Non-family traditions: good fruit producer of the year 2020

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Rod Farrow, left, and Jason Woodworth examine fruit development in a SnapDragon block at Lamont Fruit Farm, which Farrow recently sold to Woodworth and Jose Iniguez. Completing the farm transition took about a decade from the time Woodworth joined the farm. (Amanda Morrison / for Good Fruit Grower)

In an industry dominated by multigenerational family farms, Rod Farrow forged his own path – twice – by purchasing the Lamont Fruit Farm property and, later, when he designed his retirement. He credits extensive planning and the model set by his mentor, George Lamont, for the success of these transitions, and he hopes he can serve as a role model for other producers without a clear successor.

His property began with a disaster: the 1998 Labor Day storm that swept apples from the trees in every orchard at Lamont Fruit Farm.

“We had suffered in the 90s, like all producers, and the farm was in terrible shape,” Farrow recalls. Funding for the operations was uncertain unless Farrow, who had accumulated a stake in the profits, risked buying a 33 percent stake with brothers George and Roger Lamont. The Lamonts, who had no children interested in taking over their fifth-generation family farm, promised him majority ownership within a few years.

George Lamont first saw Farrow’s potential when the young man arrived in New York from his home in England at age 20 to live with Lamont and learn about fruit production. Several years later, in 1986, Farrow moved to New York City to work full time for Lamont.

“Most apple growers will hire people, but never expect to bring them into the business. George saw this potential in Rod and offered to make him a partner, ”said Terence Robinson of Cornell University, reflecting on Lamont’s unusual approach and how it paid off.

After years of managing the 500-acre farm, Farrow took full ownership of it in 2009. And only a year later, he started planning his own exit.

“George always told me, ‘You have to find out who your successor is at 50,’” Farrow said. “It has always been important to me that the company survives us. You have to hire the best people available because there are 150 or 200 people whose families depend on this business.

Farrow’s children, Rebekah and Sebastian, weren’t interested, but he already knew, in part, who he wanted to take over the farm. He credits Jose Iniguez, then Managing Director, with empowering staff and running the farm towards precision-driven profitability.

Iniguez, an immigrant from Mexico, started working for Lamont Fruit Farm at the age of 19. Farrow saw his talent with people and his attention to detail, and he quickly took him up the ranks. At first, Iniguez remembers hesitating about promotions: “I didn’t have a school, but Rod said, ‘Me neither.’ A few years later, Farrow promoted him again to the role of general manager.

Rod Farrow, left, and his farm manager-turned-partner, Jose Iniguez, look at a young block of apples at Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, New York.  They share an attention to detail and a belief in empowering people that Farrow attributes to a large part of his career success.  (Amanda Morrison / for Good Fruit Grower)
Rod Farrow, left, and his farm manager-turned-partner, Jose Iniguez, look at a young block of apples at Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, New York. They share an attention to detail and a belief in empowering people that Farrow attributes to a large part of his career success. (Amanda Morrison / for Good Fruit Grower)

“Jose kept climbing to the top. His ability to deal with people was better than any other I have ever had, ”said Farrow.

But he also knew that Iniguez needed a partner to be successful, someone who could run the business like Farrow did. So when Jason Woodworth, a local grower who, like Farrow, focused on precision horticulture, looked for his next opportunity, Farrow felt like he had found the perfect team. He was 51 years old.

Less than a year after Woodworth’s arrival on board, the three men spent much of the winter planning how to share the responsibilities of farming operations and how the new partners would eventually buy out Farrow.

Rod Farrow started working for George Lamont in 1980, studying fruit production, and the two hit it off.  In 1986, Farrow returned to New York to work on the farm and eventually became Lamont's partner and then successor.  Farrow thanks Lamont, who passed away earlier this year, for inspiring his passion for data-driven horticulture and showing him how to successfully orchestrate a non-family farming transition and care for his “retirement”.  (Archives of good fruit growers)
Rod Farrow started working for George Lamont in 1980, studying fruit production, and the two hit it off. In 1986, Farrow returned to New York to work on the farm and eventually became Lamont’s partner and then successor. Farrow thanks Lamont, who passed away earlier this year, for inspiring his passion for data-driven horticulture and showing him how to successfully orchestrate a non-family farming transition and care for his “retirement”. (Archives of good fruit growers)

“It was very easy to have these conversations about our strengths and weaknesses because we are not a family,” said Woodworth. “It was quite dynamic for me to be sitting there in 2010 charting our future. I don’t think 90 percent of family farms do this, because with the family it gets too personal.

Barely three years later, Iniguez and Woodworth were co-owners and Farrow began to make an effort to get out of their way.

“You have to give them the job as fast as they can take it,” he said. “If I hadn’t seen it from George, I’m not sure I would have quite known how to do it. Someone else getting out of the way is really important.

As Lamont had done years before, working with the New York State Horticultural Society and the retired Premier Apple Cooperative, Farrow took on new projects to look after the farm.

“The only thing left for me to do (on the farm) was slap people on the back and tell them they are doing a great job,” he said. So he took on a leadership role with the International Fruit Tree Association and traveled the apple growing world to make connections and discover new varieties. “I figured the best thing I can do with the farm is get involved with every new strain that comes along.”

For other growers thinking about succession, Farrow warns it’s taking longer than many realize.

“You have to find someone you want to work with, and they have to be able to be successful and pay you at fair market value,” he said. “I had to put things in place so that José and Jason could share in the profits of the operating company. “

The partners each bought 12.5% ​​to start with, Farrow said, taking out loans with the understanding that the farm would pay them enough premiums to cover them. Two more purchases later, and Farrow officially retired from the farm earlier this year.

“You have to be data-driven,” Farrow said. In recent years he has spent a lot more time in the office than in the orchards because, he says, “I could make a lot more money in the office as long as someone else is making money in the office. outside. (Amanda Morrison / for Good Fruit Grower)

Woodworth and Iniguez, both now in their 40s, continue to work closely with Farrow in their orchard development partnership, Fish Creek Orchards. Woodworth said Farrow is continuing discussions about how things are going at Lamont, but remains out of the decision-making process. “With a mind like his, he will always have observations,” said Woodworth.

Iniguez said he is now trying to follow Farrow’s lead to make room for the next generation of farm managers and give himself more room to envision the future of the farm.

“I think I’m the first farmer born in Mexico at this level in New York, so I’m trying to be an example,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so it’s hard to stand aside and let them do their jobs. It’s a learning process that has to happen. You can’t empower people without letting go.

by Kate Prengaman

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