Farm family adjusts to ever- evolving markets

Photos by Rocky Womack, unless otherwise noted.
Doug Patterson ,left, talks with customer Marlin Bohling at the Patterson Farm Market.

Learning to adjust in business and keeping track of input costs goes a long way toward running a successful commercial farm operation. Over the years, Patterson Farm, Inc. of Rowan County, N.C., has made adjustments, but today’s business environment calls for them to be even savvier managers.

Photo courtesy of Patterson Farm.
Patterson Farm, Inc. is a family operation. Left to right are Doug, Michelle, Nora and Randall.

Patterson Farm raises tomatoes, squash, watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, strawberries, zucchini, sweet corn and poinsettias. Tomatoes have been the backbone of the operation for about 30 years.

The Pattersons started raising produce in 1919 when James Patterson started the business. His sons, Frank and Carl, continue the family operation with tomatoes as the mainstay vegetable.

In the early 1990s, Patterson Farm grew about 60 acres of tomatoes. In 10 years’ time, that increased to 350 acres.

During the 2007 drought, Carl’s sons Doug and Randall Patterson and their farm crews picked 600,000 boxes of cherry, green, ripe and Roma tomatoes off of 325 acres. Doug called the 600,000 boxes an average yield. “That was really a pretty good year considering the weather conditions,” he says. “That’s 25 pounds in a box. Of course, we’d like to see it higher, but I think we were pleased with that.”

The Pattersons grow, harvest, pack and then ship their tomatoes from Puerto Rico to Canada, mostly for the wholesale market, although they sell some retail. During the peak season in July, they ship an average of 15 loads a day.

Testing the water

In 2007, the brothers decided to add bell peppers to their farm operation due to the falling tomato prices from 2006. The downturn continued into 2007. In 2006, the Pattersons averaged more than $9.50 per box. A year later, the same varieties of tomatoes had fallen to $7.25 per box.

“It doesn’t take you long to figure fuel had doubled in a year and half and everything is tied to fuel, such as diesel fuel, black plastic, plastic twine, spray chemicals and fertilizers,” Doug says. “When you get $2 less a box when inputs are going up 20 to 30 percent, it doesn’t take you very long to figure that tomatoes aren’t the thing to do right now.”

In 2007, the bell peppers that the Pattersons raised and sold earned them between $8 and $10 per box, which Doug calls a fair price. They grew a late crop of Aristotles, which turned out to be a wise decision because he says prices were higher for the late crop. The brothers marketed their peppers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Patterson Farm does plan to raise more bell peppers in 2008, an increase from 15 acres in 2007 to 25 acres in 2008. They also intend to increase their acreage of squash, zucchini and strawberries. In addition, they will plant a few muscadine grape vines for future harvests.

The Patterson Farm packinghouse consists of automatic packaging equipment for tomatoes shipped from Puerto Rico to Canada. Above, Conveyor systems run boxes of tomatoes through a packing system for shipping.

“I never have been a farmer who believes in just going all out,” Doug says. “In one year, we like to see if we can do it first, start out slow and try to get a handle on our costs and our market where we can sell it. I think it’s real important to determine whether we can make money at it or not, and, if we can, we’ll ramp up and grow more.”

In the Rowan County area, growers who have grown peppers for awhile prefer the Camelot and King Arthur varieties, although Camelot is their pepper of choice, suggests Darrell Blackwelder, a horticultural extension agent in the county. They like Camelot for its thicker wall, he says, and the variety suits the climate of the area better than traditional varieties.

Management style

Patterson Farm Management tracks input costs and income like certified public accountants going over tax returns. “We’re very cost-conscious,” Doug says. “We keep track of our labor and production costs daily, weekly, monthly so we know where we stand, and then we know what kind of price we’re getting for our product. That really tells us what we need to grow more of, what we need to grow less of.”

The total Patterson operation employs about 250 people, with about 25 of them being full-time workers.

