family background / Chelsea grew up on the family farm, Van Acker Farms, graduated from Cornell University and works in field services for New York Apples Sales. She’s the daughter of Dan and Lori Van Acker.
grower/Williamson, New York
crops/Apples, peaches and tart cherries
business/New York Apple Sales Inc.
How did you get your start?
I grew up thinking I’d be a teacher because I enjoyed math and science, then I realized in high school that I could go to college focusing on agriculture.
I fell in love with Cornell’s program and started my education thinking I’d be only taking orchard management classes but was surprised they had several options.
I majored in agricultural sciences, plant sciences and ag business with some coursework in vineyard management.
What do you do in your job?
In my current role, I work in food safety and grower relations. With food safety, I work with all of our growers to prepare them for audits and keep them updated regarding any new regulations.
Also, I’m heavily focused on our packing facilities to keep them up to date with their HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) plan, environmental monitoring and food safety plans. Spending my time doing internal audits is a big part of what I do.
What is your growing region like?
Williamson is a unique fruit growing region, and it’s home to Mott’s. We focus on apples, peaches and cherries on our family farm, so those crops are what I’ve focused on most of my life.
Williamson is along Lake Ontario and its climate is excellent for growing tree fruit. The cool climate in the summer does help us produce peaches, tart cherries and apples on the lake shore. Most of the little town is made up of farms.
It’s a huge processing community and I’ve seen a lot of transition from the 20-by-20 spacing of Rome, Idared and (Rhode Island) Greenings to more high-density fresh fruit plantings. Now you’ll see 1.5-feet by 10-feet plantings of Honeycrisp and Fuji.
Several growers are mix growers and they produce fruit for processing and some for fresh market. There’s been a lot of transition toward new varieties, plantings and also on-farm storages.
What do you see for the future of your region?
It’s very exciting to look at possible changes and decide for yourself what the future of your farm is going to do, but change is also very expensive.
Transitioning into newer farming styles may take an entire generation to move from being a processing fruit farm to fresh market, depending on the size of your farm.
It requires growers to be smart when investing in the right varieties at the right time and taking a gamble on a few things once in while. It’s really the only way to move forward.
What would help farms in transition?
Having strong business skills are a big part of successful farms. Even though I took a lot of horticulture and crop science classes, I wish I would’ve taken a few more business classes, because managing your finances and dealing with generational transition is so important.
College courses can’t teach the ag-specific business methods to operate a farm, but they can at least give you a starting base. Everyone farms slightly differently, no matter how they teach you in school.
Knowing what works for your soil type or how your family operates the business is very different than what they can teach.
What would you tell other young growers about farm transition?
I’ve worked with several farms in transition and I’d advise other young growers to be patient. Transition is not something that happens overnight.
If you can, try to get experience working someplace other than the family farm. Because working with your family isn’t always easy, so it’s good to work with others and experience how other farms do things. Even if it’s for six months, I’d recommend young growers to do that.