Sheppard Farms, Inc.

Dave Sheppard

Cumberland County grower Dave Sheppard has lots of advice about how to manage production risks when it comes to the vegetable business. He and his two brothers, Tom and Erwin, farm more than 1,500 acres of crops such as bell peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, and green squash. He says one strategy they use at Sheppard Farms, Inc. to minimize risk is to grow both fall and spring crops. They already grow a variety of crops but can spread out their risk by growing almost year-round for the fresh market.

Climatic problems are addressed through the use of cultural practices and how the land is prepared or through the use of mulch films and drip irrigation. Their land is anywhere from three feet to 14 feet above sea level, says Dave, so they maintain diking systems and keep the water table down. Maintaining good drainage systems keeps wet spots from emerging in the fields and inviting disease. Limiting the exposure to harsh weather conditions is accomplished by shifting the direction of how crops are planted in the fields. Crop rotation is also used to ensure that organic matter is maintained and there are no deficiencies in the soil.

The brothers have also invested considerable money into post-harvest handling equipment and grading equipment. All three brothers have bachelor’s degrees from Cornell University. Erwin’s degree happens to be in agricultural engineering and so his expertise is used to design and adapt farm equipment. A machine used to harvest lettuce is modified to use with bell peppers and then modified back again for the lettuce harvest. A portable harvesting aid in the form of a 90-foot mobile platform was designed so that vegetables could be cut and packed right in the field. No picking containers are needed, and better yet, it prevents disease from being carried out of the field.

The Sheppard family also brokers all their fresh market crops through their other business called Eastern Fresh Growers. They know they can produce the quality crops chain stores are searching for and do so with the assistance of hydrocooling and vacuum cooling. They are also certified by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture as a Safe Production Facility, which means their business meets the food safety criteria for such things as clean packing house conditions, eliminating contamination and bacterial levels.

The Sheppard brothers, whose family farm dates back to 1682, spend much time planning and preparing for agricultural production. For example, they have found there is less risk associated with spring squash than with fall squash. A fall crop has more chance for disease, and it’s also a time when the farm has fewer employees available for harvest.

“Before we plant a crop, we want to know that we have the ability to maintain, harvest, and sell that crop,” said Dave. And that’s how they manage production risks – by looking at the process from start to finish and ensuring they’ve put some planning into every aspect of the business.