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Keeping costs on track

Agriculture.com Staff 07/07/2010 @ 9:09am

Careful cost control has helped this start-up farm survive tough years

If Aaron Sturges didn't obsessively track the costs and returns of every type of flower, fruit, and vegetable he grows, Sturges Orchards and Farm Market north of Pittsburgh might not exist today.

If his wife, Tracie, didn't have a conservative Pennsylvania Dutch heritage that values thrift, they might never have had the $17,800 down payment for the first 20 acres of land they bought in 1989.

Today, their two 30x100-foot greenhouses produce fall mums and spring flower baskets and bedding plants that gross more than $60,000 a year. They own their first 20 acres, and they're buying 40 more. Their roadside stand sells tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers, pumpkins, raspberries, peaches, and apples -- all grown on their farm -- as well as milk from a friend's dairy.

The couple has borrowed to buy land but has used very little operating capital. "We've had a production loan here and there, but they've been as little as possible," says Tracie.

Bedding plants are one of the most profitable enterprises for Aaron and Tracie Sturges. Mostly on their own, the Pennsylvania couple have built a strong fresh produce farm and store north of Pittsburgh.

Vegetables add to income but can't compete with bedding plants. "People don't mind spending $100 on plants, but they'll complain if you charge $4 a dozen for sweet corn," Aaron Sturges says.

Aaron didn't grow up on a farm but enjoyed his grandfather's former dairy as a child. By high school he was leaning toward a career in wildlife biology. At Pennsylvania State University, pomologist Ernest Bergman shifted Aaron's career track. "One of his courses drew me in," Aaron recalls.

He finished college with a degree in horticulture, a minor in business, and lots of confidence. "At the end of my senior year it dawned on me that I could run a farm," he recalls.

His first job was assistant farm manager for Amos Funk, a produce seller in Lancaster County. There, Aaron learned real farming skills like how to drive a tractor. "When you're in college, you think you know everything. Every year after that, you realize you don't know anything."

At Funk's he met Tracie, a cashier at the farm's store. A year later, the two were married and Aaron was managing 1,000-acre Treesdale Orchard, with 250 acres of apples, north of Pittsburgh. Aaron was led to that job by a Penn State professor the orchard used as an adviser. He needed a farm manager and hired his old student.

Aaron recalls with a chuckle, "I was so dumb. How could a kid who was 23 market 100,000 bushels of apples?" He was also responsible for 15 seasonal workers in the apple-packing house, 50 migrant pickers, and a full-time staff of seven.

The couple thrived in their new location. Tracie became a paralegal assistant and worked for the Allegheny County Bar Association while finishing a degree in business administration. They started saving for a down payment on their own farm.

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