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Three generations of Papen family managing 70-plus-year-old business

Richard Papen, sales manager of Papen Farms Inc. in Dover, DE, told The Produce News that prices are up across the board this year, and it’s not due to a shortage in volume or delayed movement.

“The price to produce a crop is simply too high to not raise prices somewhat,” said Papen. “We cannot grow product like we did years ago and come out profitable.”

Papen Farms has been in business for over 70 years and is now in its fourth generation of family management. There are currently three generations of Papen family members working in the business. Papen represents the second generation. His sons and his cousins’ sons, and their gandsons, represent the third and fourth generations.

“There will be a fifth generation coming on in time,” he noted. “I have great-grandchildren who are six and seven years old. My son and grandsons work in the business, along with cousins and their children. In all there are about 10 family members involved in the operation.”

The “operation” is a 2,000-acre farm in Dover on the Eastern Shore. On it the Papen family members produce sweet corn, cabbage and green beans for the fresh market. Some are double crops, such as its 600 acres of cabbage and 600 acres of green beans. The remainder of its acreage is dedicated to sweet corn, which runs continually through Sept. 15. Other crops run through the first of August. There is then a pause in production until the fall crops begin, typically running from September through October.

“We are happy to see that we’ll be OK with our labor force this year,” said Papen. “From what we can see there are plenty of people looking for work.”

Papen Farms’ crops, like the majority of others in the East, will run between a week and 10 days late this year due to the wet and cool spring.

“But if the weather is agreeable from this point on,” he noted on May 30, “some later crops could come on earlier and even things out. I think we’ll all have a window because everyone is in the same situation. We may be a week late on sweet corn, and if Georgia growers plant more and the crop comes in later, there could be some overlap.”

The company sells its produce under the “Papen Farms” label. Its customers are wholesalers, brokers and retailers, including major chainstores.

“We ship a lot of product to Florida, especially in August when it’s very hot and nothing is being produced there,” said Papen. “Alternatively, early in the year we ship a lot of product to the Northeast, including into New England, when growers there are not in production. We also ship as far west as the Mississippi River. Wherever there is demand, we’ll ship to that area, but most of the demand on our product is based on seasonal growing conditions up and down the east coast.”

Papen Farms continues to focus on its food safety program.

“We are third-party audited, and in full compliance with all the required certifications, including traceability,” he said.

He reiterated the need for higher prices so that growers like Papen Farms can continue to survive in the farming business into the future.

“I think there is a lot of money in between what we get and what the retailer sells the product for,” he said. “The cost of everything has gone up horrifically — packaging, trucking, food safety initiatives and everything else. We constantly upgrade our facility to meet food audit certifications, and that also costs money. We just need higher prices today-we simply cannot survive on the prices we were getting 10 years ago.”