CGP Community Stories

Kenyon Parsons, November 22, 2016

Title

Kenyon Parsons, November 22, 2016

Subject

Dairy farming
Vegetable farming
Organic farming
Commodity farming
Sharon Springs, NY
Family
Retail
Cornell Dairy
Winter employment

Description

Kenyon Parsons was born in Cooperstown, New York in 1966 to dairy farmer and teacher Kenyon Day Parsons and SUNY Cobleskill Professor Maryanne Rocket Parsons. With his four older sisters, Mr. Parsons worked on his father’s dairy farm in Sharon Springs, New York until pursuing higher education at Syracuse University and graduate studies at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, graduating from the latter institution in 1988. In 1989, Mr. Parsons returned home to the family farm in Sharon Springs and in 1993 inherited the farm from his sister, converting it into Parsons Vegetable Farm which he operates today.

In addition to family history in relation to the farm, much of Mr. Parsons’s oral history contains descriptions of contemporary agricultural practices and fond descriptions of interactions with customers at his roadside stand—the basis of his income. It was here, at his home at Parsons Vegetable Farm, where the interview was conducted, resulting in the occasional inclusion of background noise in the recording.

Mr. Parsons speaks in a contemporary and casual manner making regular use of colloquial slang and false starts. Many of these have been edited in transcription to best preserve the readability of the document. Numerous instances of laughter between narrator and interviewer have been preserved in the transcript to denote sarcasm when employed by Mr. Parsons.

Creator

Conner A. Wolfe

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program. State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2016-11-22

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
1.02mB
image/jpeg
1.46mB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

16-015

Coverage

Upstate New York
Sharon Springs, NY
1966-2016

Interviewer

Conner Wolfe

Interviewee

Kenyon Parsons

Location

Parsons Vegetable Farm
Sharon Springs, New York

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2016

KP = Kenyon Parsons
CW = Conner Wolfe

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

CW:
This is the November [22nd], 2016 interview of Kenyon Parsons by Conner Wolfe for the Cooperstown Graduate Program Community Stories oral history project. This interview is being recorded here at Mr. Parson’s home, the Parsons Vegetable Farm, at 756 US Route 20 in Sharon Springs, New York. So, I was hoping you could just get us started by telling us where you were born.

KP:
I was born in Cooperstown Hospital in 1966.

CW:
But you grew up here in Sharon Springs?

KP:
I grew up here, yup.

[TRACK 1, 00:36]

CW:
And who were your parents?

KP:
My parents were Kenyon Day Parsons. He used to run this farm. He was a BOCES [Board of Cooperative Educational Services] teacher. My mom was Maryanne Rocket Parsons. She taught at SUNY Cobleskill and taught in Sharon Springs. My dad taught in Milford BOCES in addition to having a dairy farm.

CW:
And were they both from here in Sharon Springs?

KP:
No. My dad is from here. This was his childhood best friend’s house. He grew up across the street. And my mom grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island.

CW:
Do you know how she ended up here in Sharon Springs?

KP:
She got the job at SUNY Cobleskill.

[TRACK 1, 01:14]

CW:
Okay, that makes sense. So, could you tell me a little bit about generally about what it was like growing up here in Sharon Springs, on the farm?

KP:
Sharon is a little tiny town. There were maybe twenty kids in my graduating class. This was a dairy farm. My dad had at the most about ninety cows. So, there was all that kind of dairy fun going on. I have four older sisters and they are fourteen, thirteen, twelve, and six years older than I. They’ve all gone on to get professional degrees and [are] doing various things. Growing up here, I enjoyed growing up on a dairy farm. Kids got to feed baby calves and help do hay, and try not to get killed [laughter] and all that fun. My dad got sick in the late ‘60s. He had to get a gallbladder operation and he sold most of the cows. Then, he started back up again and milked thirty to fifty cows until my sister took over in ‘82.

CW:
Do you know what kind of cows they were?

KP:
They were all Holsteins.

CW:
Okay.

KP:
Grey Holsteins. My dad loved making hay. He loved grass. He loved pasture. He was a pasture guy before pasture was cool. It’s just kind of interesting. He thought the Northeast was a terrible place to grow field corn or soybeans, even though he messed around with both a little bit. But he loved grass. It’s kind of funny. We’re still making hay.

[TRACK 1, 03:22]

CW:
And how did your sister end up with the farm then?

KP:
Since she was little, she was really interested in it. [She] milked from a little kid on. I was too small, but my sister and my father would go and milk, and then my dad would go to BOCES in the morning. We would get everything ready and he would come home and milk at night after school. She took very big interest and then she went to Cornell for ag[ricultural] science. She came home in ‘82 and stayed here until she sold out in ‘93.

CW:
And is that when you ended up with the farm?

KP:
Yeah. Kind of through default. [Laughter] She started selling vegetables in like ‘90. Just a little bit of sweet corn wholesale to P&C in Cobleskill. Then, we had a little card table on the front lawn. When she sold out, I didn’t know quite what to do. I messed around a little bit selling vegetables and I went back to grad school because I needed a job and I thought I’d get a job teaching school somewhere. But then I started selling vegetables and away it went.

