Twist of Fate
This feature is a health article but not on human health but the health of a fledgling business. It portrays the struggles of starting a business, paying the bills and the mortgage and just keeping afloat. It is a personal story of our family starting an operation, Peacedale Farms and Market in Schodack New York a little south of Albany. We look back on this experience not just for the living it provided us, but for the incredible relationships we had with the people who advised us, family and friends but also for the dedicated and motivated people who worked by our sides.
"You can tell a person by the company they keep"
This is a tricky quote because the company you keep does not always result from your actions, although going out of your way to associate with the wrong company is certainly the worst scenario. But there are other means of connecting with "The company you keep". You certainly don't have any control of who your parents are and your parents are a direct reflection on you, even if they are slobs. People can be suspicious of your family tree and conversely if you were fortunate to have the caliber parents my wife and I had this will be a head start in life. Now if you shamefully use up this capital, the good name of your parents quite honestly there isn't a place in hell hot enough for you, and that is what I really think as harsh as it may sound.
The classical "company" example is your spouse. You make the wrong decision regarding a partner for life and that will have a huge bearing on what transpires in your life.
Then you have the obstacle of those who have such a self centered independent nature that they do not reach out for the right "Company". In most cases a "Twist of fate" the heading of this feature can make all the difference in the world. It was in my personal case in fact every relationship I had from my parents, my wife's parents, my wife, my children, the people who advised me down through the years and the people who worked alongside of us, was just a stroke of good luck. My Dad told me on more than one occasion "Bob you are so lucky that if you fell into a 2 holer, you would come out of it with a new suit of clothes."
There of course is the possibility that my life was chartered from the start with a design to prepare me as a messenger, as an apostle to bring these worldly experiences I have gained with the help of others, via the new age of communications and hopefully deployed for the betterment of humanity. I certainly hope my immediate family takes this information under their belts because they will be a lot better for it. For others, perhaps they may just consider this to be good reading.
Unfortunately there were no self help books that were published at the time that would help us make important decisions that would lead us to success.
I say there were no books published concerning our model of farming and roadside marketing, but there was one book I read from a Napoleon Hill that advised you to enlist what he referred to as "Your group of personal advisors" and to listen to them attentively. We eventually had a half a dozen advisors in addition to my Dad and Pappa my father-in-law. I could write a 1000 page book on the wisdom of those two giants in my life.
For this feature I am going to relate different experiences I had with 4 different individuals. If you lined them up in a mug shot you would not believe that these 4 individuals could possibly have played an enormous role in my path but they did. In the process of listening to them attentively you would not only gain their wisdom, but with your respect and attentiveness you would receive a windfall of wisdom simply based on your humility and the quality response you would receive from these flattered advisors at times would be staggering. I think the most important point to make is and if you don't remember anything pertaining to this article remember the following point and that is with this humble approach, you will gain their respect and admiration because you have exhibited the intelligence to seek advice from another and especially them.
Ironically there were many pieces of advice I received from all of them that I respectfully discarded, simply based on the fact that the shoe did not fit.
Unfortunately without the information age and its storage and recording abilities most of this wisdom would be buried with them as they are all long gone. I say it would be buried, because I intend to pursue for the rest of my life and recall some of the fascinating trains of thought that so many had, but again buried forever with them by recording it for the generations in front of me. What would you give to read about the lives of your ancestors and how they conducted their daily activities and how they achieved their goals?
I have often commented that I would receive better information from an advisor than they would actually provide to themselves, simply based on the approach with a little of their ego thrown in and I say that with admiration. People will call upon extraordinary powers when they are complimented with the humility of another as long as it is genuine. You don't want to be a phony, because most will detect it.
The first of the 4 individuals, an elderly colored migrant worker by the name of Will Odoms. He had a vast amount of down to earth wisdom that I fed on for 20 years plus, especially agricultural practices.
Will picked apples for us and we had a system where the picker would put a voucher paper in his row of boxes in the orchard under the tree they were picking from. We would pick up the boxes, and verify the count. Most pickers used the format of 4 dashes and a cross through it to total 5 to make it easier for all to count. I didn't know that this method was favored by the illiterate. At the time I was not conscious of the pitiful aspects of illiteracy.
On one occasion I needed some extra pickers one early morning to fill a sweet corn order to a supermarket. I asked Will to show up for the first time ever to pick sweet corn. The requirements were to place 54 ears in a bag. That was the standard. We started out this early morning with a little daylight, about 6 of us including Will. I was going up my row setting the pace picking one ripe ear after another. I looked back and I didn't see Will. I walked back a ways and there was a young migrant picker that was going through some hand gyrations with Will. I was a little upset and said "What are you guys doing, I have to get this order up to Albany soon". I thought they were doing some type of a primitive gambling as they used to shoot crap every Saturday night after they got paid.
