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The Hartford Courant

From Seed to Shelf Logo

Friday, August 27, 1999

Lack Of Rain, Undependable Labor Strain Family Farm

Jim Futtner Checking Pepper Plants

JIM FUTTNER picks peppers in fields that he farms in South Windsor. On this mid-August day, Futtner and eight of his workers picked 200 bushels of peppers. The harvest is smaller than usual this year because of the dry weather.

As Season Wilts, Frustration Grows

Courant Consumer Affairs Writer

This is the fourth in a series of stories examining the experiences of one Connecticut farmer, James Futtner, as he takes his crops through the growing season and his farm through the year.

The wholesaler earlier this August morning had asked for 60 boxes of eggplant.

But two of Jim Futtner's small crew are telling him they're quitting - heading to Massachusetts for a job at a fishery.

The workers, a father and son from Vietnam, had told Jim in July they were going to catch a bus to California. But they changed their minds when Jim explained how far away that was.

Now they were definitely leaving, not picking eggplant from the field off Silver Lane in East Hartford.

All summer, Jim and his crew have been dragging irrigation pipes through his fields in East Hartford and South Windsor to keep his crops alive during the driest season in decades.

All summer, he has tilled the soil on the rented East Hartford parcel, trying to ignore the "For Sale" sign - a constant reminder that his future on the leased plot is tenuous.

And all summer, he has been trying to meet the wholesaler's daily orders for corn, peppers, eggplant or cabbage with a crew that, this year, seems no more dependable than the rainfall.

He is out of patience. And so is his wife, Honora.

She has been asking Jim to consider giving up farming and just work in the greenhouses, where they grow flowers and bedding plants.

"Jim is breaking his back, and workers don't show up," she said. "I've been panicked about the future."

Just the other day, Jim, 51, complained of chest pains. It was probably just a spicy meatball sub that caused it, he said. But the incident reminded Honora that, like the rain, there was yet another thing the family couldn't count on: Jim's health.

This time of year - when the labor intensive harvest is beginning - it is not unusual for the Futtners to feel overwhelmed. But this year, Honora said, the feeling began weeks ago and hasn't abated.

"It is a hard year, and Jim's that much older," Honora said. "I figured we could just do the greenhouse stuff and end the season in June. I could get a job."

In the next breath she conceded, "I'd hate to have him give up farming because he loves it."

But the anxiety about how the crops are faring in drought-like conditions, the physical labor that goes into picking and irrigating and the stress of managing the crew are taking their toll.

The farm's yields are down because of the weather, yet prices are depressed because of an abundance of out-of-state produce.

Jim is skipping breakfast, and the pants that fit properly during spring planting now are baggy. His face is taut, his posture slouched and his demeanor tense.

"My stomach's been bothersome. I get tense in the morning because I wonder who is going to show up for work. And I wonder if the weatherman is ever going to get the forecast right," he said one day while driving his flatbed - at last loaded with eggplant - to the regional market in Hartford. "I go to bed at 8:30 p.m. and get up at 4:30 a.m. There's been too much irrigating."

Showers this week finally helped the sweet corn. But rain - on the rare days it has come - sometimes did more harm than good.

A torrential downpour on a Sunday morning earlier this month hit the South Windsor field with such force it knocked down pepper plants and caused tomatoes to split. Jim went out to inspect the damage, and was standing in three inches of water - precious moisture that quickly ran off to the sandy low spots.

At this time of year, Honora and Jim are running in many directions. In the beginning of August, the family again opened the fields to customers who want to pick their own tomatoes or peppers.

Honora must register the customers, check their baskets, and police the fields to make sure there are no unregistered pickers who intend to leave without paying.

She also oversees the staff at the stand, where the family sells its vegetables and cut flowers from the greenhouses in back, and keeps track of what needs to be picked from the fields to restock the shelves.

Each day, Jim calls wholesaler Fowler & Hunting Co.. in Hartford to find out what produce it needs from him that day. He then divides his time between the field in East Hartford and the rented 15-acre field in South Windsor, directing his small crew of between six and nine workers, including his 15-year-old son, Joe.

This year, Joe and the farmhands are trying out a new $8,000 Veg-Veyer Jim bought to help with the harvest. The L-shaped yellow contraption attaches to a tractor and acts as a conveyor belt, sending vegetables picked from the field directly onto the flatbed of a truck to be boxed.

But this dry summer's harvest is smaller, and the Futtners wonder whether the $8,000 investment was worthwhile.

This year, they've lost half the peppers, and tomato yields are 50 percent lower than in past years.

Once the crops are picked, Jim takes them to Fowler & Hunting, where workers there greet him with firm handshakes and broad smiles.

The Futtner family has a 40-year relationship with the wholesaler, also a family-owned business.

Years ago, Jim and Honora used to pile their produce on their truck and arrive at the regional market at 3 a.m. to sell alongside other farmers lined up in stalls. But the sales were cutthroat, the Futtners say. Buyers would pick through the Futtners' produce or pass by it because a farmer in a nearby stall was undercutting their price by one-third. They also used to deal directly with grocery stores, driving around the state to drop off bushels of crops. But that became too time-consuming, they said.

Now, they deal just with Fowler & Hunting, which supplies supermarket chains and restaurants. The wholesale business comprises about 20 percent of the Futtners' income from the farm. About 70 percent of their profits come from the farm stand, and 10 percent from pick-your-own sales.

At the farm stand, the Futtners can set their own prices - but they have to be competitive to attract customers. At the wholesale level, prices are subject to supply and demand. And Jim and other small New England farmers are competing with farmers from all over the country - and the world.

The difference between wholesale and retail prices is drastic.

At the stand, the Futtners are selling corn for 30 cents an ear. Wholesale, they get 10 cents an ear - $6 for a bag of 60. And that's 25 percent less than the $8 a bag they got last year.

In recent years, an oversupply has driven prices down for farmers, industry representatives say. In Connecticut, more farmers are turning to building their own stands or to cooperative farmers' markets. Farmers' markets have increased from 20 in 1986 to 63 this year.

But farm stands have their own hidden costs. Jim says he'd rather sell wholesale. With electricity and labor, the stand is expensive and a management headache.

"Wholesale, you pick it, pack it and send it to the market, and it's done," he said.

In New England, supermarket chains have started reaching out to local farmers, contracting with them for a specific price even before seeds are planted.

Local produce is promoted in stores, and in circulars as New England Harvest. Sunday circulars for chains such as Shaw's Supermarkets are featuring pictures of local farmers.

Shaw's spokesman Bernie Rogan said his chain contracts with 20 farmers in Connecticut - up from 10 four years ago - and 65 throughout New England.

But supermarkets are under pressure to keep shelves stocked, prices low and profit margins high. They look to other states, such as California, New Jersey and Michigan, for fruits and vegetables, and also import from Mexico and overseas.

"They are committed to local fanners, but that's just one piece of their puzzle," said Rick Macsuga, marketing agent for the state Department of Agriculture. "It's really a global market."

And supermarkets don't pay farmers for produce lost in the drought.

The Futtners will probably need a loan to make up for their losses, and are looking into the low-interest disaster relief funds the U.S. Department of Agriculture will make available to Connecticut farmers.

And Jim dreads that the water bill he will soon receive may be thousands of dollars because of his reliance on irrigation this season.

And soon, he will be losing all but one of his crew as they all head back to school.

"I'm just trying to pace myself," Jim said. " This time of year, I'm tense in the morning, but I'm fine at night."

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