[TRACK 1, 04:42]

CW:
And you went for your education work at SUNY ESF [Environmental Science and Forestry,] right? Could you tell me a little bit about that?

KP:
Yeah, I graduated from SUNY ESF in ‘88 with a dual major in forest bio[logy] and resource management. I told you last time [during the pre-interview], I got an offer to go to Finland in an exchange [program]. In the meantime, I got a job in Georgia and I went to Georgia. I crewed [inaudible] timber in Georgia for a while. Georgia was as alien as Finland was going to be and I figured I already was in Georgia so I stayed in Georgia. I wasn't really cool with the South, so after a brief duration in Georgia I came back home and helped my sister from ‘89 to ‘93.

CW:
What would you say brought you back to Sharon Springs then?

KP:
I don’t have a good answer for that. Because when I was in high school, I had no plans to ever come back to my hometown. I want to SU [Syracuse University] before I went to ESF and I just loved it because it was huge. I knew that Sharon was not the end of the universe. I knew there was more to the world than Sharon. I came back home and I’m like “Maybe Sharon isn’t a bad place after all.” It’s kind of funny. Kids that I went to grade school and high school [with], most of them are still around here. They are still who I see. Not as often as I used to, but we still hang out once in a while and that’s kind of cool.

[TRACK 1, 06:32]

CW:
So, farming then definitely isn’t something you wanted to pursue originally?

KP:
Not then. Not originally. I thought I would get a job working in the woods in some aspect. Maybe do some sort of timber harvesting. And then even teaching. Then, I came home and I didn't know quite what to do when I left Georgia. I was a little lost and I started working on the farm again. It kind of grows on you. [Laughter] I wasn’t a good dairyman. I'm a horrible herdsman. Sick cows, they don’t turn me on at all, taking care of sick cows. I don’t mind milking them. I like a lot of the aspects of dairy farming, but as a herdsman, no. My sister was a way better manager than I would ever dream of being. So, that didn’t really turn me on at all. The thing that made me kind of switch to agriculture is going to sound really kind of cheesy. She did a “you-pick” in 1990 something, [199]1 maybe. She put in a you-pick strawberries, and I could milk in the morning or I could take care of you-pick strawberries. I was 23 [or] 24 and I thought you-pick strawberries was going to be pretty girls picking strawberries, and it's not. It’s senior citizen ladies at five o'clock in the morning to beat the heat. But, the thing that struck me is they came to my house and gave me money and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Then, I just ran with that from then on. I don’t do strawberries anymore, which is kind of funny but I should. It’s fun; people come to your house, you know? You get to welcome them. I am blessed with a good road to have a roadside stand on. That’s the only reason I was able to do this. This road, it saves me. I just kind of throw stuff up and if it goes, “Hey, that was a great idea. Let’s do more of that.” It’s kind of fun that I get to mess around with a couple tiny greenhouses. Before, it was really more about the dollar and now, I have to tell you, in the spring, I get a big kick out of watching plants grow. It's fun to mess with and fun to mess up. And see if you can bring them back. See how you did it wrong. Try not to do that ever again. It's fun.

CW:
So, what kind of crops do you grow here, then?

KP:
We sell a lot of hay. We bail some rye straw. We have maybe one hundred acres of hay. Five to fifteen acres of rye straw, depending on how ambitious I am. And then I do three acres of pumpkins, an acre of mini-pumpkins and gourds, a couple of acres of winter squash, fifteen acres of sweet corn. That's where we got started. I’m a weirdo about sweet corn. I plant probably seven or eight kinds and I'll plant it for fifteen weeks. I'm always planting sweet corn. We grow a bunch of garlic, although we cut back a little bit because everyone and their brother grows garlic now. More and more cabbage, broccoli, tons of Brussels sprouts, your usual tomatoes, some pickling cukes [cucumbers], cukes, a mix of vegetables. Tons of zucchini. Tons and tons of peppers. Tons of eggplant. Cantaloupes, watermelons, onions. It's kind of fun. Some years I’ll hit. Like two years ago, I hit on onions. I couldn’t do it wrong. They were beautiful. And my garlic sucked. Then the next year, my garlic was awesome and my onions sucked, and I’m like “Really?” [Laughter.] I was crushed. I’m trying to do a better job on cabbage. Trying to do exponentially more and more Brussels sprouts every year. It's a fun crop because I get to pick it for longer than I pick sweet corn, even though it’s not nearly as romantic. [Laughter] I’m trying to think. What else? We do sell more and more cut flowers. I grow three thousand glads [gladiolas], and about an acre of zinnias and lisianthus and sunflowers, and that’s really fun. It’s really fun to watch that take off. We went to you-cut and that’s the greatest idea ever invented in the entire world. There's a couple florists that come, and that’s great. It’s fun because you can just grow what they want. You don’t have to just throw it out there. Not that they’re ever going to order it, but if you know that so-and-so likes [and] could go through this many zinnias every day or every week, you can kind of plan how many you want to plant. You can grow anything, but I’m willing to spend a certain amount of time on any one crop, and if a crop starts to turn into too much work for the return, I just dump it. It’s not worth it. That said, we still mess around with stuff. It takes three years for me to really hate something. The first year, I probably will blame it on doing it wrong myself. The second year, I’ll blame it on the weather. And the third year, I either hit it or I'll just give up. [Laughter] I’m thinking of what other crops. I think that pretty well covers [it]. Tons of peas. Shell peas, English peas, snap peas, snow peas. More and more green beans. Probably have an acre of green beans. We start planting green beans [in] the middle of May and now go until the middle of August. This year, it kind of was a bummer because my late peas didn’t really make it. I couldn't pick them to sell them. It wasn’t viable. It was too bad. I don’t know why. [Laughter.] I'm trying to be a better grower. I'm not organic. I should have been just because my management was pretty low spray anyway. It's just in the last few years, in this spot in the world, more and more people are asking me if it was organic. For the first fifteen years of messing around, nobody right here really cared. I sell to Niskayuna Co-Op and it’s a cool little store. They have a huge organic following and I didn’t think I could get in because I was conventional. For whatever reason I got a hit in there and that was a good deal. I think the main reason was I had to call the lady and not use email. [Laughter]