The young migrant said "Mr. Bob, Will can't count" I said "What do you mean he can't count" and I went on and said, "One, Two, Three etc." The young man said the only way Will is going to accurately get 54 ears in the bag is if, and he showed me by raising one full hand with 5 fingers, and showing two full hands with 10 fingers indicating 5 times 10 equals 50 and one more hand with 4 fingers to total 54. Don't ask me how Will was able to pick corn with one hand, hold on to the bag with another and go through the finger gyrations to maintain his count. I checked a few of his bags and guess what, they were all on the button 54 ears.
I was stunned because at the time in my early 20s I did not know there was anyone in the world that could not count. At that point I said my God, this man can't even count, but yet he has been and continued to be one of my very special advisors.
The moral of this story is, if you have the good fortune of obtaining an advisor relationship with an elder, don't grade his/her quality of advice by the amount of education they may have had or even if you have discovered at times where they were not up to speed on a subject, because the next subject matter and their input could very well knock your socks off. I have asked questions of individuals that you would never guess would produce a quality response only to be startled by their perspective.
Walter Mahler was a hard headed Dutchman farmer who had a vast knowledge and he knew how wet behind the ears I was when I started. He was a wonderful and generous man. In fact he was so generous to me the only way I can tell you how generous he was as most in the farm community are, is with an experience we had planting butternut squash potted plants with a prototype planter from Union Carbide. It was a device that laid down black plastic mulch about 3 foot wide and had a clam shell action. The clam shell would penetrate the plastic and plant the pots and heel them in besides. Now Union Carbide knew there were many glitches to the machine and needed some guinea pigs to get the mechanical problems solved so they offered the machine for loan free. We had a nightmare on our hands with 2 of my best mechanics working with me. We were pulling our hair out trying to tout the plastic and have the pots planted at the proper depth.
Up the road comes Walter Mahler. He gets out of his truck chews me up and down for not having the brains to calibrate this machine properly and goes about showing us the details of settings as he had used the machine a few weeks before in his plantings. Our ground conditions were different and we had to make different adjustments than the way he left the machine.
The squash plants took off soon after planting and we had a bumper crop, such a bumper crop that one September evening we loaded a flat bed truck with 368 bushels of Butternut squash. Early next morning I pulled into the Menands farmers market where there were two lines of the backs of trucks facing one another where the buyers promenaded. We expected a rush to our trucks as squash had just started and we had an early edge because of the heat generated by the plastic.
I looked across to the other lineup of farmers and who was there with a truck load of Butternut Squash?, you guessed it Walter Mahler. To make a long story short the market was flooded and there were no buyers at a decent price for most of it. We both took our loads home.
So the moral of this story was, don't help a fellow farmer who is wet behind the ears, especially if it can cut your own throat as it did Walters.
But wait a minute this isn't the end of the story. The next summer we were out in the same field struggling again with the same problems we had the previous season and who comes up the road? You guessed it Walter Mahler. He got out of his truck threw his old farmers hat on the ground and went about dressing us up and down and yes once again solving our problems. He had zero concern how our success would again come back to haunt him with his aid no less. That is what you call a true blue advisor. Actually we had a great deal of rain that fall and for those who didn't plant on plastic they were drowned out. Walter and I cornered the market that fall on Butternut squash. We made a bundle.
One short story before I enter into the heart of this particular story. I used to go to auctions all over the northeast with Joe during the winter as this is how I accumulated almost 30 miles of irrigation pipe. We were a little late to an auction in Jersey one Saturday morning and there must have been 300 pick up trucks of farmers attending. There were no parking spaces along the road unless you wanted to walk a mile or more. Joe had a big old Cadillac and picked an area a very wet area in a beet field to drive into knowing he would sink out of sight, and he did. I said "Joe, how the hell are we going to get out of here" He said "You see that big John Deere tractor over there, I am going to bid it in and after the auction we will borrow a chain and you will pull me out to the road. The auction started and it came to the bidding on this tractor. Joe and another interest kept bidding higher and higher, they were passed 20 grand. Joe walked over to his competitor and said to him "If you want to buy that tractor, I will stop bidding, you can have it, but you will have to pull me out of the beet field with it. The farmer said sure, and he did.
The "advisor" part of this segment happened one day when myself and about three of my help trying to lift some very heavy trusses on top of this warehouse we were building. They were 30 foot long and trusses this long are very wobbly on the side. We tried to get 2 of them up and they busted in half. We could have hired a crane out of Albany but the thousand bucks it would cost was against my grain and pocketbook.
