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Pennsylvania couple masters art of diversification

2022 Master Farmers: Hogs, flowers and field crops fit nicely at Jeff and Sue Frey’s operation.

When it comes to no-till, Jeff Frey is considered a pioneer — at least in Pennsylvania.

He’s been doing no-till for close to 50 years and has seen how farmers have adopted no-till in many ways. But crops and no-till are just part of the story at Jeff and Sue Frey’s Future View Farm & Flowers, which started as a small dairy farm run by Jeff’s parents and now includes more than 900 acres of field crops, cut flowers, a contract hog-feeding operation and a custom manure-hauling venture.

Jeff’s parents, Ross and Nancy, were tenant farmers and came up with the name Future View because they needed a name for their registered Holstein cows. But dairy wasn’t in Jeff’s future.

“I wasn’t really interested in the cows, and so I started custom farming in my senior year of high school,” he says.

His first machine was a pull-type hay bine. He went through three self-propelled hay bines and eventually placed a disk mower on the front of his combine. He eventually phased out of that business, but he started picking up rented ground in the Willow Street area to grow corn and soybeans.

Building the business

In 1987, Jeff and his parents bought the 74-acre home farm. Six years later, after he got married to Sue, he and his wife bought out his parents’ shares.

The 1990s were a time of change on the farm. Sue, who worked for a local wholesale flower business, wanted to do something on her own, so the couple put up the first of what would eventually become four greenhouses where she now grows numerous types of flowers: hyacinths, daffodils, tulips and lilies among them.

Sue grows flowers in two heated and two unheated greenhouses. They are sold in flower shops across Lancaster County. For one week a year, Easter week, the farm opens for retail sales.

Meanwhile, Jeff started raising corn-fed dairy beef, a program advertised as tender-lean by Pennfield that was designed to help dairy farmers fetch a premium for their calves. Since he still had the old dairy cow facilities, he thought it was a good fit. It didn’t work. Consumers didn’t want to pay a premium for tender-lean beef, and he stopped participating in the program.

But that failure inspired him to try something new. “That was motivation for me to get into the hog business where it took a big sum of capital to get started, but because I could be contracted and have a steady paycheck, I didn’t mind spending the money for the building,” Jeff says.

The first hog barn was built in 1997; the second one was put up in 2007. The hogs come in at 50 pounds, and he raises them to finished weight.

“We adhere to the care principles of food safety, which means not using any medicine unless prescribed by a veterinarian. We adhere to animal well-being guidelines and handle each animal with care during their time in our barns,” Jeff’s Master Farmer application states.

Today, he raises 4,200 head per batch — nearly 10,000 head per year — for Country View Family Farms, the growing division of Hatfield Quality Meats. “We wanted to do something profitable. Sometimes you have these cycles; you go through these valleys to motivate you to do something better,” Jeff says.

The hogs also complement the existing manure-hauling business he started. He custom-hauls 10 million gallons of manure per year.

No-till pioneer

Jeff was instrumental in the formation of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance 17 years ago.

He first learned of no-till in the 1970s from a friend he was applying anhydrous ammonia for, and who had one of the first no-till planters in Lancaster County. It was a four-row no-till planter that was used in a double-crop hay system.

“You would take hay off and then plant no-till into that, because the no-till just wasn’t proven enough to go full bore,” he recalls.

Then in 1978, Jeff bought his first no-till planter: an Allis Chalmers six-row planter for $3,500. He’s been doing no-till for nearly 50 years.

The Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, of which he is an active member, is a nonprofit that focuses on farmer-to-farmer education of no-till cropping systems and research.

“When the No-Till Alliance formed it seemed like a natural fit because there was a lot of educational needs in the area. A lot of people were hesitant to try it [no-till],” Jeff says, “because anything new, it’s hard to break tradition, and when the family is used to plowing, it’s just hard to do it another way.”

It’s been an educational experience for him, too.

“It’s not just no-till; it’s the whole no-till and cover crops. It’s the whole soil health. It’s about living roots year-round to help build soil health,” Jeff says. And he’s seen the effects on his own farm, with erosion drastically reduced from the days when he was chisel plowing and disking.

When he first started no-tilling, it had little to do with soil conservation and more with time savings, he says. But as the years have gone by, he has started to see the advantages to soil health.

He grows 700 acres of corn, 55 acres of barley, 190 acres of wheat and 245 acres of soybeans. Each crop has cover crops planted afterward, including his double-crop beans. “It is never too late to plant a cover crop because it will always come up in the spring,” Jeff wrote in his application.

Over the years, he built a grain-handling business that now has the capacity of storing 200,000 bushels of grain. He stores grain for a local elevator, Risser Grain, which buys the grain from local farmers and provides him a handling fee for storage.

Keeping it going

The couple’s home farm is preserved, and Jeff has been active in preserving other farms in the county through his work on the Agricultural Preserve Board.

One of their two children, Ross, works for local equipment dealer Binkley and Hurst and still helps on the farm. Clara, their daughter, graduated from Penn Manor High School last year, and it’s unclear if she will return to the farm.

So, the farm’s transition plan is still a work in progress, although Jeff says he’s committed to keeping it in the family. A nephew, Jeremy, is considered the farm’s general manager.

“I sort of look at it as, when you plan a journey, you might pick the destination you’re going to go to, but there’s different ways to get there, different routes, and that’s sort of what we’re navigating right now just to see who’s going to get what,” Jeff says.

Jeff and Sue Frey at a glance

Operation: Future View Farm, which has 900 acres of field crops, greenhouses for cut flowers and 4,200 head of contract hogs

Family: Children Ross and Clara

Ag and community involvement: Board member or active member of Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board, Pequea Brethren in Christ Church, Pequea Township Planning Commission, 2012 National Pork Producer Environmental Stewardship Award

 

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