[TRACK 1, 14:44]

CW:
So, with there being more demand, are you trying to do more organic?

KP:
Am I what?

CW:
Have you thought about trying to go more organic?

KP:
Yeah, I have about ten acres that is organic. I don’t know quite what crop I want to mess around with for that. My neighbor’s do organic garlic. That’s no real trick. The people that impress me are the people that are trying to do organic sweet corn. That’s a labor of love. I don’t know how to do that. It would be fun to learn how to do that. Most of this stuff, my only complaint about organic was the fertilizer cost is brutal. If you can get your organic matter levels up to where you want, then your initial fertilizer cost sucks, but it gets better. But that first hit is just horrible. If I could kind of try to do more cover crops. In the last couple years, we have been trying to improve the soil more. I did it before to sell the straw and now I can really see the benefits of it besides the straw. It's not just the crop to sell. It's okay to have stuff in the ground. A couple acres of tillage radishes just to see what it will do for compaction, and that's kind of fun. It's fun to grow some stuff. It's fun to mess around. Otherwise, it just becomes dredge, you know?

CW:
Are there any other challenges to growing organic?

KP:
Labor is terrible. Pests. I'm not a big pesticide guy, so I don’t really see that. Weed control. We used black plastic mulch since I started and every year I back off of that a little bit. That really got me going. That was my crutch for weed control. It was brutally expensive, but it worked. That and I bought a water wheel transplanter, and as soon as we could mechanize planting, that was a huge jump. Which is funny because you wouldn’t think it’d be that big of a deal. You shouldn’t have to figure that out, but I was a dairy farmer with a forestry background. I wasn’t a vegetable guy on a farm that really had no business growing vegetables on it. It grew core crops on it probably pretty good. My dad really wasn’t wrong when he said “Just grow hay.” It’s heavy. And the fact that it's heavy, this year it was dry. It worked out. Some crops it's not worth it to try to go organic. If I could figure out how to do some organic fruit that would be awesome, but that's really hard. That’s blindingly hard. I don’t know. Maybe I should start with something easy. [Laughter]

[TRACK 1, 18:22]

CW:
So, for things like hay and straw, who do you sell that to?

KP:
I sell all my hay to one guy. He sells all that hay to a feed store in Long Island. I've been doing business, my sister did business, my dad did business with him. I’m just crushed he’s getting ready to retire now in the next couple of years, so I don’t know what we’re going to do with the hay. The straw I sell right here, roadside. Some for decoration, a lot for dog coops, a little bit of garlic mulching. I used to sell a little bit of hay to all of these horse farms around, but I thought that would be a fun way to make money in the winter. Just delivering little loads of hay. It’s not worth it. I have one guy and I just sell it to him. It’s real easy. He buys everything that’s good enough to resell. And everything else I can sell to a dairy farm for bedding and call it good. I don’t have to try to market hay. What a giant pain in the neck that would be. This year was a great year for hay. In June, the first of July, you couldn’t give a bale of hay away. Now, nah. It was a good hay year. We haven't had a good hay year like that in a long time. Usually it rains. June is the rainiest month, and that kind of sets a tone for the whole rest of the year. Because if it's wet in June, I don’t get a lot of stuff planted. The hay gets gunky. That’s not a fun way to start. You can usually come back from it, but it’s not a fun way to start.

[TRACK 1, 20:15]

CW:
So, for your roadside stand, you mentioned that that started as a card table. So, how did that evolve into what you have now?

