The Test of Time
Jutting south on the Delmarva peninsula, flung out beyond the Chesapeake Bay, is Virginia’s eastern shore. In 1876, when Horntown, Virginia, was a stagecoach stop in northern Accomack County, Edward Thomas Hickman began growing potatoes here. The original farm was a 300-acre tract that had been called Dublin since the 1700s, when it was first part of an English land grant.
The Hickman family has farmed this land for more than 140 years. While they did not always call their business Dublin, in a return to this land’s history, brothers Phil and David Hickman took up the name. They established Dublin Farms in 1974. The fourth- generation potato growers continue their legacy with David’s sons, Matthew and Mark, and Phil’s son Phillip. Phil and David grew their first crop of potatoes in 1975. Today, they grow red, white and yellow potatoes for the table-stock market. Corn, soybeans and snap beans are grown in rotation.
While Phil and David both agree that everyone does a little bit of everything throughout the year, they’ve also specialized their labor. Matthew concentrates on field spraying and precision ag, Mark manages the packing in the warehouse, while Phillip handles most of the potato planting and harvesting. Still, everybody chips in and works together on the many jobs that must be completed.
Dublin Farms fills a summer marketing window, in July to mid-August. They ship to eastern markets in Baltimore, Pennsylvania, New York state and Boston. When the North Carolina potato market season concludes, the Hickmans will also ship to southern market destinations like Florida. Traditionally, Virginia potatoes are sourced to fill demand in Canada before its summer crop comes on, but this is dependent on the quantity of old potatoes left in Canadian storages.
The biggest change to Dublin Farms in the past five years has been food safety regulations, David said. Adhering to these requirements means dealing with an entirely new level of documentation.
“We fulfill our good agricultural practices (GAPs) and third-party audits, which have become typical for the entire food production industry,” he said. “In doing this, we are responding to a new level of customer demand, and we are committed to attaining this.”
The markets have changed, in the Southeast and East Coast in particular, Phil said.
“We’ve been dealing with falling demand for our round white potatoes, and now we’re trying to find suitable red and yellow varieties to produce,” he said. “Over the last few years, we mostly grew whites, and now we are growing 60 percent reds and yellows.”
Responding to changing customer demand, the Hickmans, with the rest of the industry, have moved to 3- and 5-pound poly bags and away from larger 10-pound bags, and see that most packaging has moved to poly instead of paper bags, along with an assortment of different containers such as RPCs (reusable plastic containers).
“The ‘buy local’ movement has been helpful for Virginia producers,” David said. “Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food is coming from, and large chain stores have recognized this and are promoting it, too.”
The Hickmans know they must continue listening to their customers and be prepared to reinvest in their farming and packing facilities to fulfill demand and changing needs.
“At times, this can be hard for seasonal packers,” Phil said. “We ship a high volume of product in a short window of time, and we need to finish by the beginning of August when the northern shipping begins.
“We make changes to keep up with industry standards. We listen to our customers and we respond to their changing demand.”
Farming on the Delmarva peninsula holds unique challenges. Weather in the southeast is unpredictable from year to year. Frequent thunderstorms and high temperatures can create quality issues. High humidity and fog require a regular fungicide program to prevent disease, and this can be challenging to producing and delivering consistent quality. But the Hickmans have many years of experience and meet these challenges with knowhow and determination.
Potatoes dug during the summer have pulp temperatures that are too high to store. All of their potatoes are dug, packed and cooled for 18 to 24 hours before shipping to extend shelf life.
In the fields, in the packing facilities and at the sales desk, new tools and technologies have made the difference, enabling Dublin Farms to produce quality and deliver this under tight priorities and constraints.
“Autosteer on tractors has made straight, evenly spaced rows commonplace,” David said. “And with our website, we maintain strong communication with our buyers by providing instant information about our current harvest and packing operations, even posting pictures so they can see the color and quality before they place an order.”
“We’ve added an optical scanning system in our packing shed,” Phil said. “This has been a tremendous investment, considering our short shipping season, but we’ve done this to reduce labor and keep up with industry demand, and to deliver quality.
“We’ve invested in a new baling machine and found other ways to reduce labor in our packing. We load about 12 semi-loads per day, at the height of our shipping season. Farming has become extremely capital intensive, and this is true for potatoes as well as crops like corn and beans.”
Sustainability is a term that means different things to people in and out of farming. For the Hickmans, it might just be a fancy way of saying longevity, survival or being successful.
“Dublin Farms is successful because we listen,” David said. “Our focus and persistence in providing high quality and attention to detail is the niche we pursue. We also have long term relations with 90 percent of our customers. They support us, and this goes a long way in marketing our crop, especially when dealing with multiple dealers and distributors. We depend on them to help move our crop every year in a timely manner.”
“We put in the time and hours,” Phil said. “We start digging in the fields at 6:30 a.m. and pack until at least 10 p.m., or whenever the last order is filled. On Saturdays, we pack until 4-5 p.m., then clean up and repair equipment half a day on Sunday. We’re willing to pay attention to our customers, and they reward our hard work and attention to their needs.”
“We’re also fortunate to have a crew from Florida that has been with us for the past 24 years,” David said. “They know how to work long hours; they know the equipment and our routines.”
In the final analysis, the greatest sense of satisfaction for the Hickmans comes from this interpretation of sustainability — continuing what their progenitors started more than 140 years ago.
“Making Dublin Farms successful enough for our sons to want to be here is what this is all about,” Phil said. “You don’t do this for yourself. You do this so it will go on for your family and the generations that follow.”
— David Fairbourn, managing editor