Content ID

137040

Trading in Suits for Work Boots

By Hilary Daninhirsch

In 2010 at age 49 and after his four children had graduated from high school, Jeff Conover left a corporate career as a marketing, logistics, and transportation consultant to buy a 23-acre farm in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Diana, now happily run the organic farm and participate in community supported agriculture (CSA).

“I always thought someday I’d be a farmer,” says Conover. “Finally, the time was right. If I was going to live my dream, I had to do it.”

Conover was drawn to this particular farm, in part, because it came with mineral and gas rights. “It was very important to us to have control over what happens on that land,” he says.  

Plus, he loves history. “This was an 1840s farmhouse and a 1700s-era barn, so it was really attractive to me,” he says. The farm dates back to 1790. It was a sheep farm from 1834 to 1925 and then a dairy farm until 1994. It had fallen into disrepair when the Conovers bought it.

Rooted in Soil

Conover is a descendant in a long line of farmers on both sides of his family. “Every generation of my family has farmed in this country since 1624; we have not skipped any generation,” he says. 

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The first family farm was located on present-day Wall Street; by 1630, his family relocated to Long Island where they were the first settlers and landowners on the island. They owned 15,000 acres, or 23 squares miles, of present-day Brooklyn.

Although Conover didn’t grow up on a farm, both his parents did. With many relatives still active farmers, he spent a good deal of his childhood visiting and helping work the family farms. He always had a garden, even when he lived in a city.  

Going Organic

The decision to grow organically was a no-brainer, he says. The farm had never been conventionally farmed, so obtaining the organic certification was a painless process.

“That’s how we choose to eat,” says Conover. “We think there’s power in being a certified organic farm, so we chose to do it, and, frankly, I don’t know how to do it otherwise. That’s all I ever did. My parents did it, and that’s how I learned.”

Diana is a third-generation beekeeper and from those hives, they sell organic honey.

In the fall season, the Conover farm is dotted with pumpkins, kale, squash, radishes, Swiss chard, and cabbage. The rich colors of the crops mirror the autumn golds and reds. Fall is also the time to replant the fields with garlic for next year’s harvest.  

The Business Side

The time Conover spent in corporate America gave him real-life work experience that was transferable to the farm, including both time-management and people-management skills.

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“I was fortunate to have a logistics background,” he says. “It helped me plan my CSA delivery route and manage the loading and unloading of crops and equipment at farmers markets.”

On the other hand, it was trial and error learning the intricacies of farm operation. The Conovers attended conferences sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, which were immensely helpful, they say, teaching them everything from integrated pest management to cover cropping.

The western Pennsylvania farming community is tight-knit and noncompetitive, says Conover. “In the farming community, people work together to help each other. Probably the biggest thing is knowing whom to call,” he says.

The Conovers sell some of their crops at farmers markets, but they don’t operate a stand themselves. “We’ll probably get there at some point, but it’s a whole different insurance animal,” says Conover.  

Direct to Consumers

Most of their produce goes through CSAs. “We really like having that direct connection with the consumers of our produce,” says Conover. They often send their customers emails with recipes and listen closely to the feedback.

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“CSA is really beneficial for the farmer as well as for the CSA member,” he says. “We get money up front in the spring when we plant and when our costs are the highest.” Members receive a weekly box of fresh produce at a bargain price.

It’s not been easy. In 2014, a cold snap impacted their berries. Another time a virus attacked their tomatoes, and they lost 90% of the crop. “The good news is that if one year is bad for a crop, it’s a great year for another crop,” says Conover.  

Last winter, they built a commercial kitchen to expand their canned products business, and they also recently built a high tunnel. This will extend growing seasons. In the fall, they can plant crops such as peppers and tomatoes and harvest into December, allowing them to participate in a winter CSA.

Marketing Tips

With a background as director of marketing for a Fortune 500 company, Jeff Conover knows marketing. His advice? It all depends on your customers.

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“Understand your market and what the needs are. Once you understand those needs, develop a crop plan to satisfy those needs,” he says.

For example, with a CSA, you need a lot of diversity to satisfy many different tastes and preferences. If you’re selling wholesale to restaurants, you can specialize in fewer crops.

Conover Organic Farm offers a selection of value-added products, which increases the farm’s revenue stream. For example, in the fall, the Conovers make and sell pumpkin puree from their pumpkins, salsa from their heirloom tomatoes, and jam from their berries.

No matter who your customers are, it is vital to stay connected to them. Conover Organic Farm relies on social media to reach out to customers and potential customers. Within one month of starting their CSA, the Conovers exceeded capacity due to the demand. 

To prevent out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome, they use social media to keep in touch with customers during the off seasons. Posting photos and conversations about what’s coming up keeps customer anticipation levels high.

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