KP:
It was a card table with my mom standing out front. There was a roadside stand on the corner of Route 80 and Route 20 and they went out of business, and my sister bought that stand, which is still the stand right now. That was a long time ago. It’s starting to fall apart. I need to rebuild it. I kind of would love to have it in the barn, but I would never be able to make that transition. If you can't see it from the road, no one thinks you have it. So that’s really a challenge. What really got me really rolling was there was, I don’t know if it was a food hub. I know they were going to take food from upstate New York and sell it in Harlem, in the food deserts of the south Bronx and northern Manhattan. And that made me grow more than I was comfortable growing before, but then we could bang out a thousand eggplant a rip, and then I learned how to plant for that. If I figured I needed a thousand plants, I would just double down and plant two thousand just to cover it. That was a good idea, but it wasn’t profitable for them. They went out of business. But it showed, with a little bit of tweaking of your management and if you can get the weather and if you can get it in on time, you can grow an amazing amount of stuff. If you can get it all picked, that's a whole other story, but it's just usually myself and my girlfriend that do all the work. I have a couple people that would come and help pick beans. In fact, people run a roadside stand, we need to be here. We need to sell it too, you know? People want the whole enchilada. [Laughter] They don’t want an employee waiting on them; they want the farmer. That’s what you’re selling. You can buy this stuff anywhere. I don’t know what you’re selling. It’s not even an awesome backstory or anything. [Laughter] But with that, that’s unreal. We go to a couple farmers’ markets. We go to one in Amsterdam and the big one for two years, one in Cobleskill we have been going for the twentieth year. I had an S-10 pick-up and an S-10 pickup full of vegetables we thought was a crazy amount of vegetables. Now I realize that was not very many vegetables at all. That was fun to watch that grow. We kind of tapped out Cobleskill on another note. Cobleskill is a little town. There’s no exponential growth in vegetables there, but there’s not that many more people. We try not to do a lot of wholesale, really, just because it’s two of us, and it's just the wholesale on vegetables is, the labor just kills you. It’s a lot of work. For two people to do. I should have started wholesale some more pumpkins. I should have been a little more daring, but I love retail, so I'll put anything out here if I can and see what happens.

CW:
So, why then do you think it’s so important to sell directly to the consumers and not through someone else?

KP:
I’m mildly offended by a broker. I understand. I would be a broker in two seconds. But, I have a friend that does all wholesale, all wholesale vegetables. And he is totally at the whim of the buyer. One guy. If that guy is in a bad mood or if someone yelled at that guy in the morning, he’s going to just - you’re working for that one guy. I love retail. If I sell to a hundred people, I know I'm not going to make a hundred of them happy, but if I can get ninety of them happy, that’s good enough. Five people can’t ruin my business, you know? Just because a guy, I don’t know, what is a good spec for one buyer is a totally different spec for a different buyer. And that kind of, I don’t know, that offends me on some level. And I apparently just love retail. I think I love people coming here. I get a kick out of it. We do a hay maze. We do a corn maze. Just to have people. People say, “What’s it cost?” I say “Nothing!” But maybe I guilt you into buying a pumpkin, you know? [Laughter] [TRACK 1, 25:28] Your kids have been playing here for hours, come on. Crack it a little bit. Give me a break. But people are cool about that. What we used to do in July and August is always man the stand. Then in September we had to pick pumpkins, so we put it self-serve for half a day on an honor system. It's amazing. We just have a jar. There is no lock box or anything. The thing that sucks about the honor system is that no one will make their own change. They think if they put money in the jar and they take money out of the jar, they are somehow stealing, but whatever. It is amazing how it works. It doesn’t always work. We get hit a couple times a year, but it is amazing when it hits; it is the dreamiest thing ever. People are way cooler about it than you would imagine. It's kind of fun, if you're from a city no one would ever do that. Just because we have a jar out front, that draws some business. Because no one does that. It’s insane. But you can’t always be here. As much time as we spend staring out this window or standing out by the side of the road, you still have to do other work. You have to plant stuff. You have to pick it, you know?

CW:
Could you tell me about some of your most memorable experiences with customers?

KP:
They’re going to sound all negative [laughter], and they’re really not. That is truly horrible because all of the great sales, the people that were nice, the people that gave you a tip, the people that were so happy that they could make whatever recipe they wanted – those are boring stories. You don’t remember them. A lot of times they’ll bring me a jar of whatever they’re making. “Here, we made this from your stuff.” And that makes you feel really good. When people would bring their kids back after we have a school trip for corn and the hay maze, and the kids and the parents were coming back, that‘s really fun. Makes you feel really good. People came for Farm Family Fun Day last year and hung out for three or four hours. Just to hang out. That was just really cool. My favorite stories are the ones that either ended badly or just are the ones that make you puff up a little bit. They’re the most fun. But again, I don't want to make it sound like this is a total negative thing. The shitty customers are the ones you remember. [Laughter] I’m trying to think if I have a good “for instance.” Oh, this is kind of a silly one. It’s not my fave [favorite], but it’s definitely a silly one. A lady came. There are a lot of Russians around and we sell a lot of dill and a lot of different cukes. And a lady came and she wanted “the good dill,” but it sounded like she wanted “the good deal.” So, we kind of started to go around and around. Like “you’re getting the best deal you’re going to get.” and “No, I want a good deal!” And finally, just before the guns came out [Laughter] “Oh, you want dill! Okay!” Yeah, you see the one that’s fun in the summer, you’ll see a crowd from Connecticut. A family on their way home, it's Sunday night, it’s eight o’clock, they're all tired, they’ve had way too long of a vacation, they’re shot. But they’re trying to get, “Let’s go to the farm stand and we’ll get another fifteen minutes of fun out of this vacation.” And then they turn on each other at the stand. It ends tragically. [Laughter] Again, it sounds negative, but it’s something we see. It makes you giggle. It’s like, “Ah, you’ve reached too far.” I told you last time when we were setting up the interview, when downtown Sharon had a pretty good Jewish population, and once I knew what to grow for those, the ladies

