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Fourth-generation carrying on farming tradition at Forrence Orchards

Looking after a large portion of a major apple orchard takes more than brawn, but four generations of Forrence family members have taken any "brains or brawn" analogies you may have heard in the past to new levels.

Seth Forrence is the 29-year-old son of Mason Forrence, who is president and one of four family member-operators of Forrence Orchards in Peru, NY. Seth is also the third generation to graduate from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His great-grandfather, Virgil Forrence, was a graduate of the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, and was a concert violinist before he and Seth's grandfather Roger entered the apple-growing business in 1943.

Today, Seth Forrence uses his degree in pomology (and a minor in business) to help guide him in the management of about one third of the company's 1,200-acre orchard.

I started working at the orchard when I was a teenager, but joined the company full time after graduating from Cornell in 1998, said Mr. Forrence. We acquired a 200- acre farm about the same time that I started, and I began by working that section. A few years later another 200-acre area was added to my management arm.

Pomology education helped to kickstart Mr. Forrence's career by teaching him about the proper care of fruit trees, including pruning, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting and other aspects involved in producing high-quality commercial apple crops. His job also includes overseeing about 100 workers during harvesting periods.

Mr. Forrence is highly dedicated to the family business, even finding it necessary to plan his personal life around his tasks. He recently got engaged to Laura LaHart, his girlfriend for the past four years, and the wedding date will be set around required tasks at the orchard.

Laura is a soccer coach at the local high school, he said. But she also helps me out with paperwork related to the orchard. She is from the Peru area, and moved back here after graduating from Colorado State University. We plan to be married in 2006, and will set the date around our growing and harvesting needs at the orchard.

Outside work, Mr. Forrence said, Laura and I spend as much of our free time as possible hiking in the nearby Adirondack Mountains, he said. You really can see forever at the top of some of these mountains. We also love animals. We have three dogs, including a lab mix that rides around in the back of my truck during the day, and he is really the boss.

The couple will live in an old farmhouse that came with the original property the Forrence family took over in the 1940s. The orchard began in the mid-1800s as a diverse farming operation that included cows and other agriculture interests. The house was built in 1846, and it has not been renovated or updated since the 1970s.

We are pecking away at it room by room, said Mr. Forrence. It's a big house - about 3,500 square feet - and an equally big job. But it is a labor of love, and we are getting huge satisfaction with every completed portion. Working at the orchards is equally satisfying for Mr. Forrence. He said that he decided to go into the business because he learned early in life that it is dynamic and never boring.

The jobs at hand change from day to day and bring new and interesting experiences, he said. I get to work outdoors in the fresh air in one of the most beautiful places on Earth: upstate New York. I seem to have adopted a family trait of loving to grow things, in our case high-quality apples.

Forrence Orchards plans to stick only to growing apples, and Mr. Forrence is making some great advances in plantings and in apple varieties. He has overseen the planting of about 50,000 trees since joining the company, 30,000 of which are the Honey Crisp variety.

We continue to support the other varieties that we have offered in the past, but we feel this will eventually be the variety of choice, he said. We have planted about 115 new acres of Honey Crisps, and we continue to plant them as we renovate older orchard acreage.

Mr. Forrence pointed out that the figures represent only what has been accomplished on the acreage he oversees. The remaining acreage is also being renovated and replanted in an equally aggressive manner. Advances in pomology also spur achievements in efficiency levels at Forrence Orchards.

We have been very progressive in removing older trees, predominantly the standard McIntosh varieties, he added. These standard root-stock trees are 18 feet high, and that is no longer economically feasible. We can plant 520 trees per acre of the new Honey Crisp as opposed to 40 to 50 McIntosh trees. We will, however, continue to support the McIntosh variety. We also grow Cortland, Paula Red and others.

The Honey Crisp, Mr. Forrence hopes, will enable the company to compete with Gala, Fuji and even Delicious varieties that are known for their sweetness but cannot be grown successfully in upstate New York because of the climate.

Besides staying abreast of new techniques and technologies through professional venues, Mr. Forrence returns to Cornell University occasionally to partake in extension programs to help keep him updated. Forrence Orchards also works with experts at Cornell in experimentation that takes place on its acreage.

Although generations of Forrence family members are known to be Cornell alumni and supporters, there is other university blood roaming through the company's orchards. Peter Forrence, (Seth's uncle), who is also a frequent spokesperson for the company, attended Princeton University on a football scholarship. McIntosh Forrence, another cousin, tips the scale back to Cornell, his alma mater. McIntosh and Peter are both vice presidents.

Seth Forrence is concerned about the future of farming in the United States. He said that going forward, he hopes the country can ultimately reach a level playing field with foreign nations.

Farming is a tough business, and it's made tougher by the competition that imports create, he said. Most foreign countries have less expensive labor costs and other advantages that we don't. All we have to do is look at the current fuel situation to realize the risks involved in depending on other countries for our resources. We produce the best quality food in the world, but farmers must be able to make a living doing it, or new generations will not be inspired to carry on their family - and the nation's - tradition of farming for a living.