Chris Oakes, Young Grower from Lyndonville, New York
TJ Mullinax // February 1, 2017
family background/ Chris is a fourth-generation farmer who works with many of his relatives along Lake Ontario. He’s learned from his grandfather James and father, Darrel, that being active in industry groups and extension agriculture programs has helped them to adopt new growing techniques and to diversify the farm’s crops. age/ 30 grower/ Lyndonville, New York crops/ Apples, cherries, wine grapes and peaches business/ Lynoaken Farms Inc.
How did you get your start? Out of college, I worked in landscaping for four years and discovered I had a knack for growing things.
I figured out I knew a lot about plants that not everybody understood. I decided I really enjoyed being outside — getting my hands dirty — so I returned to the family farm.
Coming back, my first job was as a tractor driver. I was the low man on the totem pole. Now, as my dad has transitioned out, I’ve gained more responsibility and currently am the production manager of our whole operation.
What is your region like? We’re about 4 miles from Lake Ontario, which really defines our soil type. At the end of the last Ice Age, our farm used to be under water, what was once called Lake Iroquois. We call this area the fruit belt.
All the fruit is generally close to the lake because of the lake effect that keeps spring frosts away. Lake Ontario is so deep; it retains a lot of heat. In the spring and fall, that heat keeps frost away. We’re generally frost free.
What kind of transitions are occurring at your farm? We are moving to diversify our business. In 2002, we planted a test block of hard cider varieties. Then we planted a small vineyard to see if we can vinify in our area.
Thankfully, we’ve seen an explosion in the hard cider market, so we are actively planting a large amount of acreage of cider because we see the potential for growth. As far as wine, we’ve found it’s been a trial and error process.
Some varieties just don’t grow in our climate because our winters are too cold. But we’ve found some that grow really well, like Riesling, Cabernet Franc along with some hybrid varieties.
Cider and wine — what about club varieties? Being able to be members in groups that have access to managed varieties is going to be key to the future — also, diversifying your crop so you’re not so heavily involved in only one variety.
If the market fails in that one variety, then it may sink your business. On the cider side, we are actively planting several different varieties. We cannot meet market demand for the product.
What kind of challenges should young growers be aware of? The transition process, something we are going through now, is difficult. There’s a lot of emotions involved, emotions that we are trying not to allow affect business discussions. But as a family business, it’s not just an average kind of job for us.
We’re working with family. Relationships can get irreparably damaged by some things that can be said. What I’ve learned about the process is try to reach out to as many resources as possible.
Hook up with other people who’ve gone through the farm transfer process. Discuss your issues, talk with each other and have open conversations — being honest with each other about your expectations and what your desires are for the future of your business.
It’s not all about numbers and who’s going to pay the money and when. It goes deeper than that. It goes right to the heart.
Why are you a farmer? When I wasn’t working in agriculture I really didn’t get a sense of accomplishment, or purpose from my job. With farming, growing food for people to eat, I feel that I have a purpose.
It’s a lot of hard work. You gotta be prepared to put in the hours to make sure the crop is there and always be ready for adversity. Mother Nature is fickle, and there will be heartbreaks. You might have a full crop, and it could be gone tomorrow.
You’ll need to be OK with that and be able to move onto the next day. Agriculture is a great way of life. I feel good about putting food on people’s tables that they feed their kids. It’s something I don’t think many people can say about their jobs.
It’s something I feel really proud about doing. Growing food for your family, I’m not sure it’s something you can find anywhere else.
TJ Mullinax joined Good Fruit Grower as digital producer and photojournalist in 2013. He photographs and edits visual stories for the print magazine and online publishing spaces. Along with editorial production, TJ develops and maintains the magazine’s digital products. -- Follow the author: Phone: (509) 853-3519 -- Email