Book’s Dairy & Produce forges ahead with a young workforce

When asked about the biggest challenge facing his growing operation, Jim Book replies with a chuckle, “Getting older.” He and his younger brother Bill (53) operate Book’s Dairy & Produce, Inc. in Starlight, Ind. At 60, Jim says, “I just can’t work as hard as I used to, but am still blessed to be able to do all that I do.” There is certainly plenty to do on this 950-acre operation a short distance across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. While their vegetable growing takes up about 128 acres, the income is fairly evenly split between the dairy and the vegetables.

Tim Book harvests peppers, just one of the many things he does in this family operation.

Book’s largest crop is winter squash planted on 40 acres. They grow acorn, butternut, spaghetti, white acorn, golden acorn, buttercup, hubbard, cushaw, banana, Sweet Dumpling, Carnival, Delicata, Punkemon and Orange Man. Their next largest crop comes from about 50 acres of pumpkins. They grow Prize Winners, which average about 100 pounds each, Jack-O-Lantern, pie, mini, neck and Wee-B-Little pumpkins. They grow 22 acres of cabbage, 7 acres each of peppers (including bell and hot) and cucumbers, as well as some summer squash and gourds.

Family operation

Jim and Bill are fourth-generation farmers on this southern Indiana operation. Jim’s wife Cheryl is involved, and their son Tim is gradually taking on more and more responsibilities. Jim says, “At 29, Tim has the energy that I used to have. He is working with me now, just as I did with my dad. It’s an excellent way to learn the business.” Tim is the third oldest of six sons. The only other one showing interest in the business is the youngest son, who is currently studying diesel mechanics.

Jim is a big believer in involving young people in the business, for several reasons. For one, they have an exuberance that bodes well for timely harvesting. For another, Jim says, “Farm work is great for kids, they learn how to work, and it keeps them active and out of trouble.” There can be 10 or 12 of these high school-age kids working at any one time. They help the other two full-time employees in all aspects of the operation, depending on the season. The biggest need is harvest. Jim says he is fortunate to have a number of families in the area that home school. They have more flexibility during harvest. The families understand farm needs and schedule their schooling accordingly. Another benefit of the younger workforce is their willingness to work when needed and take off when not needed.

Cucumbers going through the sorting process.

Other challenges

The next challenge on Jim’s list is plant diseases. He says, “There are more potential problems when it’s wet. Dew in mid to late summer magnifies the problems even more.” Without regular preventive sprays of fungicides the squash or pumpkin crop could be wiped out. Sclerotinia rot is especially critical on the pumpkins. If the disease hits the pumpkins, the stems can shrivel and rot off. Jim says, “A pumpkin without a stem doesn’t have much value.” Phytophthora can be a major problem with plants in the potato and gourd families. Peppers can also be attacked. Other disease-prevention measures include crop rotation and staying out of the fields as much as possible when they are wet.

To provide optimum plant growth for the best possible yield, Jim spoon-feeds with liquid fertilizer. He says, “Liquid fertilizer goes right into the plant, where it does the most good.” He does spread a coarse lime as needed. He has done soil testing in the past to develop his fertilizer and lime schedule, but after years of experience he now knows how much fertilizer he needs and when to apply it.

Washed cucumbers rolling along a conveyer to be sorted for shipping.

Insects have not been a major problem. Jim says, “For the most part we just monitor closely, and if an insect pest hits a particular threshold, we treat accordingly.”

This year the weather was even more of a challenge than usual. Jim states, “We didn’t have a spring. We had a late winter, then two summers, with some rain in between.” He usually begins planting in late March and into June. The first pepper planting was made on May 10 as planned, with the next planting scheduled for two weeks later. Rains prevented any planting for the next three weeks. Since Book’s starts all its own plants, the second planting is not doing nearly as well as the first. The plants held in the greenhouse an extra week were getting leggy and took longer to get established once they did get in the ground. The weather also threw off some of the other scheduled planting. According to Jim, “It was time to plant the fall crops and we were still planting spring crops.”

Harvesting crew celebrating in a summer squash field.

Book’s used to buy all of their pepper plants from Florida. The cost of fuel and the time to travel made growing their own plants a better proposition. Jim says, “In most years we can grow better plants and have better control over timing when we start them ourselves. This year the results have been mixed.”

The Books keep up on the latest information by attending workshops in the winter put on by Purdue University. Jim says, “We all need to gather as much information as we can during the winter so we can be ready for the spring and summer. Purdue also puts out bulletins as needed when new information becomes available, and they have a hotline during the season.”

Bill, Tim and Jim Book (left to right) stop harvesting for a quick shot of them together.

For Book’s the weather has cooperated fairly well for harvesting. A number of farmers that sell in the same markets have not been able to get their crops out. This results in better prices.

“With fuel prices what they are, and other higher costs, I’m not sure we are making more money, but we are taking more in right now,” Jim says.

The changing market

Book’s is a wholesale grower. The bulk of the produce used to be sold to directly to Kroger and some to other grocers. They also sold to restaurants and processors, especially the seconds. Processors and restaurants that chop the product before serving it are not as concerned about how the product looks as long as the rest of the quality is good. Book’s has built a good reputation for its quality. Now, the bulk of the produce is sold to Stanley Brothers in Louisville. Stanley Brothers, in turn, supplies a wider variety of produce to Kroger and other grocers and restaurants. And there are a number of benefits to going that route.

A view of the packing room floor as cucumbers are sorted.

Jim says, “We can now spend more effort on growing the best possible produce and not have to worry about the marketing or payment. In some cases, we used to have to wait 30 days or more to receive payment. Now we get a check every two weeks from Stanley Brothers.”

During the winter squash and pumpkin harvest they do hold a wholesale market at the farm. People who own and run fruit stands in the Louisville area come out and purchase squash, pumpkins and gourds to sell to consumers.

Jim Book looks over some cucumbers about to head to market. Note the two-way radio, which is important for communications.

Another factor helping them at this time is the increased interest in fresh, local produce. Stores like Kroger are playing up the fact they buy from local growers. Jim says, “I am really proud of what Kroger is doing. They even have a picture of Bill and I in their local advertising and hanging in their produce department in the area stores.” He adds, “They can afford to pay more for produce when they don’t have to pay so much for transportation.”

There used to be several big fruit and vegetable growers in this southern Indiana area. Book’s is the only large wholesaler left. Jim says, “There are two large entertainment farmers close by and a few small growers that sell direct to the consumer, but we are the last of our kind.”

Bins of cucumbers fresh from the field ready for washing and sorting.

Like everyone else, Jim is getting older, but with age comes experience. With his know-how, Tim working alongside of him and the vitality of the area youth, it appears that not only will Book’s Dairy & Produce survive, but it is poised to continue through at least another generation.

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.