This rock outlet apron disperses incoming surface runoff water adjacent to black muck fields that have been prepped for winter.
Photos courtesy of John DeHollander, Oswego County SWC D unless otherwise noted.
Morris Sorbello Jr. grows onions in Oswego County, N.Y., in the farming operation of Sorbello & Sons, which now includes fourth-generation family members. The operation continues a muck farming tradition started by Sorbello’s father in the early 1900s, one in which the family takes a great deal of pride. Sorbello, 78, along with his twin sons, David and Dana, 56, and grandsons, Dylan, 25, and Rane, 21, farm a 600-acre operationthat includes 300 acres of muck land on which they produce yellow cooking onions.
The muck farming operation represents a rich history across this area of New York, west to areas of Michigan, and pockets found at this latitude in other parts of the world. Located near Lake Ontario, the former swampland was formed when glacier movements left low pockets that were later drained, leaving muck soil that is used for growing vegetables. Muck farming in Oswego County illustrates a long history of farming that has moved from the pre-World War I era through the industrial revolution and into today’s demanding setting.
Muck farming today, for Sorbello and others, involves growing primarily onions and comes with numerous challenges that include not only the usual weather battles, but also competition, increasing production costs, and the unique aspects of managing soil and water on the former swampland. Ranging from launching a move to brand the regionally produced onions in the competitive market as New York Bold to fabricating equipment for specialty crops, muck farmers such as Sorbello & Sons are operating in a competitive environment that requires innovative approaches to the changing setting.
“We had to get bigger and more efficient,” Sorbello said. Getting bigger, launching a brand-recognition marketing program, and managing ongoing drainage issues are essential to successful muck farming.
A look back
Many Italian immigrants came to the area in the early 1900s, obtaining employment in the backbreaking work of clearing and draining the swampland. Ditches were dug across the cleared fields to drain the swampland. By the 1920s, a number of people had purchased the swampland to develop it for vegetable production. Sorbello’s father came to the U.S. from Sicily, and by the 1920s he was working muck land as a sharecropper in Oswego County, initially farming 5 or 6 acres.
In 1943, Sorbello bought land in Fulton, N.Y., and began the operation that has evolved into Sorbello & Sons. The installation of clay tile drains replaced the ditches in muck farming in the 1950s, which took valuable land out of production. By the 1970s, the clay tile drains were replaced by PVC drains.
Initially, carrots and lettuce were grown along with the onions, but onions have been the mainstay crop. Today they are rotated with soybeans to allow the soil time to recuperate. David and Dana joined their father after returning from college, forming Sorbello & Sons in the 1980s, and David’s two sons, Dylan and Rane, now work in the operation. Sorbello serves on the board of directors of the New York Vegetable Association and is a member of the National Onion Association.
Growers across the U.S. face increasing competition from foreign countries, where labor and other production costs are a fraction of U.S. costs. Contrasted with onion production in the Southwest, the New York onion growing season is short, and a pungent yellow cooking onion that can be planted and mature in the 120-day growing season is the variety of choice. The organically rich soil, formed by centuries of decaying organic material, provides a nutrient-rich growing medium that encourages good production, and the low-lying muck soil retains moisture.
David noted that while foreign imports create strong competition, particularly Canadian onion imports, Oswego County growers also face competition from other parts of the U.S. When crop production is exceedingly high in the Southwest, for example, onions are shipped into the New York market, competing with regionally produced onions.
About 10 years ago, a group of area farmers launched a marketing program to increase recognition of the highly flavorful, locally produced yellow cooking onions, branded as New York Bold (www.newyorkbold.com). The organization approaches chain stores directly, promoting the unique flavor and cooking qualities of the onions.
About a dozen growers are devoting a small percentage of their onions to the New York Bold branding program. David said, “It takes a lot of time and effort, as well as costs, to go out and put together a marketing program. Some of our growers are very small.” While Sorbello & Sons grows onions on about 300 acres, some growers involved in the marketing program grow on as little as 10 acres and have no staff and limited resources to devote to marketing.
Culvert pipe is installed along a perimeter shore ditch adjacent to onion crops.
While the muck soils are extremely nutrient-rich with decayed organic material, these soils present some unique challenges. Because of the high organic content, the topsoil can be extremely dry, despite the soil’s moisture-holding ability in the rootzone. Blowing soil can result in annual soil loss.
John DeHollander, director of the Oswego County Soil & Water Conservation District, has extensive experience in muck soil farming. He grew up on a muck farm, and his 34-year career has been focused on providing technical advice on muck soil farming issues.
DeHollander said, “The land was in a saturated state, and it has been drained to 2 to 3 feet below that level. Spaces compress and it settles as chemical oxidation occurs. Muck farming demands constant, good drainage for the land to be productive. The easiest way is to keep lowering the natural drainage ways that [flow out] from these low-lying muck regions.”
The underground tiles drain excess water from the former swamplands, replacing the original drainage ditches. Historically, farmers have had agreements with other property owners to take their equipment across private properties to keep the water flowing away from muck fields. As private property ownerships have changed, some nonfarm owners have objected to these practices, forcing the issue to be decided by others. While some farmers have reached agreements on easements with nonfarm property owners, other disagreements are still unsettled.
In addition to draining water away in the underground drains, water that comes onto the low-lying muck fields from higher land must also be managed. DeHollander said, “Some farmers have created shore ditches around the perimeters of their farms to divert waters, but not all farmers can afford to do this.” Shore ditches are simply ditches around the perimeters, but can be costly for farmers to install. Federal grant money, disbursed by the Oswego County Soil & Water Conservation District, has assisted farmers in constructing diversion structures to hold water temporarily in detention ponds to avoid excessive scouring from waters coming off higher land.
DeHollander said, “Our county soil and water conservation district works closely with USDA, cooperative extension service, and other state and federal agencies in incorporating their knowledge and new technology.”
Onions are picked up with a Shuknecht onion harvester and held in the hopper.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Schell, Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Increasing costs, regulations
Jonathan Schell, agriculture team coordinator, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Oswego County, noted that onion production is a $14 million industry for the county. The National Onion Association places the state of New York at sixth in onion production.
Increasing equipment and chemical costs are a concern for all growers. Much of the equipment required for all specialty crop production is manufactured on-farm or by smaller equipment producers. David noted, “My brother Dana is an excellent fabricator.”
Dale Shuknecht of Lee Shuknecht & Sons, Elba, N.Y. (www.shuknecht.com), said that while specialty crops are high-value crops, manufacture of the specialized equipment required isn’t always profitable for major manufacturers. Shuknecht specializes in onion industry equipment from planting through cultivating, harvesting and storage operations.
Sorbello & Sons uses pelletized seed from Seedway, a subsidiary of Growmark (www.growmark.com) based in Hall, N.Y. They use a Stanhay planter, sold and serviced by Lee Shuknecht & Sons.
David echoed concerns of many growers around the country related to increased food safety regulations that necessitate increased costs to growers. While the Sorbello family’s goal is to continue to produce onions profitably on their muck farm, they are very proud of carrying on the tradition started by their immigrant ancestor. With a fourth generation now involved in the onion operation, the likelihood is strong that their tradition of muck farming will continue.
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mount Zion, Ill.