The management of Patterson Farm is a family operation. Randall plants, grows and harvests the produce. Doug handles marketing, sales and shipping at the office and packinghouse in China Grove, N.C. Randall’s wife, Nora, who is a registered nurse, takes care of insurance, health and safety programs and keeps the books. Doug’s wife, Michelle, serves as treasurer and marketer of the farm business. She also manages Patterson Farm Market & Tours, Inc., which is in Mt. Ulla, N.C. The entertainment division of the business consists of weekend festivities and educational tours such as pumpkin, strawberry, tomato patch, pizza and dirt-on-dirt tours.

Currently, students in preschool, kindergarten, first grade and a few second graders attend the educational tours. In the future, Michelle plans to expand the tours, summer activities and weekend events to different grade levels. In fact, she has recently added a tour specifically for third graders that she has modeled after the Standards of Learning curriculum. These third-grade students take soil samples and learn about different properties of soil.

A forklift operator sets the fork under a crate of tomatoes to move them to a hydraulic dumping bin machine on Patterson Farm.
Workers at the Patterson Farm packinghouse dump tomatoes from a crate onto a conveyor belt for processing.

Michelle doesn’t have a specific grade that she is targeting for future expansion, but whatever she does it will educate them about farm life. “The educational possibilities about farming are endless,” she says.

Limiting her ability to expand are space, time and weather. “I would really like for the market to be a year-round market with produce and plants where we could sell all of our products,” Michelle says.

Growing pains

Patterson Farm continues to look at new opportunities while maybe sticking with old favorites. “As a farmer and as a business, we’d like to grow,” Doug says. “I don’t know that tomatoes are where we want to grow anymore. For some reason in the past few years, the price that we are receiving for the tomatoes has not kept up with what it costs us to grow them. The inputs have exceeded the price that we are getting. Tomato-wise, we’re probably as big as we’re going to be.

“Tomatoes have been our mainstay for years,” Doug adds, “and it may turn out to be that this may just be a downturn.”

Besides an increase in bell pepper production, the Pattersons are considering growing more squash, zucchini, cantaloupes and watermelons. They also have started a landscaping/tree nursery and plan to expand it in 2008.

The Pattersons are searching for niche products that they can grow effectively with their clay-type soils in the weather conditions that they experience, “but we’re also looking at growing more things we know we can get a good price out of,” Doug says. “We’re trying to grow more things that the market needs or wants that we can get a higher price out of. What that is, I don’t know.”

Michelle Patterson manages Patterson Farm Market & Tours, Inc. and markets the farm business.

In five to 10 years, Doug says Patterson Farm will likely grow about the same total acres of produce because of rising land values and development pressures from nearby Charlotte, N.C., and rapidly growing Kannapolis, N.C. He believes they will diversify more and raise more different types of products on the same amount of land. He also wants to try more double-cropping to get more of the same products off the same acreage.

Raising produce in less space on the same acreage may become a necessity. “Double-cropping on plastic and drip irrigation will have to work in the future in order to help cover the increased costs of field preparation,” Randall says. “Intense management and cost-effective procedures will need to be implemented to ensure quality and yield, hence profitability.”

Diversification of vegetable crops has enhanced their opportunity to generate a rotation of crops that are profitable. “Due to the increased value and decreased availability of farmland, it is more difficult to leave fields out of production for three years to heal with a cover crop,” Randall says. “Although the legume crop does enrich the soils and decrease the occurrence of disease, the three years of nonproduction are costly.”

He adds that a rotation from tomato to sweet corn or from strawberry to tomato has worked well for Patterson Farm. Currently, the brothers are studying a tomato-to-pepper rotation, and during their second year of this, disease pressures are not present.

The Pattersons are also evaluating greenhouse production to better utilize the land they have available. In early spring 2008, Patterson Farm will market its first tomatoes grown in greenhouses.

To learn more about Patterson Farm, visit www.pattersonfarminc.com.

The author is a freelance writer in Danville, Va.