Meet the 2017 Apple Grower of the Year
Though “paying it forward” has become a popular catchphrase for describing a wonderful act, good old-fashioned “paying it back” is a worthy thing, too.
One New York grower believes in both, and because of that, his farm — the farm he’s in the midst of turning over to the next generation — looks as if it will live long and prosper.
In part because of those qualities, American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines are pleased to announce Rod Farrow of Waterport, NY, is our 2017 Apple Grower of the YearSM. Farrow will be formally presented with the award, which is sponsored by Valent USA, at the annual USApple Association Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference in Chicago, Aug. 24-25.
Farrow follows in the footsteps of such early award winners as Grady Auvil and John Rice, as well as recent recipients Bill Dodd and Scott McDougall. But really, as the first winner to be born outside the U.S., Farrow has taken an entirely different path. Not only is he the first Brit to receive the award, it will be the first time a second grower from the same farm has been selected.
Exactly 20 years ago, George Lamont was named Apple Grower of the Year. The farm is still officially called Lamont Fruit Farm, though Lamont no longer has an ownership interest. Lamont, now retired and living near Lake Placid, says he’s proud of Farrow, and proud of the fact it’s the first farm with two award-winning growers.
“We must be doing something right,” he says, before adding with a chuckle: “There are some days that you wonder.”
Farrow was born in Ipswich, England, 75 miles northeast of London, in 1960. His introduction to farming came at the age of 13 when he and a friend rode their bikes into the country, looking for work.
“To this day, I haven’t been able to thank the first guy I met, a dairyman who dissuaded me from that,” Farrow says with a laugh.
Luckily, the next farmer he encountered was a fruit grower and not just any fruit grower. Dan Neuteboom was a well-respected horticulturist who often appeared on International Fruit Tree Association panels. Farrow worked for him during summers, and when it came time for high school graduation, Farrow found that to study pomology in England, he had to spend a year working on a farm. He asked Neuteboom where to go, and Neuteboom sent him to live with friends, French growers Jean Pierre and Hubert Marchand.
As Farrow crossed the English Channel at the age of 18 and went to the French family’s chateau, he recalls thinking: “I’d rather do this than go to college.”
He got his wish, and never did study pomology, preferring the hard knocks education he gained working around the world. After a year in France, Farrow asked Neuteboom for the name of a grower in another part of the world. “He said, ‘There’s this guy George Lamont….’”
So on a Sunday night in November, 1980, Lamont was putting apples into cold storage when Farrow knocked at the door. He ended up staying for nearly two years, living with Lamont and his family.
But Farrow still had some wanderlust, taking off in 1982 for New Zealand to work for a grower, Don Hirst, through a contact between Dr. Don McKenzie and the local Cornell Cooperative Extension agent in New York, Dick Norton.
Farrow was busy Down Under, making a three-month side trip to work for Japanese grower Takanobu Nakamura, and meeting the woman who would become his wife, Karyn.
Farrow knew he would return to New York to farm. Good farmland in New Zealand was going for $10,000 an acre, while in upstate New York it was less than $1,000 an acre.
“It was fairly obvious to me that if I was ever going to have my own orchard, [New York] would be the place to do it,” he says.
But it was much more difficult right off the bat than he thought. After he and Karyn returned to England he thought it would be a matter of months to get his green card, but it took three long years.
“Luckily, George stuck with us,” he says, still marveling at his friend and mentor’s loyalty.
Planning For Future Owners
Farrow was indeed lucky to have worked for Lamont. The latter man had been an exchange student, spending a semester in Sweden while a student at Cornell University, and as such, understood the potential benefits of bringing in experience from other parts of the world. Besides Farrow, another of the key young supervisors at Lamont Fruit Farm was an Israeli.
“I was never thinking I might sell the farm to one of them,” Lamont recalls. “But Rod had demonstrated his orchard management ability. His skills were obvious to Farm Credit.”
And perhaps the most important factor was that Lamont’s own children didn’t want to work the farm — a farm he wanted to keep going.
The two men — along with George’s brother, Roger, who also had an interest in the farm — spent years talking fruit growing and, later, how Rod might someday become the owner. The key, says Farrow, is they didn’t wait until it was too late to be feasible because such a change in ownership must be carefully planned.
“So many people wait until they are 65 or 70, which makes it really difficult for long-range planning. George and his brother Roger were willing to have those discussions in their 40s and 50s,” he says. “He’s the big reason I’ve been able to do all of this. I’ve spent more time with George than I have with my own father in the past 30 years.”
In 1999, Farrow bought into the orchard with the long-term guarantee he’d be the majority owner. He became majority owner in 2004, and then finally a decade later, in 2009, became full owner of Lamont Fruit Farm.
“It’s this kind of give and take you have to negotiate in succession planning,” he says. “It required a lot of cooperation from George, that’s for sure.”
