Sixth-generation member of Smith's Farm looks to be a good steward of the land
- by Terry Sokol | October 04, 2010
It is not surprising that Zach Smith sees himself as a custodian of the land for future generations. As a member of the sixth generation to farm the same soil, the 26-year-old is appreciative of what has been handed down, both materially and philosophically.
"I'm proud of my family — my ancestors, my heritage here, the fact that they left something great for me to manage," said Mr. Smith, who owns Smith’s Farm Inc. with his father, Greg Smith, first cousin Emily Smith and her father, Lance Smith. “I feel like a steward of this land, and I want to return it to the seventh and eighth generations.”
Smith’s Farm Inc. produces broccoli in two locations in northern Maine, Fort Fairfield and Limestone, rotating its crops with neighboring potato growers. Mr. Smith manages 1,800 acres as well as 15 local employees and 75 seasonal workers. The operation was established in 1859.
“Traditionally Smith’s Farm grew potatoes and small grains, but in 1984 my father and his partner started broccoli, cauliflower [and] lettuce trials,” Mr. Smith said. “Broccoli really caught on and in 1994, we got out of potatoes and began farming primarily broccoli.”
The company also grows small grains.
Smith’s Farm handles its own sales, marketing 90 percent fresh product to East Coast customers, mostly “chainstores and supermarket retailers,” he said. Sales extend from Maine south to Florida and west to Chicago. The company packs under the “Stag” label.
Mr. Smith earned his bachelor of science degree in resource and agribusiness management with a minor in sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine in Orono in 2006. In 2005, he completed the Farm Credit Fellowship in agriculture.
“I started working on the farm when I was a kid, worked on the school farm in college, and when I got back home, I went straight to work here,” he said. “Probably my first memory is riding [on a tractor] with my dad and then picking up new nuts and bolts out of the yard — he would pay me a nickel for each one. I started pulling weeds and picking rocks in elementary school, and rode the harvester in high school.”
Mr. Smith values the opportunity he has to work with family members. “I work with my father every day,” he said. He also has a bond with his grandfather Herschel Smith. “I got to work with him when I was a kid, and he is still around and involved,” he said. “My grandfather saw so much change — he started farming with horses, he saw the change to tractors and now sees us farming with GPS. I can’t imagine the changes I’m going to see. I’m excited for that. You have to embrace change.”
Every day is an adventure, he said. “I enjoy every day. It is always another challenge. Being faced with a different challenge, being able to work outside, the changes through the season — I just enjoy it.”
He noted that his most obvious challenges are dealing with the weather as well as dealing with and managing people. His relative youth can give him advantages in coping with both.
“Being young, I have the advantages of stamina” when it comes to dealing with physical labor and long hard hours, he said. “My age hasn’t caught up with me, I’m young and ambitious, and it’s easier to go.”
At the same time, he said, “I learn things every day that older guys have already encountered, and I have to learn by experience.”
Other times he might use his inexperience as leverage. “I might say, 'Let’s try it my way because we haven’t tried it yet and I don’t know any better approach.’“
Mr. Smith was married in October of last year. His wife, Alisha, has a degree in psychology and works as a counselor for challenged and handicapped children. The couple lives in Westfield, ME, with their dog, a Hungarian Vizsla named Nixon.
“He’s a good boy,” Mr. Smith said. “I bring him to work every day.”
His new bride is understanding of his workload and schedule, he said. “She knows that it is my passion. This is an agriculture-based area, everybody knows that summer is the busy season — probably like any other Maine town.”
Like others who farm for a living, Mr. Smith found it difficult to make time to cultivate his own garden. So he and his cousin Emily started growing different vegetables at work.
“In our business, you have to build hobbies into your work, so we integrated [gardening] into one of our farms,” he said.
Smith’s Farm now has two-acre plots in both Fort Fairfield and Limestone, where the cousins experiment with different crops. They have grown corn, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabagas, beans and peas, all of which they share with their employees, including past employees and seasonal workers, as well as with colleagues with whom they do business.
Nixon helps Mr. Smith indulge another hobby: hunting, primarily partridge. Nixon is, after all, a bird dog.
Mr. Smith also enjoys fishing, camping and alpine skiing. He earned his Maine Guide’s license in 2008, which qualifies him to professionally guide hunters or fishermen or boaters.
“I got it for fun,” he said of the certification. “I haven’t used it; it is basically one of my hobbies. I really enjoy the outdoors in my off time in the spring and in the winter and fall. My father-in-law got his guide license, and I took the course and the test with him. Maybe some day when I retire, I could do it as a part-time profession.”
Retirement might seem a long way off, but Mr. Smith has a long-range perspective of both the past and the future, and he means to apply it for the greater good.
“One of the things I remember from when I was a kid is my father saying that if you borrow something, return it better than it was, try to improve whatever you are doing and leave it better for the next guy,” Mr. Smith said, noting that it was a powerful message whether it involved managing the land for the next generation or keeping a tool clean for the next worker to use it. “I just think that was a great lesson learned, and I think if we can all practice that and think about it daily, the environment will be a better place in general. It comes down to sustainability.”
Smith’s Farm will exhibit at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit in Orlando, FL, Oct 15-19, at booth No. 4389