Families stick together, through thick and thin, and the Torreys of Elba, NY, are a group that does just that. With roots that go back to the 1600s to the current family farm in Elba, the Torreys, this year’s Grower Achievement Award winner, never let a little hard work stand in their way.
Today, this family farm is a year-round vegetable producer/distributor. Through the years, acreage increased from 700 to 7,000. Tackling tough issues along the way, one of the owners, Maureen Torrey Marshall, a longtime ag advocate, has taken up topics such as immigration reform and the Farm Bill with Congress.
However, it is Charles Torrey, the father of the farm’s current owners — siblings John, Mark, and Maureen — who is credited with placing the farm on the course it is today. Charles started the operation in 1954 and had the foresight to look down the road to “see what we should be doing in the future,” explains Maureen.
A turning point occurred in the early ’80s after the farm began producing storage cabbage. When a freeze hit Florida and Texas in December of 1983, the Torreys, fortunately, had 4,000 tons of uncommitted storage cabbage, making them a go-to cabbage supplier. Maureen adds that the farm’s location in upstate New York puts them at a tremendous advantage as the operation is within 40% of the country’s population overnight.
It also was in the early ’80s when the Torreys took over all aspects of their farm and catapulted from producing on 700 acres to 7,000. All the growing, packing, and shipping was done in-house, which was not the norm at the time.
Typically, back then growers were simply pro-ducing crops and having others pack and sell it, explains Maureen.
So how did they take the farm from 700 to 7,000 acres? Simply put, it took a lot of hard work. With Maureen handling the marketing and human resources aspects, and her brothers handling the growing and running the packing shed, coupled with the trios’ willingness to try new things, they were on a course to success.
“We aren’t afraid to try new varieties, and have always looked for what we can grow that is of good quality and volume that we have the packing facilities to manage,” says Maureen.
For example, they added green beans, yellow squash, and zucchini to their crop lineup, and in the ’90s onions became part of the list.
As Elba is known as the Onion Capital of the World, the operation had tried to grow onions in upland soils, but didn’t have much success. When they purchased some Elba muck land in 1992 — soil that is ideal for onion production — they became entrenched in the onion business. “Now we are shipping our stored onions 11 months a year,” she adds.
Lead The Labor Charge
No stranger to tackling tough issues or getting in front of an audience, Maureen delivered a statement to the Committee on Agriculture on the 2007 Farm Bill and has presented a couple of statements to Congress on the topic of immigration reform. As having enough labor has been a longtime concern, Maureen says for the last six years, the farm has used H-2A workers but adds that H-2A is merely a band-aid.
Last year, the operation lost 92 of its 100 employees who worked in the packing shed as the result of an I-9 audit. “So now we have new and inexperienced people, working on the packing line,” she explains. “The employees we lost averaged about 18 years of experience. Now we have to build it back up — from scratch.
“Labor is our No. 1 asset,” she continues. “We invest in [our employees]. We have a 401K program and we guarantee [employees] a 3% investment in profit sharing — many years as much as 15%. That includes all farm workers who worked 1,000 hours or more.”
On Top Of Food Safety
When the Food Safety Modernization Act became law in 2011, the Torreys were already prepared. Making sure the vegetables they produce are as safe as possible has always been a top priority of this New York farm. The operation is USDA GAP and GlobalGAP certified. “We have always been ahead of the food safety curve,” says Maureen.
For many years, the farm has worked with Betsy Bihn — a senior Extension associate in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University and program director of the Produce Safety Alliance — to stay current on food safety protocols. The biggest challenge in this area, adds Maureen, has occurred in the last couple of years, trying to educate some of their vendors on practical food safety practices.
Although the Torreys are not the type of people to tout their collective horn, this farm family has been a prominent member of the community, providing ample donations to food banks, monetary donations to various organizations, and has taken the reins in education programs — just to name a few activities.
Charles was instrumental in giving back to the community as he set up a fund before he passed away in 1989 to ensure money would be distributed on an annual basis to several organizations in Elba.
“These organizations have been receiving funds for nearly 25 years,” recalls Maureen. “Back then, we didn’t realize what an impact it would have on so many people. My brother, Mark, is president of the school board, and
I’m chairman of the board of trustees for the community college in our county. Our community is small but
we are very much a part of it.”
Maureen also is very active beyond the local community. Her resumé is quite extensive as she has been affiliated with numerous organizations including New York Federal Reserve Board, Erie Niagara Insurance Board of Directors, New York Farm Bureau, New York State Vegetable Growers Board of Directors — to name a couple of local organizations. She also is involved with United Fresh, the Produce Marketing Association, the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee, and National Council of Agricultural Employers. In fact, Maureen served as the 2006 United Fresh co-chairwoman.
The Farm’s Future
One of Maureen’s priorities, however, is the direction the farm will take when the 12th generation, Mark’s children, takes the reins. As quite a bit hinges on what happens with government policy, Maureen says she would like the group — Molly, Travis, Shannon, Jordyn, Lucas, Jed, and Maxwell — to enjoy the success she and her brothers have had over the years.
“If we can help shape and get the switch for action turned on and guide some of the government policies, the future will be awesome,” she concludes. “With the growing demand for food and having twice as many mouths to feed, we are fortunate that the U.S, has the most productive farmland in the world.”