Instinct and innovation sustain a farm’s tradition

Sprague family embraces modern business practices to secure future

Fall is a great time of year to see agricultural businesses — better known as farms — in all their autumn-colored glory. 

New Hampshire farms, many of which are family-owned, produce apples, late corn, cider donuts, vegetables, berries, pies, pumpkins, and other seasonal crops that attract people from all over the state.

Edgewater Farm in Plainfield has been serving customers for more than 41 years and is likely to continue far into the future. That’s because its founders and owners, Pooh and Anne Sprague, who have worked with Cooperative Extension staff from New Hampshire and other New England states, have trusted their instincts while adapting to changes in the marketplace and making decisions about their own operations. 

For example, the Spragues were an early adopter of introducing “beneficial” insects into their greenhouse, where they grow exotic ornamentals and other plants. The strategy allowed them to successfully eradicate pests while reducing the use of pesticides.

The Spragues also took a more data-driven approach to farm management after taking the UNH Cooperative Extension’s Advanced Farm Management class. The class taught “mid-career” farmers how to examine the costs and profitability of individual crops and evaluate their farms’ overall financial health. 

“We ran a profit and loss analysis for our potato, strawberry, blueberry and onion crops,” said Pooh, who used the data to create a template to measure all crops. “Our goal is to be able to evaluate what’s making or losing money — to act like normal business folk and not a bunch of old-school farmers saying things like, ‘If berries was a good enough crop for my pa, then it’s good enough for me!’”

Today, roughly half of Edgewater Farm’s revenues come from greenhouse ornamentals, 25 percent from retail business, including its farm stand and community supported agriculture (CSA) program, 20 percent from direct sales to local specialty grocers and restaurants, and the rest from pick-your-own strawberries.

Additionally, each year the farm donates “many tons” of food to Willing Hands, a charitable organization that collects fresh produce and distributes it to individuals and organizations across the Upper Valley, said Pooh.

A family affair

One of the motivating factors behind Pooh and Anne Sprague’s analytical bent is their desire to leave their children, Sarah and Ray, and their full-time employee of 31 years, Mike Harrington, with not only a viable but flourishing business when the elder Spragues retire. 

Implementing successful transition and succession plans can be difficult in any family business, and farming is no exception. In addition to the tax and legal issues, there are roles, goals and responsibilities that must be nailed down—and in ways that play to each family member’s individual strengths. 

For example, Sarah, who studied English at UNH, feels most at home in the farm’s retail space, where her eye for display and marketing can shine. Ray, who studied outdoor adventure at Prescott College, thrives in the wholesale and field production arenas. He secured Edgewater a significant presence at the Hanover Consumer Cooperative, one of the largest food cooperatives in the U.S.

Anne is the bookkeeper and HR manager, and works in the greenhouses. And Pooh is the lead grower, pest and disease management expert as well as communication and outreach person, among many other roles. 

Anne and Pooh said they work hard to give the “younger principals” a say in the business.

“This takes some work,” said Anne. “You’ve got to learn to let go because they need to begin to take real ownership. It would be a different matter all together if they weren’t attached to it and were just getting ready to sell the farm.” 

They all agreed that the pros and cons about working with family are the same as working with non-family.

“On the negative side, you have to avoid getting petty and you have to understand that mistakes will be made and disagreements will arise,” Ray said. “Try not to let things fester.”

On the plus side: “You are setting the scene to have this amazing source of fresh food for the next generation,” said Pooh. “And at the end of the day you can sit around with family and friends enjoying a cold beer and having a good laugh. Who wouldn’t want that?” 

Seth Wilner is a field specialist in food and agriculture and the Sullivan County office administrator for UNH Cooperative Extension. This article is part of a
collaboration between UNH Cooperative Extension and NH Business Review.

Categories: Business Profiles