July 2015 20 Questions: Ronald C. Robbins, North Harbor Dairy

Farming for the future

Ronald C.  “Ron” Robbins talks about the future of the agriculture industry in Northern New York. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Ronald C. “Ron” Robbins talks about the future of the agriculture industry in Northern New York. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Diversification, technology, keys to success at North Harbor Dairy

Ronald C. Robbins knew he wanted to be in the agriculture business by the time he was 7. Today, he runs a farm that’s home to more than 1,000 cows, about 7,000 acres of farmland, a visitor’s education center that’s open to the public and more. This month, he talked with NNY Business about what it’s like to work on a family farm, technological advancements that have allowed the industry to bolster efficiencies and the future of agriculture in the north country.

NNYB: What it’s like to work with a number of family members on a day-to-day basis?
ROBBINS: It’s a challenge. Family operations, living together and working together, it’s probably one of the more challenging sides of the business. Farming is a difficult business, but being directly involved with a family operation is working on communication issues constantly and making sure we’re all talking the way we should be.

NNYB: So what do you see as the future of the family farm in NNY?
ROBBINS: Agriculture has really been a dynamic industry here in the north country forever, and it continues to be a real dynamic industry. The family farm here is here to stay. I do think it’s going to change. They say about every 25 or 30 years, businesses evolve and are reinvented. We’re at a point where agriculture is on the verge of some transformation here. There will always be a role for small family-run operations. But then I think that class in the middle is the one that’s probably going to disappear, and then you’ll see operations like ours continue to grow and take on a little different dynamic, bringing in outside people as managers.

NNYB: Your farm is well diversified. You have crops, dairy and agri-tourism. What did it look like when you came out of college in ’77 compared to now?
ROBBINS: Coming out of college, we were just getting started. And then we hit the ’80s. And some will say that if you survived the ’80s in farming, you survived the toughest time in the history of our country, even worse than the Depression. Farming community during the Depression really had a level of self-existence. But the ’80s was high interest rates. It was a really tough time. That’s when we made the decision to diversify as a way to manage our risk. That’s when we started the trucking to add some additional income, and that’s continued to grow over the years. And then it was 1986 when Nancy was working in town as a clerk at a department store, and came home one day and said, “I’m going to quit my job. We have three little kids.” And we started an agri-tourism business and ag-education business.

NNYB: How many people over that time do you estimate have come through?
ROBBINS: In the past 10 [years], it’s really evolved into a destination. Between school groups and the public, probably about 50,000 visitors annually now. That’s what we estimate. This year’s actually up from last year. I think some of that has to do with trends in the economy. We’re hearing that consumer sales are down, and people are paying off credit debt. They’re going out to eat and they’re doing things with their family, rather than buying clothes and furniture. They’re doing things that they enjoy doing. We offer an opportunity for people to come into the north country, and have an opportunity not only to spend time with their kids and be outdoors, but to learn about modern agriculture.

NNYB: You use technology to monitor data on your farm. What kind of information do you collect?
ROBBINS: In the field, we’re collecting planting, weather and harvest data. So yields, and then analyze yield verses all kinds of factors: planting date, rainfall, temperature. Then profitability per acre. So every half acre you’re pulling a soil sample, and then you’re layering yield data, soil data, weather data, rainfall data. You’re layering that and you’re beginning to analyze what actually is transpiring on each one of those half-acre grids within a bigger field. And then it’s deciding based on the information that’s in the computer, what to apply on that half acre grid. And then with the cows, we’re able to identify, “Are these cows comfortable? Is there something that we need to do for them that we’re not doing for them?” all based on their activity and their performance. And then we make genetics decisions based on that going forward.

RonRobbins1 WEBNNYB: Break down the makeup of the farm for us. How many livestock and acres of crops?
ROBBINS: We’re currently milking about 920 cows and have about 1,800 head here on the farm because we raise our own replacements. Our cropping operation consists of about 7,000 acres. Crops are corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, grass, hay. Then our trucking business, grain handling business; that involves about four employees currently. We haul our own milk. We haul grain. We do a lot of work for some of the major companies.

