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Updated: October 30, 2023 Focus on Family-Owned Business

Farms grow families: Generations are invested in a thriving ag industry, despite stresses

Photo / Fred Field It’s a family affair at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. This multigenerational farm has been in business since 1803. Standing from left are, Don Ricker, Harry Ricker, Nancy Ricker, Jeff Timberlake, Joline Timberlake, Andy Ricker, Megan Ricker, Jenny Maheu and Steve Maheu. Front from left are, Katie Maheu and Jake Maheu.

For 10 generations, the Ricker family has been growing apples, first in the Oxford County town of Hartford and then 10 miles away in the Androscoggin County town of Turner.

In the 1700s, two brothers came from the Isle of Jersey, off the northwest coast of France.

“One was a dumb apple farmer and that was my side,” says Harry Ricker, who owns Ricker Hill Orchards with his wife Nancy.

Since 1803, the family has been growing fresh apples, pumpkins, Christmas trees and more on its farm and orchard. The orchard has been one of Maine’s largest for a couple of hundred years, says Ricker.

In the late 1990s, the orchard was 850 acres. Today, apples make up about half that acreage, with another five acres in blueberries, 10 in cranberries and two in aronia berries, or chokeberries, a super fruit high in antioxidants.

“They sell for good money on the internet,” he says.

Ricker, his brothers Jeff and Peter, four of their children and three grandchildren work on the farm. His dad Don, 87, still drives trucks and forklifts. Wife Nancy is chief financial officer. There are about 200 non-family employees.

Photo / Fred Field
Katie Maheu, 16, and her great-grandfather Don Ricker, 87, represent the 10th and seventh generations working on the farm.

For interested family members, there are plenty of jobs to choose from. The enterprise also includes a hardware store and retail shop.

“It’s more communistic than I like,” Ricker says with a chuckle. “When people get out of college, we try to decide what they’re passionate about.”

Sacrifice versus lifestyle

Passion, lifestyle and growing up on a farm is what many family-owned farms are about, especially multi-generation operations like Ricker Hill Orchards. And family farms appear to be alive and well in Maine, despite the challenges faced by any family-owned business compounded by the rigors of a weather-dependent industry.

“Maybe they go off and then say, ‘I want to go back and live the life my parents and grandparents did,’” says Tori Jackson, a program administrator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Maybe it’s a financial sacrifice but the lifestyle draws them back in.”

Especially in southern Maine, she notes, the evolution of a foodie culture, including interest in locally-grown products, give farms a consistent customer base able to provide a living income.

According to the latest numbers, in 2017, over 83% of Maine farms were family-owned and many are multi-generational.

A focus has long been on vegetables and fruits. More recently, farms incorporate livestock, grains and ornamentals, which diversifies revenue streams across the year and different markets.

“A trend has been looking to that new niche,” Jackson says. “We see ginger and herbs. Saffron was hot for a little while. And mushrooms. Farmers are looking to satisfy what consumer are looking for.”

Right-size income

Family-owned farms can be any size. The larger issue, says Jackson, is how much farm income is needed to support multiple generations. Larger potato farms in Aroostook County, for example, support multiple generations and employees. Others might diversify their revenue streams, can’t support farming as a full-time job, or can’t support health and retirement benefits.

Jackson says she’s seeing diversification across the industry. “Folks who never would have considered getting into agritourism are saying, ‘If the weather is poor maybe I can still get value out of the property because of how beautiful it is,’” she says.

Some farms now offer wedding barns and pick-your-own opportunities. “Those tend to be higher-dollar customers,” Jackson says. “They’re not looking for a food product. They’re looking for an experience.”

Weather-related stresses include this year’s late freeze and torrential precipitation. Some crops suffered steep production declines.

“Some orchardists suffered big losses,” says Jackson. “Smaller farms in particular don’t have a lot of cushion to mitigate even one season of bad weather. We’re working now on resiliency, helping farmers find resources like financial or mental health support, so they feel like, if they want to stay in farming, they can do that. It will take only one more year like this for some farms to go under.”

Another variable is family decision-making. “In some cases, those discussions are few and far between,” Jackson says.

Without formal decision-making or succession planning, farms “can be thrown into crisis, even if people know how to do the job,” she says. “Some farms are doing a great job and being proactive, writing out job descriptions and saying, “This is how the money flows, this is your salary, this is for retirement.’ Planning can alleviate stress. But for folks who haven’t done it yet, they see the process being more stressful.”

The extension team spends time on multi-family farms encouraging and facilitating those conversations.

Willingness to commit

Harry Ricker’s biggest requirement is a willingness to commit. Leading the operation, he collects information about what needs doing and hands out responsibilities by 6:30 a.m.

“I told my kids I would be happy to have them work on the farm if they were passionate about growing apples,” he says. “If they wanted to find something else to do, I’d be their business partner. This is hard work, long hours and not always a lot of money.”

In good crop years, apples provide a great income. When growing conditions are bad — ill-timed freezes, hailstorms, too much rain — the family finds ways to supplement revenue. That’s long included cutting lumber and firewood from family woodlands.

Diversification is key, such as agritourism and fresh cider, vinegar and maple syrup production.

One son, a college graduate, approached Ricker in 2014. “He said, ‘I want to get into hard cider and you said you’d be my business partner,’” Ricker recalls. “I said, ‘All right.’”

Photo / Fred Field
Andy Ricker of Ricker Hill Orchards in a portion of the farm where hard ciders are on tap and also available in bottles and cans to take home.