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]

that would come, oh, they were a fun crowd. Because it was a totally different crowd with totally different customs and totally different things that they wanted. The Russians came and I got good with that. Don't drink vodka with ninety-year-old Russian ladies. They’ll put you down. Along those lines, both with the Jews and Russians, my name is Kenyon, and for whatever reason, that is too alien of a name for either one of those crowds. So, from the first of July to the high holidays in the end of September, I was “Kevin.” [Laughter] [In feigned Russian accent] “Kevin, [laughter] why so expensive?”
One of my favorites was, I went through, as a lot of people do in their 20s and 30s, maybe date a bunch of different women. And the one Russian lady [in feigned Russian accent] “Kevin, how many wives do you have?” [Laughter] That was one my most favorite. That made me giggle. I’m trying to think of any more fun ones. We did a couple fun things. We decorate a lot of businesses in town with pumpkins and corn stalks for the Harvest Festival and just for Halloween, in general. And we’ve done a bunch of weddings for that. And last year we did flowers for a wedding and they did all the bouquets, the bridesmaids made all the bouquets here. And that was really fun. It was a little bit of stress because, you only have one, I said to the bridesmaid or the bride, she says “Are we cool on Thursday to cut?” And I said, “Yes, as long as we don’t get a thunderstorm, we’re golden.” That took the sail right out of her. [Laughter] Luckily it didn’t rain. It was good. Everyone rejoiced, but that was fun. I’m trying to think. I used to be able to tell vegetable stories all day long. I’ve got a really interesting cast of characters in my life. Guys I do business with. I'm pretty good friends with one Amish guy that’s since moved to Buffalo. He still calls me and we scream vegetable stuff at each other. I got just a bunch of wacky guys through this business, and they’re all quite entertaining on their own level. I don’t think I'm ever going to make a million dollars in this business but, hey, if you have some fun experiences, and if you make enough money to skill it, to stay afloat, then the rest of it’s gravy. I don’t know. I’ll let you know in a couple more years if we’ve made enough money to keep it going. [Laughter] I never really understood the joke “We’ll keep farming until we run out of money.” There’s a lot to that. It’s tragic that it’s so expensive to do this. If this was cheap and you didn’t make any money, then it would be kind of fun. But it’s brutally expensive. I have hardly any machinery. I have good hay machinery. That's about it. My vegetable machinery is junk, but it works. Oh shoot, I wish I had another. Just keep going.

CW:
Okay.

KP:
If I have another about vegetable sales, I’ll bring it back. [Laughter] There are so many.

[TRACK 2, 03:35]

CW:
With your interacting with the community so much, have you seen any changes to the community of Sharon Springs since you have been here?

KP:
Oh, yeah, yeah! Like I said, when I was a kid, there was a huge Jewish population. The Jews have since gone. The Russians came. The Russians have now gone. There’s a huge gay population now. Sharon is now featured by the Beekman Boys. They’ve drawn a huge crowd. Now the Koreans bought half the town. The Koreans are supposed to fix the bath house. It’s kind of interesting. I think the whole point of it was you could, the Jews came to Sharon because they couldn’t go to Saratoga. The Russians came because it was cheap. The Koreans came because they could buy half a town for four hundred thousand dollars. And it all goes really slowly. Upstate New York is not a boon of growth. Stuff happens, but it takes twenty years for it to really ever. There’s not a lot of cash floating around. [Laughter]

[TRACK 2, 05:02]

CW:
What would you say you like best in your direct approach with customers and selling directly to them?

KP:
I like to sell stuff. I would like to think that I'm a good salesman. And I hate the pitch. I’m offended when salesmen pitch to me. I just put it out. “This is the things I have. Maybe you’re in. Maybe I can offer you this today.” The thing about the road being good. I have one friend that is a great grower. He can’t sell stuff. To be brutally honest. He can fix anything. I have no machinery or mechanical skills at all. Somehow along the line, he can’t talk to people. I like to talk to people. My little thing that I do which people hate is, when they come, I’m like “Tell me a funny. Tell me something. Give me something. Give me some little bit of your day. Just give me something. Something funny happened to you today, you saw something today, give me something through your eyes.” And if you’re smart, you can remember so-and-so saw whatever, and then you seen them a year later and you’re like “Hey, have you seen a bobcat again?” People love that. You know? The thing that I think is fun here that took me a little while to realize – I wish I had a bit better local crowd. I do okay locally, but I wish it was better. A lot of my crowd is totally dependent, again, on Route 20. Who’s on the road. And just because they only come once a year, well, they have been coming for twenty-five years. They stop every year. It’s a big ritual. People are really crazy about tradition. When you become someone’s garlic guy, “We come up here every year to buy ten pounds of garlic from this one guy.” That’s cool. I have one Jewish friend that we are about the same age and we've gotten divorced together. He’s got a new girlfriend now, his kids are grown, his kids are getting old. It's just kind of fun to watch. It's fun to watch all that. It’s fun to know what people to like. To sell stuff, to cold call people, or to push stuff on people is brutally hard. But if I know that you will buy black cherry yogurt, then I’ll make sure I always have black cherry yogurt here, and I’ll be your yogurt guy forever. I have one, here’s kind of a mildly funny story, I have one customer that wanted to buy mango yogurt. We sell Cornell Dairy’s yogurt through my cousin. She got us hooked up with it. It’s good yogurt, and it’s kind of fun to sell something else. But the lady wanted mango yogurt because her son loved mangos. Loves mangos. She went on for fifteen minutes talking about mango yogurt. So, Carrie went into the barn to get mango yogurt for her. She goes, “You better get me a peach.” That made us giggle for hours. [Laughter] What is fun, people will buy what they’re grandma used to make or what their mom told them to buy. A lot of people don’t like vegetables because their moms were horrible cooks. [Laughter] Anybody that was born in the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s, everything was cooked to death. I have friends now that are on a raw diet. It’s just kind of fun to put, there's a little crunch, and there’s texture [to] vegetables. You don’t have to mush them down. You don't’ have to dry the basil to eat it. You can eat it raw and fresh. Stuff like that. It’s fun to know when my friend Barb pulls in, Barb wants at least a quart of tomatoes, maybe two. So, I just get them. I don't have to talk to her. I say, “Here’s your loot.” I like selling vegetables.
[Laughter]

