From left to right: Matt, Gary, Rudy, Mike, and Harold
Change is inevitable. As we all know, nothing stays the same and that also applies to farming. Growing vegetables isn’t the same as it was 50 years ago. Equipment has changed, Mom and Pop grocery stores have just about disappeared, and the input costs involved in production are considerably higher than they were just a few years ago.
One of American Vegetable Grower’s Top 100 Growers in the North, Kludt Brothers in Kendall, NY, is an operation that has embraced change and has met with success for more than 50 years. This farm family has seen many things come and go over the years and has managed to thrive through it all.
In the 1950s, brothers Harold and Rudy Kludt formed Kludt Brothers Inc. The farm actually was started by Harold and Rudy’s father, Otto, as a dairy and grain farm.
Vegetables were later added to the mix and the farm is now run by cousins Gary and Mike Kludt with the help of their children. Today, three generations are working on the farm as Harold (Gary’s father) and Rudy (Mike’s father) are still involved in the day-to-day operations.
According to Gary Kludt, one of the biggest changes that occurred over the years is the amount of required paperwork. “The paperwork that goes along with our business today — compared to even 15 or 20 years ago — has increased significantly and we have to be more efficient.”
One of the ways he is working on efficiencies is to update existing equipment and keep up with changes in technology. According to Gary, understanding and using available technology is to a grower’s advantage. Not all of this new technology works in every situation, but he says it is best for all farms to look for the best value for their money.
Mike Kludt says in the last five years, GPS technology has provided increased efficiencies. Specifically, he says, the farm now can precisely apply herbicides and fertilizers to crops. “Now there is no overlap and the application process is much quicker,” explains Mike. “All of the machinery we use is computerized and we can determine how fuel efficient we really are.”
Today, the operation includes a total of 7,000 acres. About 4,000 of those acres are dedicated to vegetables mainly grown for processing. The list of crops includes beans, sweet corn, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, carrots, peas, and beets. Kludt Brothers produce for Allen Inc. (formerly Birds Eye), Seneca Foods, and Great Lakes Kraut Company — just to name a few. The remaining acreage is used to grow field corn and wheat.
The 7,000 acres is a far cry from the number of acres the farm started with back in the ‘50s. Harold and Rudy began farming on 150 acres and, over the years, expanded, acquiring additional land whenever it became available.
“We had to become a larger farm in order to survive,” says Rudy. “We had to diversify and grow vegetables. ”
Because of the high cost of inputs,
Mike (left) and Gary Kludt have
become more efficient applying nutrients.
Another change the farm has had to come to terms with is the labor and immigration situation. As no agreement has been reached by Congress, and some of the Kludts’ crops require hand harvesting, the farm decided to use H-2A workers this past growing season. According to Gary, it has been a tough road to travel.
The farm now hires about 20 laborers before harvest using the H-2A program. The workers came during the third week of May and are kept busy through harvest. “Because of the immigration problems that we are having in the country right now, we are trying to keep a step ahead of the immigration situation and make sure that everyone we have here on the farm is here legally,” Gary explains.
Adding more work to their plates, Gary says being in compliance with the H-2A program is a time-consuming process, requiring additional paperwork. “It just doesn’t happen within a month,” he explains. “It took us three months to get everything right. It wasn’t easy.”
Before the farm opted to go with the H-2A program, some of its help had come from Hispanic populations in Florida and Texas. According to Gary, he was using the same group of people every year. He decided to discontinue their employment because he had some concerns about the paperwork they would supply.
“If the paperwork didn’t match immigration documents, the workers would be taken away,” he explains. “Then you are left with no help because the workers aren’t just gone for a day, they are gone for weeks. It is a huge problem if you have to do packing or picking at a specific time. I’ve seen this happen to other growers in the area.”
So what are the labor plans for next year? Gary says he will use H-2A workers again. “I don’t have a choice,” he says. “There is no interest from any one else in the area to do this kind of hand labor.”
Even though labor has been an issue, at least disease pressure has not. The farm, however, did experience some cucumber blight and had to deal with some blight issues in its bean crop.
Originally a dairy and grain farm started by Rudy (left)
and Harold Kludt’s father, Otto, the operation later added
vegetables. Rudy and Harold formed Kludt Brothers,
Inc. in 1953.
“We sprayed right away for the cucumber blight and that brought back most of the cucumber plants,” Gary says. For the string beans, we didn’t lose the crop, either. It just didn’t yield like it should. Every year is different and it’s always something that must be dealt with,” he adds.
The High Cost Of Doing Business
With high input costs also impacting the bottom line, growers are faced with a dilemma because, in most cases, they can’t pass much of the cost onto consumers or processors. According to Gary, he tries to pay attention to pricing and purchase fuels, fertilizers, and crop protectants when they are at their lowest price. Four months ago, he was able to buy potash for $200 a ton and in August it was $300 a ton.
According to Mike, high input costs are part of the reason the farm has become more efficient with how it applies crop nutrients.
“Our crops are contracted so we can’t recoup the money we spend on inputs,” Gary explains. “The only way to get ahead is if you get a good yield. We have to rely on Mother Nature to give us the proper rains — and not too much rain.”
When the grain market increases, however, Gary says the vegetable market increases as well. “This past winter, the price of field corn went up and that pushed everything up,” he says.
Because the farm is always looking for ways to reduce its expenses, it makes sense for the Kludts to continue to fix and retrofit their own equipment.
“The day we are done harvesting we go back into the shop to work on the equipment,” Gary explains. “We bring every piece of equipment through the shop so it will be ready for use the following spring.
“We had a fire in 1984 and we had a new shop built at that time,” he continues. “Now it is time to expand the shop. Back in 1984, the facility was 25 feet wide and some of the equipment was 20 to 30 feet wide. Today, things are 30 to 45 feet wide. Because we can’t get as much machinery in the same building, we are expanding.”
Cabbage for processing is mechanically harvested.
When the harvesting season is over, the Kludts bring all
equipment to its on-site shop for maintenance and repair.
With expanding the machine shop in the near future, where would Gary like to see Kludt Brothers down the line? To sum up, he’d like to see it continue to be run by his family.
His son, Matt, 28, works on the farm and his daughter, Lisa, works in the office with their mother Linda. Matt and Lisa’s spouses also help with the farming operation. Russ, Lisa’s husband, works in the fields and Jill, Matt’s wife, helps in the office.
Matt, however, has been working on the farm for years. “We couldn’t keep him away from it,” says Gary. “He was always around when we were working.”
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” Matt adds. “I’ve always found it to be enjoyable. I’ve also learned that to be successful in this business you have to communicate well, and you have to have fun.”
Joining Gary’s family in the operation are Mike’s two sons: Andrew, a freshman in college who plans to return to the farm upon graduation, and Phillip, a junior in high school.
What Gary would like to see most, however, is a positive forecast for the industry overall. “I want these kids to have a reason to keep farming,” he says. “They need something to look forward to every year.
“Hopefully, the vegetable market will increase in price so they will make some money,” he says. “The kids on our farm are very energetic and they want to do different things, but it is hard to start something new because input costs are so high.”