About a decade ago, the family developed several event venues and a wedding barn with lodgings and a campground, all generating good revenue.

“Diversification is needed if you want to be around a long time,” Ricker says. “Apples were a good business for 150 years. But if it weren’t for the other stuff…”

Given the uncertainties, he says, it’s unclear whether younger generations will come into the business — or whether it will remain large enough to employ them.

“The last four or five years have been consistently losing-money years,” Ricker says. “Wholesale apples is not easy. We planted and grafted a lot to honeycrisps over the last 20 years. If it weren’t for honeycrisps, which pay much better than the old New England apple, we wouldn’t be in it now. My family always been able to find something new and different to keep the old apple farm going. But it’s not easy.”

Adding opportunities

Becky and Steve Crane pushed their children to get college degrees before coming to Crane Brothers Farm Inc., a potato growing operation in the Penobscot County town of Exeter.

“We want to push them away after high school and say, ‘Do you really want to come back here or are you coming back because it’s comfortable?’” Becky says.

Crane Brothers goes back four generations. It’s owned by Steve and his cousin Jim Crane.

Steve and Jim took over from Steve’s father, Neil Crane, and Jim’s father, Vernon Crane, who passed away this past spring.

Steve’s son Matthew and Jim’s son Ryan work on the farm and plans include the younger generation eventually taking ownership. Neil Crane, age 86, still works during planting and harvest.

The farm is 1,700 acres of potatoes and 2,200 acres of grain corn. Its potatoes have gone to Frito-Lay Inc. since the 1960s.

In 2020, Becky and Steve bought Dragonfly Farm & Winery in nearby Stetson as another family-run opportunity because the family works well together. Daughters Chelsea and Megan and their husbands Douglas and Ben moved home from careers in southern Maine to operate the business. On Saturdays, the tasting room is so busy that Becky, her husband, and their mothers all help.

“If you can’t depend on family, who can you depend on?” says Becky.

Crane Brothers and Dragonfly, she says, don’t feel like jobs: “It feels like we do this together with our families.”

Still, “If there comes a time that we don’t have a generation that wants to take it over, we’ll have to go from there,” she says. “But so far, it’s all good. And we’ve got little ones — Evan is 3 ½ and loves to ride the tractor.”

No sense of boredom

Brigeen Farms was established in 1777 as a family-owned and -operated dairy farm in Turner.

Steve and Mary Briggs and their daughter and son-in-law Betsy and Bill Bullard are the ninth and tenth generations to operate the 850-acre farm, which has 500 cows and grows corn and hay for silage.

Photo / Courtesy of Brigeen Farms
Steve and Mary Briggs and their daughter and son-in-law Betsy and Bill Bullard are the ninth and tenth generations at Brigeen Farms in Turner. Additional family, seen here, are Vivian Briggs, Sydney and Will; and Kate (Briggs) Teixeira and her family Alexis, Nichole, and JW and Chloe Chapman, who own and operate a dairy farm in Turlock, Calif.

The Bullards obtained degrees in animal science and worked in agriculture before joining the farm in 2000 as an opportunity to work in a longstanding family business.

“You’re working with family — that has tremendous advantages and some disadvantages,” says Betsy Bullard. “Farm businesses are less predictable than some other businesses. That’s good and bad. There’s no sense of boredom, for sure.”

For the Bullards, onboarding was a process. “We were very fortunate that my parents were interested in both working with us and in being open-minded around changes we thought would be appropriate or possible,” she says.

For example, in 2000, the farm was milking 50 cows. “We moved toward milking additional animals to generate additional cash flow,” she says.

She adds, “Every day is a new opportunity for learning experiences. For example, there’s always a learning curve going from being an employee to an employer.”

The Bullards’ teen children enjoy aspects of the farm. Will they take over? “If the opportunity appeals to them, we’d love to have them,” says Bullard. “First and foremost, the business has to be viable, whether they want to take it over or someone else wants to do something with it.”

The Briggs remain very active. “Their roles have changed over time,” says Bullard. “But I don’t see either of them going off to a golf resort anytime.

She adds, “There are family farms in Maine that are doing really well, not by luck but through hard and thoughtful work about how they will continue to thrive. That’s not limited to Maine. That’s anyplace. Small businesses are not easy — whether it’s a farm business or another small business. That keeps life interesting.”

Thinking about the future

The 12-acre Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland started seven generations ago in 1812 with livestock and crops. By the mid-1800s, apples became the staple crop.

In the 1950s, the family built a market for retail sales. In the early 2000s, endorsed by siblings Rick and Cathy, Greg Sweetser, his late wife Debbie and their sons Sam and Eben became the farm’s stewards. Four generations now live on and maintain the farm.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Greg Sweetser says four generations live on and maintain Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards in Cumberland, started seven generations ago.

The operation’s seasonality works well with other careers for his father, grandfather, son and daughter-in-law, says Greg Sweetser, who retired from 40 years in the ski industry, most recently leading the Ski Maine Association.

Now Eben and Eben’s wife Kate are interested in preserving and creating a sustainable model for the property.

“That generation will have a different vision from mine,” he says. “I’m doing the traditional thing — full-on agriculture with pumpkins, maple syrup, apple pies. Eben and Kate like the event side of the business. There are lots of opportunities here.”

That’s a good thing, he says, given agriculture’s uncertainties.

“That’s the excitement and tension, I guess, of having the next generation come in,” he says. “How do you resolve different ideas? How do you assign priorities? Part of the operation right now is to think about the future.”

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