NNYB: What’s been the single most significant innovation in ag that you’ve seen?
ROBBINS: Genetically modified seeds has really transformed the industry of agriculture here in places like the north country. I never dreamed of growing corn that would yield 200 bushel per acre even 10 years ago. And now if we don’t have fields that average 200 bushel per acre, we get disappointed. We start looking for what we’re doing wrong.

NNYB: So what’s the biggest myth that you could dispel?
ROBBINS: That GMOs — genetically modified seeds — are harmful to human health and bad for the environment. Number one, there’s absolutely zero science that can point to any adverse effects to human health. And from an environmental standpoint, we use less chemicals today, a lot less chemicals on a lot more acres. And we’re a lot more productive. So to me, that lowers the carbon footprint. We’re producing now a third more per acre than we ever were. Our cows are more productive because of enhancements in seeds that are free of disease.

NNYB: Where do you think may of these myths come from?
ROBBINS: It’s all about the Internet and social media. That kind of information is in their faces 24/7, where information to counter that is not in their faces 24/7. We’re always defending our position. We’re never out there in front. And I think that has to change. There’s been a lot of discussions about the fact that maybe as an industry, we need to be investing more money in making sure information is out there. We need to transform.

NNYB: So in an industry that’s always played defense, how do you go from playing defense to playing some good offense?
ROBBINS: That’s the real challenge. That’s what we’re struggling with. How do you transition this industry that’s made up largely of an aging population that really doesn’t understand new means of communication? And it’s a huge challenge, one that I think if we don’t figure it out pretty quick, the train’s going to leave the station. And none of us will be on it.

NNYB: Agriculture is a demanding business. What do we need in terms of leadership to inspire young people to take up careers in farming and agriculture?
ROBBINS: I think we’ve made progress there. Technology in agriculture has helped that tremendously. We’re seeing young people — my daughter for instance — transition back to wanting to be involved in the farm. So I think we’ve made great strides there just in the last five years. So you have this whole sector that wants to do away with technology on the farm, but you also have another whole sector of young people that are embracing it. It’s an interesting dynamic.

RonRobbins2 WEBNNYB: Other than family, how many people does the farm employ?
ROBBINS: We have a total of 35 year-round employees, and then about 25 seasonal employees. We have two Cornell grads here currently, and another two young ladies managing the tourism business who graduated from Cornell a year ago in December. We have another young individual here, who graduated a year ago in June from Cornell. He’s here for two years, then he’s going back to his home farm. And we have one starting next week that just graduated from Cornell.

NNYB: Talk about the rising price of local farmland in the past few years.
ROBBINS: I would say we’re probably averaging $6,000 an acre here, which puts us in line now with most of New York State. The unfortunate thing is that they don’t make any more land and we continue to lay concrete and blacktop on a lot of good, farmable land around the country. I look at the growth coming out on the fringes of a place like Watertown. It’s everywhere. And then ultimately it drives land prices because of that growth. Our downtown residential areas are suffering, so they build houses out in the countryside. So in that whole social movement, you’re impacting farming as development happens outside. And then that drives up land prices and traffic issues and more need for infrastructure improvements out into the countryside. And where does it stop? My point is that it’s a way bigger issue that just the price of land. It’s a whole social evolution that’s taking place. And I just don’t think it’s good for the area and I don’t think it’s good for farming to have that.

NNYB: What should be done in that vein to protect the future of the ag industry?
ROBBINS: I really wish that community leaders and politicians would really take a long, hard look. They’re not allowed to be strategic, let’s put it that way. They’re dealing with the problems of the day. The county’s farmland protection plan is being unveiled here shortly. It was a process that I was a little involved in, and it began to look at some of that strategically. But how do we bring it back to the elected officials and the county board of legislators, our community leaders? How do we bring everything together to realize that we’ve got to think about what the impact of this is going to be in another 20 years if we continue down this path? How many people can we continue to move out, build townhouses and houses and take up agricultural land? When do we come back and start making investments internally to hold some of that back?