Up the road coming I heard a familiar sound of a large tractor with it poot, poot diesel sound, poot, poot, poot. I knew it was Joe as he was farming land north of me and trafficked past my place on many occasions.
I got in the road and waved him into my yard where we were building this warehouse and explained to Joe that bulling these trusses on the roof was not working and the evidence of 2 busted trusses proved it.
He said "where is your front end loader" I said "over in the barn" He said "get it and bring me at least a 14 foot long length of angle iron from your shop that he knew we had for welding purposes.
He bolted the angle iron to the front end loader bucket. Now the bucket went up a good 10, 12 feet on its own, add the 14 feet angle iron on that we were up about 24 feet.
Now he said "Now hook on to the middle of the truss on the ridge top. We lifted the truss up and being that it was hooked in the exact center the truss teetered, it was balanced so that we could actually turn it by hand.
We walked the tractor alongside of the existing building with it turned parallel to the front end loader, lifted it up passed the peak of the existing roof, rotated it 90 degrees and placed each truss, there were 60 of them as nice as you please on the top of the walls that we had already constructed.
It was a small brilliant piece of engineering.
Now I refer back to my previous comments in this feature about flattered advisors calling up extraordinary powers when approached by someone for help because I said to Joe "You know Joe I was at your farm last spring and you were building a structure and had the same problem I had trying to physically bull trusses on a roof, but you did not deploy what you advised me to do" Now it wasn't that he didn't have the equipment as he had a half a dozen loaders and bigger than mine.
He thought for a minute when I pressed him and he said with a smile "You know Bob, that's a dam good question".
The Twist of Fate, the Daddy of them all.
So with this it leads me to "The Twist of Fate" for my wife and I regarding our direction in business and a piece of advice we received from another advisor when I made it known to him that I was really struggling in business and needed some fresh ideas. This advisor was a burly old codger by the name of Mr. Horton. He was a horse trader and had a wad of tobacco in his mouth the size of a softball. He also had a little roadside market and bought a few items from me at times, and when he came in to my little area off the road, I had no roof at the time, just a few benches to hold my display, I would seek some of his advice. This is when we first started out.
Everyone Loves Strawberries
At the time there were few strawberries grown in our area and in fact he said to me, "Bob you see that 2 or 3 acres just north of us right on the road, what you should do is grow strawberries in that area." He said "You are not going to make any money on growing strawberries, but you are going to get two things that you need desperately." He first went on to enumerate the problems with strawberry culture, weeds, frost, difficulty getting them picked, disease etc. and I will list them in detail below, because it is interesting. I guess it was at least interesting for me and my family as it was survival.
The first of the two pieces of advice was the super effect of growing strawberries on the road and the visual effect of passerby's seeing activity and stopping for just curiosity sake. As Mr. Horton said, "It will put you on the map" and boy did it do just that. When you are picking 10,000 quarts of Strawberries a day as we eventually did and we spread them out on our tarmac for every vehicle to see, along with the warm bodies sprawled all over the fields there were few cars that went by that did not stop. It put us on the map, God Bless you Mr. Horton.
Growing strawberries was a real challenge as Mr. Horton related. He was just relating to the 3 acres, but we compounded it 10 times by eventually growing 30 acres. There were many major impediments to making money with them as he said, but we were driven to solve the problems and we will list them for you.
Problem 1. Picking blossoms off.
You planted the berry plants one year, but actually picked the blossoms off of the plants that year to give the strength to the plant so they would grow and make a wide bed for the next fruiting season and actually sacrificed a meager crop the first year. Getting kids to pick blossoms off about 15 acres of new plantings as we had a total of 30 acres was a challenge. We issued a carrot to the kids that did pick the blossoms that they were not only paid to do it, but would be on top of our list to pick berries in our fields that were yielding that year. We never had a problem.
Problem 2. Frost Killing Blossoms
When strawberry plants blossom (the eventual fruit) they are subjected to freezing on cold nights during the early spring bloom period. They are very tender at this stage. We solved that problem with an irrigation system that covered the entire area of the fruiting crops. This system consisted of miles of irrigation pipe and 2 large army surplus pumps at about 2000 gallons a minute. The irrigation water actually warmed the field as the water temp coming out of our pond on a frigid night was in the neighbor of 50 degrees F. When the water froze on the plants and it did, the balance of the heat (Called latent heat) between 32 degrees F and 50 degrees F would actually be released into the air and heated the field. The heat has to go somewhere. I have seen a strawberry field at 28 degrees F go to 34 degrees F in 15 minutes after cranking the pumps on.