Asked for advice in transitioning a farm to a non-family member, Lamont said first, the farm has to be big enough to bring the person in as a foreman. But you want to start the candidate at the bottom to see how he works. If satisfied, after a year or two, make him a foreman, then a manager, and then maybe you start profit sharing.
“We started profit-sharing with Rod at least 10, maybe 15 years, before he became owner,” says Lamont. “A lot of people wouldn’t have patience to wait for that.”
Planning for Future Owners
Now Farrow is testing the patience of two other young men. In recent years, he’s found himself in the same boat as Lamont did before him. Neither his 34-year-old daughter, Rebekah, nor his 26-year-old son, Sebastian, have any interest in farming. But he wants the farm to go on.
Incidentally, Farrow’s wife Karyn enjoys her time on the farm, and has run the office for the past nine years.
“She’s been a big part of making all this happen,” he says. “We couldn’t have worked together at 25, but at 45 it’s worked just fine.”
One of the two new young men came to Lamont Fruit Farm in 1994 as a picker. In 1995, Jose Iniguez started working for Farrow full time doing a little bit of everything. In 2001, he became a supervisor, and in 2003 a manager.
The other, Jason Woodworth, came to Lamont Fruit Farm in the winter of 2010 after working on his family farm for 14 years. In 2012, Farrow began selling them both shares in the business, as Lamont had once done for him.
“One of the most successful things you can do is hire a better replacement for yourself,” Farrow says. “Within 18 months of hiring Jason, it became obvious to me I needed to let these guys run the operation. I needed to get out of the way.”
Farrow said he made them the two production managers and started selling them the company with the guarantee that in five years it would be thirds. Actually, they did it in three years. Lamont worked out a similar arrangement with him in 1999, and then started running the New York Horticultural Society and setting up the Premiere Apple Cooperative.
“He showed me the importance of getting out of the way,” says Farrow. “It certainly helps speed the outcome.”
Today, while his wife still handles the office and he does finances, he has no involvement in the day-to-day running of the orchards.
“I miss it, but I went through a long period completely engrossed with work,” he says. “I never took a vacation with my family in the summer in New York, and finally when my daughter was 13 we took a four-day vacation and it was like ‘Holy Cow!’ I need to spend more time with my family. I was this close to being burned out.”
Today, Lamont Fruit Farm is poised for a bright future. Just one more change is in order. Even after Farrow owned the business outright, many growers still thought he was working for George. He doesn’t want Jason and Jose to have to deal with that, so they are in the process of changing the name to Fish Creek Orchards, an orchard ownership company that is equally owned by Rod, Jose, Jason and Kaari Stannard of New York Apple Sales.
“It’s tough enough to get out from under anyone’s shadow,” says Farrow, “so we decided we’d move away from the grower’s name.”
And who knows, perhaps the newest grower/owners will be having to explain what the name means in yet another 20 years, in 2037, the year they are awarded Apple Grower of the Year.
What Others Say About our 2017 Apple Grower of the Year
We received an overwhelming number of submissions to nominate Rod Farrow as American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines’ 2017 Apple Grower of the YearSM. Here is just a sampling of the submissions:
Rod is an amazing forward-thinking apple grower, from England to New York State his knowledge and his growing expertise is second to no one. Rod is also a leader, and one who adds to the formula, not just takes away. He is a founding member of numerous grower co-ops and partnerships that all benefit more than just his interests. He is most active in the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA), and serves on many grower boards. Working with others to strengthen the apple industry is Rod’s mode of operation. He is most deserving as Apple Grower of the Year.
— Jim Allen, Past President of the New York Apple Association
I’ve worked with Rod for the last five years at the Next Big Thing, A Growers’ Cooperative. We compare our returns per pound on SweeTango and he has beat me three years in a row. Rod strives for excellence and hits it often. I love his jovial spirit and laser focus. He knows what he wants and does a great job to communicate it to his team. Rod and his team rank near the top of all the growers we work with around the globe. He is very open and will teach his secrets to anyone who asks.
— West Mathison, Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, WA
Rod has demonstrated the highest level of leadership, cooperation, horticultural knowledge, and industry involvement that address the needs of New York’s fruit industry and the U.S. fruit industry. Rod has been a strong supporter of Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Lake Ontario Fruit Program. He travels extensively looking for new technologies and business opportunities and believes cooperation is as important as competition. Rod has been instrumental in the development of on-farm demonstration projects that deliver hands-on experience to growers. These research sites have been valuable tools to familiarize growers with new and improved horticultural techniques, and have been instrumental in helping convince New York fruit growers to plant higher-density orchards. This shift has been instrumental in keeping New York tree fruit growers competitive in the national and global marketplace.
— Mario Miranda Sazo, Fruit Extension Specialist, Lake Ontario Fruit Program, Cornell Cooperative Extension