NNYB: What should our priorities be for the agriculture industry in Northern New York?
ROBBINS: Certainly protecting our farmland should be a high priority, and I think that’s going back to the county’s ag and farmland protection plan. This round really is taking a different approach than it did when it was done 15 years ago for the first time. We need to foster additional value-added businesses here in the area. And I certainly hope that the community will embrace those kinds of things because they really provide opportunity to keep dollars here rather than have it leave the area. That’s what it’s all about when we talk about creating jobs and keeping our communities healthy.

NNYB: Last year was a banner year for the milk industry, this year not so much. What should farmers be doing in years like this of the milk industry?
ROBBINS: I did some research this winter looking at price cycles going back to 1996. There very clearly is three-year price cycles in the dairy industry. The thing that stands out is the volatility in those three-year price cycles. The gyrations up and down are tremendous. Our business model here is to manage risk and know our cost of production. And we do a lot of forward contracting. We both feed and milk. So basically, we’re managing a margin. We’re not worrying about the highs and the lows.

RonRobbins3 WEBNNYB: Much of what the north country produces for agriculture are raw materials that contribute to the manufacture of food products. What should be done to bolster marketing efforts to raise awareness of all the ag products New York farmers produce?
ROBBINS: We need to think about marketing local a little differently than we are now. We need to look at agriculture as a whole in a region. If you get up in the morning and you’re involved in agriculture and your goal is to be profitable, you’re part of the agricultural industry. How you do it — whether you’re small or big or organic or grazing or you grow vegetables, you do beef, you do grain — that’s management-style. We should work harder to be unified. And if we did that, then we could come back around. This beef processing plant, that’s the vision behind it. It doesn’t matter if I’ve got 15 animals on my 25 acres or whether I’ve got a feed lot with 500 in it, or whether I’m selling cull dairy cows off a 100 cow farm or a 1,000 cow farm. We’re all going to work together to make that successful.

NNYB: What is needed to fix the current farm labor situation?
ROBBINS: We really need a dairy farm piece to guest worker legislation. We need to put some common sense into that discussion, and stop clouding it with issues of citizenship and everything else. We need to be honest with ourselves about what it takes to run these operations, what it takes to run a farm in general. And we do need to solve the labor issue. That’s a cloud that really hangs over us on a daily basis and it’s unfortunate that agriculture’s caught in that squeeze. And I think getting into our high school’s too and getting some young kids. We have two young high school kids working for us now. And they’re such a breath of fresh air. They’re appreciative. They work hard. They’re dedicated. They’re meticulous. And I think there’s more kids like this in our school systems. And unfortunately, that gets into another whole discussion about common core and everything else. How do we identify these kids in school that don’t want to go to school and get a liberal arts degree? They want to contribute.

NNYB: What does it take to run and maintain an operation this large?
ROBBINS: This farm has about a $12 million budget — $2.5 million in payroll. So that’s a sizeable amount of money. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished here. And it hasn’t come without its struggles and its challenges, and those continue on a daily basis. Our vision for this farm is to be the showplace of Jefferson County agriculture. And that doesn’t mean we have the nicest looking farm. That’s important. But more so in saying that we want people to identify driving by this farm what agriculture’s about in our area, and to think, “Wow. That’s just one, and there’s many.”

NNYB: What do you do for fun? Any fun side projects you’re involved with off the clock?
ROBBINS: We have five grandchildren, and spending time with them is way better than I ever dreamed it would be. And then I’ve always been a basketball junky, and I really enjoy watching [my son] Jeff coach more than I enjoyed watching him play. And over the years, that’s just been a real pastime. It’s been a lot of fun. They were state champs in 2012, which is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced. I just hope now with my grandkids we can experience some of the same excitement there.

The Ronald C. Robbins file

Age: 58

Family: Wife, Nancy; sons, Brian, 36, and Jeff, 34; daughter, Julia, 33; five grandchildren

Career: Fourth generation operator at North Harbor Dairy Farm

Hometown: Sackets Harbor

Education: Associate degree in business administration, Jefferson Community College

Best book you’ve read and would recommend: “From Good to Great” by Jim Collins

— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.