In the latest issue of Food, Nutrition & Science, we talked with Michael and Melanie Fink, fresh produce farmers, about their farming practices and being a local supplier for retail outlets.
Michael, 33, and Melanie Fink, 31, farm about 200 acres of fresh produce along the southern slope of the Appalachian Mountains in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. The Finks, farming under the label of Mike Fink’s Produce, also have 10,000 square feet of greenhouse production area in which they grow bedding plants, vegetable plants, and hanging baskets for retail and wholesale.
How did you get into farming?
Both of us grew up in farm families. Mike’s family used to produce fresh-market eggs with over 40,000 laying hens on the property and currently runs a commercial hay operation that ships compressed hay and straw internationally. They also grow corn, soybeans, and wheat for resale. Melanie’s family runs a 40-head dairy cattle operation as well as farming corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay on about 1,000 acres. Mike began farming right out of high school starting with about 50 acres of sweet corn and other fresh vegetables which were sold at a roadside market. Now, we still use that roadside market as our main retail outlet but also sell product on a wholesale basis to grocery stores such as Wegman’s and Redner’s as well as other retail outlets in our area.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Technology has been the biggest change in the last ten years. We now use GPS to spray our crops, plant our crops, and make our practices more efficient. Our modern spraying equipment uses GPS to track where we have already sprayed and can adjust the spray pressure and amount applied to make our practices safer for the environment and for our consumers.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
With today’s growing emphasis on local produce, fresh vegetable production will have a growing demand in the next five years. New varieties and increased viability of our products makes a big difference, but we will continue to look for ways to grow safe, affordable produce for our customers in the future.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
Weather! Since a lot of our product needs to have a certain amount of moisture at certain points in its growing season, we do a lot of irrigating to make sure that our product gets what it needs.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
We have a good relationship with our retail outlets, and they can usually base their expectations for the coming year on current trends within the produce section such as how much out-of-state sweet corn they are selling in the offseason. Sales at major times of the summer, such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day are pretty predictable every year, so we plan to have an abundance of product available and ready for purchase in the weeks leading up to those holidays.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
We use no-till and strip-till practices where possible when planting our crops.
Can you tell us a little bit about the local selling process?
All of our produce is sold locally. We have a good relationship with the Wegman’s and Redner’s grocery store chains and sell the majority of our product through those outlets. With Wegman’s, we run a store-door delivery service, delivering our product to the four stores that we service three to four times a week. With Redner’s, we run product through their warehouse to stores in our region. Our other local outlets get our sweet corn delivered directly to them on a scheduled basis.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Each summer, we do “Meet the Grower” events at Wegman’s stores around the area. We spend several hours in the store, talking to customers and answering questions about our product. This is a great way for us to clear up misconceptions about the practices that we use on our farm, and people love being able to put a face with the name of Mike Fink’s Produce. Our customers are very receptive to our side of the story and enjoy seeing a young couple with a young family (our daughters are three years and six months old) working so hard to produce a quality product for their families.