CW:
Yeah.

KP:
I don’t know if I’ve conveyed that. [Laughter] But I like what I do. I hope that I make enough money that I can skill it. I'll keep saying that over and over again.

[TRACK 2, 10:07]

CW:
So, how did you end up selling yogurt?

KP:
Just through my cousin. She is the quality control lady at Cornell Dairy in Ithaca. She likes to come out. My grandfather grew up on a farm a mile away. Her grandfather, his brother, it’s a mile away and he had his own homestead and she likes to come up here in the summer. And she came up and she says, “Hey, I’m selling yogurt. You want to sell yogurt?” And I said, “We’ll try it.” And last year I started. This year it kind of took off. No great amount, but it's something else fun to sell. Ithaca is just a little too far away for someone to go, “Shoot. Quick we’re out of yogurt. We’ve got to run to Ithaca in August.” You know? That five-hour ride round trip. That sucks. I used to think that vegetables ended on Labor Day. When the summer crowd went home, the party was over. Then a friend of mine said, “Grow pumpkins. See what happens.” Well, pumpkins were okay, so we went to Halloween. And then I used to work construction from Halloween to Easter. And then, shoot, if you’re in it to Halloween, maybe you can make it to Thanksgiving. We’ll bag it on Thanksgiving. And now it’s getting to be December and I’m like “We can still sell Brussels sprouts. Let’s get Christmas trees and we can sell these stupid Brussels sprouts. We’ll use Christmas trees as a loss leader.” Which is against everything I believe in, but whatever. It gets people in to buy Brussels sprouts. It doesn’t ever have to end. I still haven't figured out the winter yet though. January and February, that’s a bleak time for money. I do not know how to do that. I've tried. I’ve worked out. Some more years I work out, the less money I make on the farm. You’re only going to be able to do so much. If you have a great idea. That should be your next project. [Laughter] You guys all brainstorm fun ways to make money. We sold, there’s a cereal in town they make called Mu Mu Muesli and I was their pitchman. I sold that in Schenectady, great market in the wintertime for five years. That was a good gig. We sold for another guy. A bakery, we sold his stuff at the Syracuse regional market for one winter. That was kind of fun. That was far. The [New York State] thruway at four o’clock in the morning in the wintertime. It was just a horrible idea. The one winter I tried to get a job selling cars, and I wasn’t going to tell them that I was going to quit, but the guy said, “What do you know about selling cars?” And I said “Nothing. But if I can sell you a dozen ears of sweet corn, there is nothing to say a guy can’t sell you a car. There’s no difference.” A pitch is a pitch. The relationship is either there or it's not. You can’t make that happen. If you’re just going on price, like I said, you can buy every vegetable here at Walmart for less money. If that’s what you’re going for. The thing that’s fun in the fall, in the fall you get a lot of people looking, the leaves are fun, they ride the road. They’re looking for the best deal. Some people look at vegetable buying as kind of combative. I don’t know. I wonder how the Amish do this really cheaply. They sell their stuff really cheap. I don’t know how they skill it. Everybody said the labor is free. It still just costs so much. I don’t know how they do it. But maybe they just keep moving enough product it doesn’t really matter. Just keep moving on to the next thing. The thing that was really kind of a fun thing to learn here was that we start planting stuff, let's say in the first week of March in the greenhouse. You really shouldn't stop planting anything here until—we plant the garlic last, but there should be more—I like to stop planting summer stuff about mid-August. Fall is a big deal. The leaves are changing and it's beautiful out. People ride the road, and the more color, the more things. More people respond to that. That’s just kind of fun to see. More is a big deal. The bigger the pile the more people will see it and pull in. A sparse display will never sell anything. I hated that. I just don’t like it. I think it’s cheesy. The farmers’ market, they have a movie, “Pile it High and Watch it Fly.” And I just thought that was cheesy, but I was like, “Fill your display. Do your job. That’s all. Just do your job. Fill it up. Look like you would want to buy something there. No one is going to buy the last two things.” I will leave them out there because I play stick games with myself. I’m like, “Come on, let's see.” I’m probably my own worst enemy in this business by far because it’s a really interesting sociological experiment. What works? What doesn't work? Things you thought would work that don’t. A lot of people want me to paint the stand. I said, “You don’t need to paint it. That grey is good. The vegetables have the color. We’re not selling stands. We’re selling vegetables.” It shouldn’t look like a dump either. I’m a big believer if you start to see…you’re going for a different crowd. It depends on what your crowd is. Some crowds would like a blacktop driveway with a big walk-in cooler, all class, a lot of fanciness. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I like that the vegetables are dirty. I'm not going to wash them. If I wash them, that’s more labor. I have less money in it. It’s got dirt – we just picked it. We just picked it. “What do you want? I’ll go pick it for you right now? It will take me a second.” That sells a lot of stuff. If you got the time to do that. If you know that so-and-so comes every third Wednesday and they love broccoli, and you see them pull in, and you can go whack one, that's great. Then they are always going to come back because they always get what they want. My one cereal guy, we’ve had a lot of interesting conversations because his pitch was he made the greatest pancake mix. It’s a great pancake mix. “Why don’t you pitch your vegetables like that?” “These aren’t the greatest vegetables in the world. They’re good. They’re what I did. I did this.” Some days, is the corn awesome? Sure. The corn fricken rocks. Some days the corn, we had to move, and we didn’t move fast enough, and the corn is going to get a little chewy. God forbid that ever happens. I’ll kill myself before that happens, but it happens sometimes. My worst mistake that I’ve ever made in corn, which just crushed me, I planted Indian corn, and then about a month later I planted sweet corn. They never should have crossed. Twenty rows in they stilled crossed. You’d eat an ear of this beautiful corn called, “Essence” – it was the greatest corn ever – and then you’d hit a kernel of Indian corn, and it was like eating an eraser. It was horrible. We pretty much abandoned that whole patch. That was sad, too. We had a big order and I was like, “Oh, this tastes like crap.” It’s got to taste good. We don’t sell seconds. I have a bunch of pig people that come and take all the garbage. We try really hard not to sell junk. Just try to sell good stuff. And like I said, is it the greatest? No. Is it corn? I guarantee it’s corn. [Laughter] Which squash is the sweetest? Now you got me thinking on all these awesome vegetable things. [Laughter] Which squash is the sweetest? I don’t know what your palate is. Your palate is different than mine. Which one has the most calories? Or the least? I’m not a dietitian. People share a lot of interesting things about vegetables and their lives and their fiber intake and their bathroom habits and stuff you never thought you would share with anyone. [Laughter] But, thanks, I guess? [Laughter.] It’s kind of funny.

