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The Hartford Courant

Wednesday, November 24, 1999


Tough Season Over, Farm Family Reaps A Modest Profit


JOE FUTTNER, Honora and Jim Futtner's son, gets in position to pull double-layered plastic sheeting across the roof of the main greenhouse at the family's East Hartford farm. The greenhouse roofs are changed every three to four years.

JOE FUTTNER, Honora and Jim Futtner's son, gets in position to pull double-layered plastic sheeting across the roof of the main greenhouse at the family's East Hartford farm. The greenhouse roofs are changed every three to four years.

Courant Consumer Affairs Writer

This is the seventh in a series of stories examining the experiences of one Connecticut farm family, the Futtners, as they take their crops through the growing season and the farm through the year.

In the end, after the drought, after the labor shortages, and after September's damaging rains, Jim and Honora Futtner were able to turn a profit on the 40 acres they farmed this year.

It wasn't the best year the South Windsor couple ever had, but the bottom line wasn't the worst, either.

As they sat in their home one recent day, the couple reviewed their revenue, bills and coming expenses, and reflected on the season that ended abruptly with a frost last month.

As reddish-brown leaves dropped from trees outside the kitchen window, Honora, 50, cut apples for pies to freeze for Thanksgiving. Jim, 51, still tan from the summer sun, had just returned from the greenhouses, where he was taking cuttings from the remaining baskets and potted plants, tending to the growing poinsettias and repairing equipment.

Rested and relaxed, the Futtners were slowly shifting into their winter pace. As the days get shorter, there still is plenty of work to do: fixing farm machinery, planting Easter lilies, ordering seed and purchasing greenhouse supplies. But the intense, frenetic pace of the 14-hour dawn-to-dusk summer days has slowly given way to a reasonable 9-to-5 schedule.

After closing the farm stand in mid-October, Jim and Honora got organized at home. It took them a few weeks to go through their bills, the checks they receive from their wholesaler, and the expenses they still have outstanding. When they tallied the bottom line, they were pleasantly surprised that it wasn't as bad as they had expected.

The early spring sales of their retail flower business and the September eggplant and pepper harvest saved their ledger from ending up in the red. Retail vegetable sales were down almost $10,000 - from $70,000 to $60,000 - and profits from pick-your-own produce dipped. But with flower sales from the greenhouses and the wholesale vegetable sales, these lifelong farmers eked out a modest profit this year - about $40,000.

"If we just had a veggie business, we'd definitely be in trouble this year," said Jim, whose family has been farming in Connecticut for three generations.
In 1972, Jim and his father, Raymond, decided to diversify the farm and build greenhouses and a farm stand in East Hartford so they could sell their own produce and perennials to supplement wholesale vegetable sales.

"He said, "We are going to do something else, not just farm.' He was tired of the bull work," Jim said.

Now, 27 years later, 70 percent of the profits come from farm stand sales, 20 percent from wholesaling and 10 percent from pick-your-own. And it's the diversification that has kept the family farm operating all these years, Jim said.

But still, with four children to raise - one with college bills - a mortgage on their four-bedroom colonial home and rent to pay on farmland in East Hartford and South Windsor, $40,000 is a modest income.

Echoing the concerns of other farmers, Jim and Honora say government programs often aren't beneficial to the family farmer.

"A lot of your government programs that are supposed to help us are hurting us," Jim said. "They are keeping food excessively cheap. I'd like to be making $60,000 to $70,000. Our trucks are antiques. You can see to the ground through the floor of our old Dodge truck. Maybe if we have a good year, we can get a good new used truck."

The Futtners say many people don't understand a farmer's life. Often, people think farmers are land-rich, that they can sell their farmland at any time for a tidy profit. And Jim's relatives, indeed, sold much of what once was a 50-acre spread to developers - leaving him to rent land to keep farming.

The profits from land sales were split five ways among Jim's father, aunts and uncles, then split five ways again among him and his siblings. What was left from the land sales went into college accounts for Jim and Honora's four children.

"We didn't see a penny of it," Jim said.

Now, when they have a bad year, the couple borrow from their children's education accounts to buy seed, fertilizer and greenhouse supplies to get started in the spring.

This year, they've applied for a government loan for crops that failed during the drought. They are also awaiting a water bill they expect will run into thousands of dollars because of the weeks of irrigating. If it's as high as $5,000 or more, they will have to dip into the children's' accounts. Last year, the water bill was just about $250.

But the Futtners are grateful for all they do have, and what they've been able to accomplish. They will be thankful, they say, come Thanksgiving Day.

In December, they will take a family vacation to Bermuda, paid for by profits from last year, when the farm did well. And there are countless other reasons, they say, to be optimistic and happy.

"We count our blessings more than we used to. We look around and see a lot of people with a lot of problems. You hear stuff at the farm stand, what other people go through," Honora said. "We have great children. We have a nice home on a good street, a nice yard, good neighbors. And we have the wherewithal to do the work we need to do."

"We are living a good life. We really are. We are so spoiled," Jim said "We made it through, and we did OK. Is it how much money we make that matters?"

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