family background / Conner along with his cousin Clint Sullivan started their business after growing up learning agriculture from their grandfather, Robert, and fathers, Patrick and Kevin Sullivan, in the Pasco area. Conner is the son of Patrick and Brenda and has two younger siblings.
grower / Pasco, Washington
age / 25
crops / Apples, apricots, cherries, peaches and nectarines
business / Co-owner C.C. Sullivan Farms
How did you get your start?
I started working on the farm when I was 10 years old, from sorting bad cherries out of the bin to swamping. I did that up until about middle school, then when I was about 15 I started driving tractor.
I remember it was a big deal — something that I aspired to do. Also, I planned to pursue a degree in agriculture because I was interested in farming.
I wanted to see more and learn more so I chose Washington State University, getting my degree in agriculture technology and production management as well as business management.
Within a year of graduating and returning to the family farm I purchased my own farm with my cousin. Now — it’s a learning process.
What did you learn when starting your business?
I’ve learned that labor, food safety and disease control are going to be the three main things that’ll affect growers.
They will probably determine whether we make it or force us to make changes to succeed.
Of the three, food safety is the tough one to get a handle on. I think not understanding the process and what the different agencies want from us is difficult.
Also, how we educate our employees about food safety may be the hardest part. A lot of the workers care about picking and making money.
Being seasonal, they want to do the job then move on to the next job. So, it’s important to take the time to teach them about food safety; teach them the right processes and how to go about them in the field during a harvest setting.
Why are you switching to organic?
Currently we’re transitioning our 60 acres of apples, apricots, peaches and nectarines to organic. This is our first year of transitional farming practices.
Going into it we did a lot of research — and we kind of knew what to expect. It’s hard. It’s a big change. The organic market is a big deal right now and it’s pretty huge on the consumer mind.
Making that switch I’ve learned there are a lot of benefits for the farm, too. We’re putting fewer herbicides into the soil, which is increasing the biological activity in the soil and should help with the growth of the tree.
However, we’re putting more input into the orchard in the way of foliar sprays and that’s been hard on us. We’re trying to find new methods that we can use to combat the different pests and diseases that we’re dealing with.
Hopefully in the next few years we’ll have that figured out.
Are there challenges switching older blocks?
Before we transitioned the blocks were doing well and we were making a little money.
I expect the first three years during the transition period will be the toughest because we’ll be paying for all those organic inputs but not receiving organic prices.
So, the margin is a little off for the first few years. I expect that after the third year we’ll be coming out on top. Hopefully we can continue with the organic switch and it’ll be the way we farm from now on.
Would you switch an old block again?
The apricots and apples have been in production for 15-20 years. That transition is the toughest part for those old trees.
If I was asked whether I’d switch an old block to organic or start with new trees, I’d say no.
Wait until you were done with that block until it wasn’t producing and pull it out before switching it to organic. It’s much easier to make the switch with a new planting.
Are you investing in new technologies?
It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens in agriculture in the next 10 years. Even in the past 5 years there’s been technological changes.
From farms switching to platforms, people using UV rays to control their codling moth — there’s a lot of new stuff coming out.
For us, leveraging new technologies is one of our top priorities so we can figure out some of the problems we are facing in a manner that doesn’t affect our break-even point. We need to maximize our output and minimize input as much as possible.
What’s your advice for young growers?
There’s not very many young farmers in the industry that I see.
There’s a lot of people my dad’s age between 50-60. I’d tell younger growers that there’s a lot more that goes into farming than what people expect. This industry is huge. You can be a grower, a field representative — there’s so many different aspects of farming that needs people.
I think it’s important that my generation steps up if they’re interested and get into agriculture. It takes a lot of hard work.
-by TJ Mullinax