Season of plenty: Local farm provides organic produce to Chautauquans, county at large

On a typical summer day at Hickory Hurst Farm, Adrienne Ploss wakes up at 3:30 a.m., loads her truck with produce, flowers and supplies and arrives at the Chautauqua Farmers Market at 5 a.m.

It takes Ploss an hour and a half to set up her stand before the market opens at 7 a.m. When closing time comes four hours later, she returns home to the farm in Mayville, just 2.5 miles south of the Institution.

In the afternoon, she works at another farm stand right outside her home, picking and arranging flower bouquets to sell the next day. By 6 p.m., she wraps up for the night and goes to sleep at 8:30 p.m.

She repeats this cycle throughout Chautauqua Institution’s nine-week season.

Hickory Hurst Farm started in 1908 when Ploss’ great-grandmother inherited the farm from an older couple she had cared for. Growing up, Ploss’ parents raised dairy livestock and grew vegetables and fruit.

Ploss took over the farm from her brother in 2009. Since then, Hickory Hurst only grows plants, specifically organic cut flowers, herbs, vegetables and berries and non-organic sweet corn, pumpkins and squash.

“Having livestock keeps you tethered to your property quite a bit,” Ploss said.

Though Ploss’ husband, Tim Gleason, did not grow up on a farm, he has lived in Chautauqua County all his life and entered the agricultural field at age 12. Gleason, who now works as a dispatcher at a concrete facility and helps out at Hickory Hurst on evenings and weekends, said farming requires perseverance.

“It’s like taking care of a child,” he said. “It takes nourishment to grow plants. They need care, weeding, fertilizer, pruning and evaluation. It’s not something you can just put in the ground and hope to have in the fall.”

He said being able to market what one grows is crucial to running a successful farm — especially now.

Since the 1940s, the number of farms in the United States has decreased because mid-sized, family-owned farms have been unable to compete with large farms of 300 or 400 acres, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Though Chautauqua County still has the most farms out of all the counties in the state, the county Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board reported agricultural activity has declined over the last 40 years.

“It seems that bigger farms concentrate and grow just certain items, and it’s harder for the smaller agriculture to sustain itself, to have a return and do it year after year,” Gleason said.

Nonetheless, Hickory Hurst, which spans between 10 and 11 acres, has been holding its own. Ploss credited the farm’s century-long success to the wide variety among its crops.

Crop diversity provides environmental benefits, as planting different species of crops naturally controls pests and weeds and increases soil fertility, which in turn diminishes the need for fertilizers and pesticides. It also reduces the likelihood a storm or pest will destroy one’s entire farm.

Ploss estimated the farm receives 80 percent of its business while Chautauqua Institution is in season. During the fall and winter months, Ploss works as a substitute teacher, leads gardening classes and runs a landscape business.

This year, Hickory Hurst started a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which buyers can sign up to receive organic produce, herbs, edible flowers and other products from nearby farms every week.

During the last off-season, the CSA provided Ploss’ family with a steadier income during the last off-season, she said.

Ploss said the CSA allows customers to know exactly where their food is coming from, how it is grown and who is growing it. Hickory Hurst also offers customers the chance to volunteer on the farm in order to receive their weekly CSA share for half the price.

For Ploss, the most difficult part of her job as a farmer is making time for herself and her family, especially during the nine weeks of the Institution’s season. But having helped out on Hickory Hurst Farm all her life and studied agricultural education, there is nothing else she would rather be doing.

“I enjoy working with people. I always have,” she said. “I enjoy introducing them to new ideas and educating them about organic food. I have a lot of passion for what I do.”

Gleason said he appreciates providing quality products to customers despite the obstacles farmers face producing crops.

“It’s rewarding to know that you can do it,” he said. “If tough times ever come along, you can focus on something greater: the people’s need for your product.”