Note: For you home gardeners that adopt this measure for your crops there is something very important that you must do as we found out the hard way. You must continue to sprinkle the plants and blossoms even if the ambient air rises well above 32 degrees F, because if you do not provide the "warm" water to melt the ice off of the plant, the ice will suck the life blood right out of the blossoms and you will have nothing but dead black hearts in your blossoms and dead black hearts do not make a delicious Strawberry short cake. Incidentally that garden tool on your left, we found and replicated many times for our cultivation crews. We found it in a barn that went back 300 years. It is simply a typical 2 prong hook on one end for large area of cultivation, but on the other end was a large nail driven into the handle and it is the perfect cultivation tool for delicate work when you do not want to injure the root system, called root pruning. Nice for working up the soil in pots as well.
Problem 3. Disease/Water
Strawberries like a lot of water during the fruiting season. At least an inch a week or more. So irrigation was crucial. Strawberry plants are in rows but as the plants grow and the fruit cascades into the rows there is no room to drive sprayers through. With wet conditions in an almost canopied environment disease is prevalent and a fungicide is the only way you can control it.
Now we were spraying our orchards with an airplane and in fact we were certified by Cornell University to do so in their testing programs. It was natural that we consider covering our strawberry plantings with airplane applications and we did. Our fruit was disease free.
Problem 4. Getting them picked.
Now this problem that we had to solve was related to Mr. Horton's advice so it is the second part of our feature as if you recall there were two outstanding benefits of growing strawberries that Mr. Horton related. The first one was putting us on the map. We are still on the map as after 25 years of being out of business a woman who took my wife's information for a Mammogram at St. Peter's hospital yesterday Aug 1, 2009 recognized my wife and recalled her picking berries at Peacedale Farms about 30 years ago with her Mother. When you hear something like that you get a rush running through your veins, because it is history, your history being replayed.
Can Lighting Strike Twice? Once could be enough
In fact at this juncture we enter an episode that happened in our field one particular day. We had a list of Pick your Strawberry folks "The Peacedale Farms Family Club, 5000 strong, that we would call in waves as the berries started to get away from us. I am talking more berries than we could get picked by our crew. So we enlisted segments of this selected group of sign ups (about 500 at a time, that we had to have 4 neighbors call by phone, no Internet then) during the picking season and usually fields that we had already had our crew in for the first and best picking. The pick your owners were a Godsend and they were rabid pickers. They loved coming out to our fields and in fact one evening our oldest daughter counted over 400 cars on our property that involved over a thousand people and plenty of kids. It was bedlam, kids in and out of our house going to the bathroom, but it was a joy that we had, that you can't put a price on.
I am sitting here writing this and my adrenal glands are kicking in from the memory. It is almost like I am reliving it. I sit here looking out into the bare fields and it reminds me of the baseball story Field of Dreams.
Now you have to picture this unbelievable event. First as you know we had a vast irrigation system that covered our entire acres of berries. These pipes traveled down the rows every so often spaced about 30 feet apart between the rows. Now these were rather large pipes as small pipes present a friction loss problem that I won't go into. In some cases because of the contour of the land some pipes actually lifted up a few inches and made for a nice sitting area for small children. In fact as Mom was working her self down the row, it was customary for her to keep a quart of berries partially full and provided her relaxing kids to not only sit on the pipe, but to eat and eat they did.
I had comments from fellow growers that said "Those kids that you allow in the fields are eating you out of house and home" as most growers would not allow kids in their fields. Our comment was "The good Lord put those berries there and there is nothing written that says that we have be to paid for all of them. Let those kids eat until they have them coming out of their ears!
But that was not our major concern as we felt that the Good Lord would replace what was eaten in some way, like bread cast upon the waters. Pickers who ate Peacedale berries from their freezer all winter long were regular customers at our market during the winter. Our concern was kids sitting on aluminum pipe with an impending lighting storm. I had workers in our field on one instance in particular where two of them (both well over 200 lbs.) were carrying a long length of pipe, and a lighting bolt struck what appeared to be miles away and I witnessed the pipe being knocked completely out of their hands and they were knocked over on the ground, both of them.
So this one afternoon I was standing on my platform at our warehouse and market and I seen a bolt of lighting a considerable distance away and the sight and sound ratio indicated about 5 miles away. They say for every second between the sight and the sound is a mile. So a 5 second gap indicated about 5 miles away.
I looked into the field of pick your owners and there were at least 50 people picking and 75 kids sitting on aluminum pipes eating. I frantically got in my truck and drove to the area and started bellowing out that a storm was in the offing and their children in particular were at high risk of electrocution. As I ran through the field from one end to the other about 1000 feet, I looked back and not one Mother stopped picking and not one kid stopped eating.
