family background / Matt is a first-generation tree fruit grower and graduated from Cornell University with a degree in viticulture, enology and plant sciences. He’s a farm manager at Red Jacket Orchards and is the son of Tina and Marty Murphy.
grower / Geneva, New York
age / 27
crops / Apples, stone fruit and cherries
business / Red Jacket Orchards

How did you get your start?
I grew up spending most of my summers on my grandparents’ farm and I got interested in agriculture when our family started a pumpkin business. Once out of high school, I pursued a degree from Cornell University.

Why did you pursue viticulture?
I knew I wanted to go to school for agriculture, and Cornell had a new viticulture program.

Grape growing and winemaking sounded very interesting because our family spends time around the Finger Lakes region, and there’s a lot of new wineries around.

When I learned about the new major, I decided to pursue it. It’s very much a horticulture-based degree, with part of it covering winemaking. I stayed focused on the viticulture and plant sciences tracks. The opportunity to go to Cornell, which is about an hour from where I grew up, seemed like a great idea as well.

What is it like growing in the Finger Lakes area?
The Geneva area is very heavy in field crops with corn and soybean as the dominant product grown. The Finger Lakes have a great microclimate for various fruits, allowing some farms to grow stone fruit — it’s one reason why the vineyards are planted around the lakes.

One of the main challenges that we face in the Finger Lakes is labor, because many farms used to rely so much on the local labor force. Over the past four years, that issue has pushed our company toward using the H-2A program.

We started with 20 workers, and we’ve doubled that number since. It’s a very expensive program to be involved in. Another challenge is working with the weather and climate change. We ended up without a stone fruit crop two years in a row when we lost our fruiting buds.

In the past, even in the worst weather, we would end up with some crop. But having back-to-back years takes a toll on farms.

What are you learning since joining the industry?
The industry and the market have rapidly changed with the increase of fruit varieties. It seems if you aren’t planting the top new varieties and putting them into high-density blocks, then your farm is falling behind.

Some of the things I didn’t know before joining the industry was how big of a learning curve it would be to be successful. At Red Jacket, we don’t just do one crop, we’re very diverse. I’ve had to learn fast because of how much I need to know about those crops.

Over the years I’ve learned to not spread myself too thin and work in too many different areas.

What resources have you found to continue learning?
I’ve gained so much knowledge while being part of a group like the International Fruit Tree Association. With them, I’ve been able to learn from Washington growers, learn about techniques such as growing tall spindle systems and high-density orchards.

These events also provide opportunities to network and work with other young growers. It’s especially valuable when you hear similar stories about their day-to-day challenges.

Even if the people you meet are from New York, New Zealand or Canada, getting that feedback and problem-solving with other growers is huge.

What’s your advice to those new to growing tree fruit?
I’d say learning patience is a pretty important skill because sometimes things are going to happen that are out of your control and you’ll probably not know how to deal with it right away.

Learn to take things day by day. I value the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

—by TJ Mullinax