Mar 15, 2022
Behind its unassuming name, The Berry Patch in Stephentown has been an inspiring presence in Rensselaer County and the Hudson Valley’s agricultural landscape for over 25 years.
Behind its unassuming name, The Berry Patch in Stephentown has been an inspiring presence in Rensselaer County and the Hudson Valley’s agricultural landscape for over 25 years. With their busy farm store, impressive yields and the invention of a no-spray technique that eliminates the berry industry’s worst insect scourge, owners Dale Ila Riggs and Don Miles have a lot to be proud of. Now, after nearly three decades, they are looking to transition to the next phase of their lives - but instead of coming up with a regular retirement plan, they’ve crafted an idea that might just be able to address major issues in the complicated farmland succession crisis.
The Berry Patch is a small scale, 230-acre, diversified, sustainable family farm that raises berries, vegetables, and cut flowers. The berry crops include strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Using an innovative technique Riggs developed, the farm was the first in the country to cover its entire blueberry and raspberry plantings with a fine mesh netting to exclude a tiny invasive insect that would ruin the crops or require pesticide spraying every five to seven days. In addition to the on-site farm store, The Berry Patch runs its own free choice CSA and can be regularly found at the Troy Farmer’s Market.
Recently, through Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation’s (HVADC) Incubators Without Walls Program, Riggs and Miles received Business Technical Assistance (BTA) to create an inventive new project proposal. The plan is a pitch to agriculture-based organizations to use The Berry Patch as a training ground for early career farmers, and in turn, the farm will hopefully find new stewards. The strategy is that Riggs and Miles would lease land to young farmers serious about establishing a lifelong enterprise, provide access to equipment and space, and even mentor them.
A couple years ago, Riggs and Miles were talking about how best to work less, travel more, and still reap the rewards of the thriving business they built. Ideally, Riggs said, they were looking for a young couple who could help run the farm and expand their own activities on the 85 acres currently unutilized at The Berry Patch. Riggs quickly found that young farmers had plenty of heart but not enough operational knowledge or experience for the owners to feel comfortable passing over the reigns. Riggs knew she wasn’t alone. Successful generational farmland succession is a growing concern in the Hudson Valley, and across the nation.
“We’ve been running the farm stand for 25 years and are looking to move on to other activities,” Riggs said. “We’ve done well enough to do that without selling. We were looking for a young couple to take over but no one had the business experience or employee management skills.”
Riggs worked with agriculture focused HVADC business consultant Greg Mruck to see if her idea, to entice an organization to operate a training program at the farm, made sense. She said she was somewhat surprised when he said yes! They crafted a pitch that manages to be both sensible and groundbreaking. Partnering young farmers would have access to The Berry Patch’s facilities and established markets. The profits from the new startup, and the work done on the existing farm would generate revenue for the mentored farmers as well as the host organization.
“We wanted to find an organization that is willing to do this with us as a training program,” said Riggs. “So we put together a proposal with Greg that is financially viable for everyone. To me it’s a win, win, win.”
There’s a lot career-oriented new farmers can learn from Riggs and Miles. Along with a successful farm store, the CSA (which includes their vegetables), an established wholesale network, and a busy pick-your-own program, Riggs and Miles have a lot to teach – their old growth berry bushes have some of the highest reported yields in the state and they have developed an amazingly innovative pest control technique. Through a system of exclusion netting creating tunnels, Riggs says she has been able to almost completely eliminate the blight caused by Spotted Wing Drosophila without any spraying. Their company Berry Protection Solutions markets the netting concept and educates farmers on healthy options for protecting crops. Riggs is also a past president of the New York State Berry Growers Association, and still sits on the organization’s board.
“We have less than one percent infestation. It’s a really big deal,” Riggs said. “Part of our appeal to early career-farmers and organizations is that the farm is innovative and cutting edge. This is our way to adapt to climate change.”
Her results with her nets are better than farms that use pesticides. It’s a system she’s eager to teach to others, and even had the opportunity last summer to show her technique to Congressman Antonio Delgado when he toured the farm.
“The Berry Patch is taking a really innovative approach to the complex problem of farm succession, but innovation is what Dale Ila and Don have always done,” said Todd Erling, HVADC Executive Director. “Their plan for a training program is an inspiring idea and could be the test run for a solution to one of the largest issues of our age. We are all eager to see this develop and glad to help make the dream a reality.” Organizations interested in learning more about the training program Riggs and Miles have developed may contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Business Technical Assistance services that HVADC provides through its Incubator Without Walls program, visit https://www.hvadc.org/incubator-without-walls.