I couldn't believe it, so I actually had to bodily grab Mothers by the arms and children by the neck and ordered them out of the fields and it was not easy to get these very rabid berry pickers and eaters out of my field.
When I finally got the last ones out we had a terrible lighting storm and I was trembling and I will never forget this as long as I live.
On the Map, then the Kids
Now the second piece of advice from Mr. Horton in addition to the "On the map" was "Bob, you are going to obtain something out of this berry venture that you need" and I listened intently. "You are going to first need kids to pick these berries and out of the group of kids that consisted of grammar, high school and some college students, you will "Cherry Pick" the superstars out and invite these chosen few to work in your other operations after the picking season which lasted about 5 weeks. We had a large bakery in our operation and our days were long, two shifts long. We needed at least 3 good superstars just for the bakery beside my wife and other senior women. We needed superstars for our packing operation, one group at night that packed for our New York Thruway market that the agricultural department allowed us to locate in the middle of huge parking lot on the New York Thruway. We called it "The zoo" We no sooner unloaded the truck and we were swarmed and cleaned us out in a short time. We needed some real sharp kids mathematically inclined that could figure in their heads at our check out counter, as we did not work with receipts. Most people just trusted us. We needed young people for our other crops, tomatoes in particular. With the turnover of kids graduating we needed fresh blood every year.
It was truly one of the most enjoyable experiences we had when working with highly motivated, smart young people, but we would never have known who they were if we didn't have that resource and system to log in the superstars from the berry fields. Again this was Mr. Horton's brain child. Not to belabor a point but I think it is important to bring out again the fact that if you personally seen this "Gentleman" Mr. Horton you would never in the world believe that he would have this train of thought, but he did and it supports my Will Odoms story above. Remember every man/woman has something to say that you do not know about.
Now there was a real challenge obtaining enough pickers to take care of our crop of berries and that included having the availability of the 15 or so migrant workers and their wives that picked our tree fruits from primarily Jamaica. These people were/are dedicated hard working and very productive. We used to fly them into the air force base in Newburg N.Y. Most of the pickers could pick 200 quarts each in about 5 hours in the morning. They were short muscular dynamos and I have heard they presently are making about 2 to 300 dollars a day picking apples.
Never the less my wife posted help wanted bulletins in 3 to 4 schools soliciting pickers.
We usually started with 100 kids knowing there would be a steady mortality. In order to keep some of them from escaping the back breaking job of berry picking we instituted a system and in fact we had an agreement with the picker and co-signed by the parent. The agreement (not worth the paper it was written on if challenged by the child labor board but it never was) worked like this.
Every picker handed in their vouchers that were given to them by School teacher supervisors we had in the field as they ran their trays up the row. Well not all of them ran. The Superstars did! The supervisors actually graded how well the berries were picked. How full the quarts, little to no green ones etc. On the voucher a bonus per quart was awarded.
At the end of the week the vouchers were handed in and the pickers were paid 10 cents per quart. The catch was that the bonus which could have been any where from nothing over the dime to as much as 20 cents per quart was held in escrow on the condition that the picker stayed the season. An average kid could pick about 75 quarts in 5 hours. At 20 cents per quart average, 10 cents that they got paid at the end of the week, and 10 cents withheld they could do about 15 dollars for 5 hours or 3 bucks an hour. Now we are talking 30 year ago when you could hire the best carpenter for 3 bucks an hour. If they dropped out they lost the bonus and the parent again signed this understanding, but not once in 20 years did anyone challenge it or turn us in to the authorities for abuse of something.
We had kids that would back out with 75 to 100 dollars worth of bonus money sacrificed, but at least this sorted out the winners from the losers and left us with about 40 sticklers. Out of that 40 we would have the ultimate joy of choosing about 10 of them every year to continue with our other operations. For the most part these kids were awesome. We had all we could do to throttle them down and in fact we were afraid they would bowl people over as they ran through our market area on an errant like a carry out.
So there you have what we refer to as a "Twist of Fate" that a Mr. Horton entered our lives and blessed us with a seed that grew and grew and made our Peacedale Farms operation one of the most successful farm markets in the nation.
I will tell you the last benefit and that is when the days are a little blue like a health problem, I think back on our years at Peacedale Farms and all of my spirits are uplifted and my ills are put on the back burner.
This information is intended to heighten awareness of potential health care alternatives and should not be considered as medical advice. See your qualified health-care professional for medical attention, advice, diagnosis, and treatments.