Wagner Farms wins first Specialty Crop Sustainability Award
Everything is in bloom at Wagner Farms in Rome, New York, where farm operations and the very business model have been remodeled around the concept of sustainability.
The central New York state operation used to be a commercial-scale grower, with 170 acres under cultivation using conventional growing techniques. But, fast forward to the present day, and they’ve been able to do more with less. A corn burner harnesses a sustainable energy source for his farm. New crop rotations protect the soil while reducing the need for fertilizer, and technologies lower costs.
Ronald Wagner was recently recognized by Great American Media Services — the parent company of Spudman — with the inaugural 2021 Specialty Grower Sustainability Award, sponsored by Valent U.S.A.
The farm grows vegetable and fruit crops in addition to sunflowers and grain corn that’s burned to heat the greenhouse.
“Years ago we started out more on the organic side, and then we went conventional for a reason. The last eight to 10 years have been a combination of the two,” Wagner said. “It’s been vital to our farming operation to get a higher-quality product using less inputs while safeguarding the quality and the production for human consumption.”
A decision point
The farm once grew about 170 acres of crops — a mix of grain products, produce including everything from potatoes and onions to strawberries, and other u-pick items, such as raspberries. Today, that’s down to just 80 acres, mostly of grain corn and produce.
The decision to downscale the farm operation was made by events beyond Wagner’s control.
“We suffered a substantial loss in 2013, and multiple flood events in a season that wiped us out, financially crippled us for a couple years, and then we got behind with a loss of land for eminent domain as a development forced us off of our most-productive renting land — our farm was financed based upon that land acreage,” he said. “With reductions over the years, we had to figure out a way to make the same money, make the same living off of less acreage.”
Wagner and his family downsized in 2015-16, letting go of all the leased property and concentrating just on the main farm, which was 106 acres (70 tillable). About 10 more acres rented have since brought up the number to 80.
He said the most difficult part has been calculating costs and efficiencies of growing. The devil has been in the details.
“That’s been the hardest … knowing the exact cost of things,” he said. “It’s a very fine line that we deal with. If there’s a penny to be saved, we do.
“However, I never sacrifice my plant health or soil conditions.”
Crops are sold only through direct sales to customers, including Community Supported Agriculture program and an agritourism operation that includes a corn maze, sunflower field for photos and local band concert series. Wagner said the local public understands the importance of knowing their farmer.
“Tourism, while not the same as growing for food, has become fun and enjoyable again, something that was missing from our farm for many years,” he said.
Rethinking all the farm’s practices has been an occasion for Wagner to move into more sustainable growing techniques. The use of synthetic chemical sprays has been greatly reduced, as have also been the use of agricultural plastics. Energy has been saved.
“I got tired of what I was doing,” Wagner said. “Years back, being a commercial, traditional grower, we still did a lot of plastic mulch, a lot of drip tape. We found that we still had to use a lot of chemicals, as far as weed control goes, under the plastic.”
Attempts to go completely organic didn’t work out, so Wagner came up with “a hybrid system where we incorporate the organic ideas of cultivation, cover crops and reductions. It’s an overall better system.”
While he hangs onto a few key inputs, especially Lumax herbicide on corn, a substantial change has been made.
“I haven’t used Roundup on our corn in 10 years,,” he said. “We haven’t actually used a fungicide or insecticide spray on our farm in two years. We still apply some in-furrow at planting obviously because one-time application upfront protects us.”
He’s seen beneficial insects in the ecosystem thrive. Monarchs are flourishing and bumblebees can be found in almost all of the farm’s ditch lines.
“We see praying mantises, we see ladybugs … you name it, we see it,” Wagner said.
He has found that he can do more with less, especially when it comes to the few sprays he still uses.
“This year’s onion crop and potato crop is actually on last year’s popcorn (field),” Wagner said. “Last year’s popcorn crop was treated with Lumax. This year our potato field has had absolutely zero sprays used on it in terms of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, at this point. Our onion crop has only had one application of herbicide, just as a preventative, and frankly, I probably could have gotten away without it because we found that using our corn crop as a weed eliminator crop the year before, the following crop is actually really good without the use of pesticides.
“You have to approach it on a multi-year basis in your head.”
Going full organic isn’t in the farm’s future, for a variety of reasons.
“We tried an organic field last year and we failed miserably,” he said. “We had four acres of organic produce; the deer enjoyed every bit of it. What they didn’t get the weeds (got). It was such a dry season we couldn’t get a cultivator in the ground. There was really no way to salvage it, and you know what? It was a life lesson.”
“It all comes down to the market in the end,” he added. “We don’t have a market for organic returns financially or profitability in our area. If you look at it demographic-wise, there’s such a small organic demand. … It’s a niche item.”
Tools of the trade
Ronald Wagner has come up with numerous ways to farm more sustainably in recent years.
For example, a tine weeder for mechanical cultivation reduces the need for herbicides.
“We are eliminating so much herbicide use in specialty crop — little crops that have little to no profit margin to begin with,” Wagner said. “It allows us to weed them and get them out of the ground fast.”
Wagner uses a Zone Builder tool to open up the soil in fields where hard crusts have formed.
“It flood-proofs the crop, and it drought-proofs the crop,” he said. “The plant roots go deep and find water in a drought. You get one of those fluke thunderstorms that drops 3 inches in five minutes on you, the water sinks into the ground.”