’s hard to know. I mean it’s beautiful up here. I like it, but there’s no place in Vermont that’s not beautiful.
That’s true.
So I don’t know. I guess I would’ve learned better bookkeeping skills. My younger self should have paid more attention to basic skills. I should have learned how to weld.
And you know the trades, the trades are great to learn. Other than that, you know, I always did pay myself first. I made sure I saved money. And I learned that from my father who said, put aside your own money every day, every week, or whatever. And save it for someday. When you’re not working, you’re gonna be happy you did.
So what’s the next 10 years look like for ya?
We’re ratcheting it down a little more. Gonna continue the vegetables, but I’m looking forward to not working quite as hard so we can do more travel, now that COVID, well hopefully COVID’s over. We’ll see, but we haven’t traveled anywhere. Normally every winter we go away to someplace warm. South America, Central America, or whatever. I like to take my wife to Europe and stuff, so we’ll see. I wanna travel. I can afford to travel. We’re rebuilding our house, putting in a new kitchen. You know, now I can invest more time and money into making our lives better. And what I want to do is mentor other farmers. That’s what I’m working on now. I’m gonna be taking in three students coming in November who are interested in farming. So just spreading, passing on my learned experience and my half-baked wisdom and skills, and pass it along.
Well, you’re doing that right now, so thanks.
Thanks, Andy, I’m glad you came by, and I hope you enjoyed the visit.
Absolutely, it’s great to see everything you’ve got going on here. And it’s always fun to pick your brain on some of the nuance things that you might not talk about.
Did we even mention my black garlic, and we’re gonna develop more of our online sales with that and have products online.
Like we’re mail ordering joints, it looks awesome.
There you go.
It’s the future of farming, Vermont joints.
Like you said, you don’t even smoke it.
I don’t, I don’t smoke. I don’t drink, good health is your best wealth. That’s what I would tell my 20-year-old self is your only wealth is your health. So take care of your health.
What do you think the biggest impact on health would be? Like what’s the biggest thing you can do to stay healthy as a farmer who is always busy?
Learn ergonomics, learn how to lift correctly. Something I was never taught. Protect your back, learn how to lift correctly. Lift with your legs, lift with your back straight. Don’t lift with your back. Learn how to stretch, do yoga. I’d tell my 20-year-old self to do yoga. I would’ve been a yogi by now. So yeah, yoga would be great. Anything that keeps your muscles and limbs stretched and active. I’ve always eaten well, so that was good. But learning how to move correctly would be good. And take up tennis. Take up tennis I would tell my 20-year-old self.
Is that a hobby you do?
But it’s a good physical activity that’s one of the best conditioning things. And farmers, you know, we do work hard, and then a lot of us get really strong, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to overall physical health and muscular health. Whereas an active sport can really contribute to all around conditioning. So a lot of farmers don’t pay attention to conditioning, and that’s really important to get and stay in good shape. Mentally, for mental reasons and for physical reasons. It’s a physical lifestyle, so you gotta keep the chassis working and not rusting. It’s real important. So that’s something that we need to talk about more, ergonomics on the farm.
What hobbies do you do off farm to help your mental clarity? Or do ya?
What’s a hobby?
Farming is the hobby, right?
It is, I mean I do have a lot of old, I collect old farming magazines and periodicals and books. And I love looking at them. I like art, I used to paint and draw, and I’m gonna be getting back into doing that kind of stuff. So it’s really important I have a creative outlet. And my family’s been, my kids are great. I didn’t give them enough attention when I was starting the business. The farm and the business is just so demanding. And you don’t get those years back. So I would tell my younger self to pay more attention to the kids.
It’s hard because you’re trying to grow the business that sustains your lifestyle as well at the same time.
It is hard, and that’s an unfortunate by-product of our capitalist system that demands you work yourself to exhaustion to afford certain things. And one of the good things I see a lot of young farmers setting up is their lifestyle is gonna be more sustainable maybe if they could make it work, it’ll be admirable. That’ll be worth it. And I think I see a lot of people recognizing the fact that their family is like really important. So that’s a good thing. That can’t be stressed enough.
Yeah, well, that’s, you know, you said it was a hard thing for you. That’s a hard thing for farmers.
When farmers get together, it’s like production, production, production. That’s all we talk about.
All the seminars are, you know, production. Look at this gee wiz machine. It’ll increase by 12% your yield. That’s all we talk about. And I guess that’s natural and normal at any business. You know, you go to any convention for any trade or anything, a good old plumber’s convention, I’m sure their not showing pictures of their families to each other. They’re talking about plumbing or whatever you know. So it’s normal, but it’s good to be reminded and try to keep things in perspective. And vacations, I never took vacations when I was younger. That’s important, traveling is important. The more I travel, the more I know. And I didn’t know that, you know. So it is important to get outside of yourself and to get outside of Vermont. And I don’t mean going to New Hampshire either.
That don’t count.
New York.
Yeah, way over to New York, you know.
I mean, up to Maine feels like a vacation.
Going to Maine feels like another country. We were in Maine just several weeks ago, and it’s great. We went to Monhegan Island and I went to visit Samuel Kane up in Winthrop, Maine. I got a lot of farming friends up there. I didn’t make it to see Elliot this trip. Maybe next, hopefully next trip. So yeah, that’s what I would tell my 20-year-old self. And any 20-year-old who wants to get into it. Congratulations.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share or what you find would be important to share for new farmers, beginning farmers, or even seasoned growers that may be listening?
Plan what you’re gonna do and do what you’re gonna plan. Make your word mean something. Treat everybody nicely and treat your employees nicely. Treat your customers nicely. Treat everybody with respect. Be very honest.
Be a nice person.
And someday people might say, he was a nice person. Someone once told me, you wanna be the type of person that even the undertaker’s crying. So, it’s a goal, I’m not there yet.
Well, thanks for being on the show. Thanks for letting me interview you and follow you around your farm.
Good luck.
Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.
Yeah, it’s been fun.
Thanks for listening to today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If I can ask you or direct you to do one thing, that is to go to the website for this podcast,, that’s There you’ll find the show notes. You’ll find links to the farmer who we chatted with today, as well as photos or videos from the call when I visited the farm. If you’ve got some feedback to share, my contact information’s on there or you can leave me a voicemail. And you can do that right from the link in the description in the mobile app you’re listening to this to. So go ahead and do that. Thanks again for listening, and I hope you have a great day.