[TRACK 2, 19:05]

CW:
How popular would you say this approach is of dealing directly with customers among the other farmers in the area?

KP:
Nobody wants to do this like this.

CW:
No?

KP:
No. ‘A’ because it takes too long. The time commitment just to sell takes forever. Like I said, the one guy that’s a great mechanic, a great grower, he wants to sell things by the thousands of dollars. He wants checks for tens of thousands of dollars at a rip. I kind of like it if you spend five bucks. It would be cool if you spend ten, but I don’t mind it dribbling in. They want to sell at two farmers’ markets a week. They want to do other stuff the rest of the week. I’ve committed myself to being insane at being open every day from March 1st until Christmas. Do we do anything else? Not really. We talk about having big fun in the winter. We kind of cab up and say “Oh, we need to make more money next year.” I have one friend who goes and sells to high-end farmers’ markets in Kingston and Hudson and Connecticut. She sells stuff that's worth, price is jacked twice of what it's really worth. But she's got a four-hour ride each way or three-hour ride each way. You know, if you had four hours of setup and take down just to make the same money that you’ve got to hit big. I just can’t get over people coming to my house. I just love it. [Laughter] I went on the road. When I worked construction, we worked on the road all week. We would be gone all week and come home on the weekends. That’s one way to live. I don’t really like living like that. This is way more fun. A thing that I’ve tried that’s fun and we talk about you want to try to grow this or sell that or whatever, it’s a total crapshoot. What might be cool for the next couple years, phases out. I started out selling red bark mulch. And then everybody wanted black. So, then I got black. Then a bunch of my friends had their friends call me and order red. And at first I thought I was like, “I got mulch. I’ll sell you mine.” And they’re like, “No! We want red.” And then I got mad, and I was yelling at people who weren't my friends’ friends because I thought they were just messing with me. That was too bad. But whatever. We all make horrible mistakes every day. [Laughter]

[TRACK 2, 22:24]

CW:
So, if there is such a thing as a normal day for you here, what does it consist of?

KP:
Oh, it depends on the season. In March and April and May, in March we go down to the greenhouse 8:30, nine o’clock, go in the greenhouse. Can’t go too early because it’s still too cold. With that, we’ll mess around with plants. We’ll transplant all day. A more fun day, let's get to August because that’s kind of more interesting. We get up in the morning, have some coffee, go pick corn—we kind of live a lot on coffee—get the corn picked, grab another coffee, and then pick until eleven, and then set the stand up, and then we usually will watch the stand for the rest of the afternoon. And Carry will pick if we have a store order or something like that. We bag it around, oh, in August, July and August, we could at like 7:30, quarter to eight. We’ll be open until eight. Usually by 7:30 we quit. Unless we’re making hay or something but as far as just selling vegetables. And then September at 6:30. October it’s 5:30. Now, it's dark and people are still buying trees in the dark, which kind of blows my mind, but whatever. When we do hay, that’s the one interesting thing that I've taught myself to go where the money is. So, if it's time to make hay, I’ll put the jar out. We have to bail hay today. We can’t miss this opportunity. And that pisses customers off because, if I'm doing fieldwork, I can't be here to sell mulch. I only have one tractor. [Laughter] But, that's okay. So, we didn’t make everybody awesome that day, but the guy that’s buying all my hay, he’s cool with it. I don’t know. That’s one of the hardest things. Where do you spend your time? I really hate investing a lot of time, if I spend a lot of money on it, I have to make it back or I’m suicidal. If I put a lot of time in it and it all goes bad, I'll never do that again. I won’t do that. [Cough] Excuse me.

[TRACK 2, 25:10]

CW:
And what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen to agriculture since you have been in the business?

KP:
This slow decline of the dairy industry in New York State. Every time I think dairy cows have had their last gasps, the price goes lower again. The amount of huge diaries that are popping up around. That kind of blows my mind. When corn prices were high, everybody spent money like water. And now corn prices are in the tank. Commodity agriculture in this part of the Northeast, within the next hour, within a fifty-mile circumference around here, that’s tough money. I don’t know how they do that. That blows my mind. And then one thing, this is kind of fun, when my sister went out of business, there were still quite a few dairy farmers that were, out of our peer group, let's say, we would all hang out together, not all the time but one night a week or one night a month we might go and drink beers and then milk cows and hang out for a little. Doing vegetables, for the first fifteen years, that did not exist. Now there’s enough people that are trying to grow their own stuff or sell whatever that there is that group again. There’s enough people doing the same kind of things that you can kind of hang out and be like “Hey, I had this awesome customer today.” You know? And that’s kind of fun. It makes it a lot more fun. As opposed to being the only one doing whatever your crazy idea was. You know? It’s fun to know that there are other people out there fighting the fight with you. The fun thing about it is everyone has their own way to do it. There’s no right way. What works on some farms I don’t even want to try here. Because this works here, today. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

CW:
So, why do you think there’s been this change away from dairy and into vegetables?

KP:
Because the milk price sucks. It costs too much money. It costs too much money. Your return just is terrible. If you have a billion cows and you can spread it over, your economy of scale, if that’s what you want to do, but it’s really hard. You can have a small vegetable farm, if you keep your costs down, it doesn't cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to be in business. With a dairy farm, even if you want to milk fifty cows, it’s going to cost you a chunk of change to do that. Just to be legal. What I would love, I don’t want to milk the cows, I would even milk them once a day. I don't want them to be my cows and I don’t want them to be here. I would love to sell raw milk. I think there’s almost enough crowd here to sell raw milk on twenty [Route 20]. I don’t know. That’s kind of the fun thing, I like going to these other markets just because it's fun to see what people sell. Like wow, this one couple made chicken wing dip. They were pushing it at 7 o’clock in the morning and I’m like, “You guys are making bank on this.” Really!? [Laughter] Backyard, home small beef producers for whatever reason, I’ve convinced myself that selling beef or pork, or chicken out of a cooler is the most impossible thing. I’ve made it so hard in my mind that I won’t ever do it. I have some friends that are quite successful doing it. Scares me to death. If I sell you a bad ear of corn, you spent fifty cents on it. You’ll yell at me. If I sell you a ten-dollar steak and it sucks, you'll never come back again. That’s a lot of pressure. [Laughter] The thing about the commodities again, even on a good year, that’s why I grow vegetables because my parents, my dad especially, he loved to talk about milk marketing. I thought milk you were just giving

[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00]

your profit all to someone else. You’re taking your product and just giving it away just because they would come and get it every other day. At least here, at least I can set the price. If it’s too high, no one will buy it. If it’s all gone, oh god, that was way too cheap. That was kind of a kick in the ass to learn. “Hey, look at all the stuff we’re selling. We’re selling a lot of stuff. We’re kind of popular. We’re doing stuff.” The price was just too cheap. You should get over yourself. [Laughter] That's a real good self-esteem killer too. You’re like “Wait, look at what we did!” and you’re like, “Oh…” In the end, no matter how fun the spin is, it’s how much money people are spending in the driveway.

CW:
Alright, that puts us at just over an hour.

KP:
Nice!

CW:
So, I think we’ll end it here. Thank you very much.

KP:
Sure! Thanks for coming. Hope it helps.

Duration

29:59 - Track 1
30:00 - Track 2
01:07 - Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128kbps

Files

Citation

Conner A. Wolfe, “Kenyon Parsons, November 22, 2016,” CGP Community Stories, accessed August 21, 2017, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/279.