It’s not easy running a family farm in the U.S. these days, and the statistics reflect that. Every week, roughly 330 farmers—including families that have farmed for generations—quit the business. In 1935, there were nearly seven million farms in the U.S.; by 2002, only around two million remained. And family farms that do stay in business have an aging workforce; today more than half of farmers are between the ages of 45 and 64, while only six percent are younger than 35. So what’s it like to run a family farm? And what does it take to keep one afloat? We posed these questions to owners of five long-running farms around the country. While all agree that the natural-foods movement helps business, they are each embracing different strategies for keeping their farms up and running. Two are actively planning for growth and expansion, enlisting other small farms to help grow crops, and thereby helping those farmers keep their way of life. Others are scaling back—or encouraging younger generations to seek other professions. Here are their stories.

Coombs Family Farms (specialty: maple syrup)

Jacksonville, Vermont

When Arnold Coombs was nine years old, a schoolmate demanded, “Hey, Coombs, you going into the old man’s business?” Sugaring—tapping maple trees to produce syrup—was what his family had done for six generations; he’d tapped his first tree at age four or five. Now, at 46, Coombs is the general manager of Coombs Family Farms, which makes and distributes syrup in partnership with Bascom Maple Farms, which is owned by Arnold’s childhood friend Bruce Bascom. Each year the farm sells two million pounds of certified organic maple syrup, and also supplies retailers such as Stonyfield Farm, Boar’s Head, Costco, and more than 75 private labels.

Despite its growth, Coombs’s operation maintains its roots in the land and the community. To tap the maples during the six-week sugaring season, Coombs and his workers use “health spouts”—small-gauge plastic tubes that do minimal damage to the trees. Besides tapping their own maples, Coombs and Bascom source sap from more than 1,000 small farmers, providing them credit to buy equipment in exchange for syrup. And for the past few years, the farm has sponsored a free training seminar for these farmers, teaching skills such as proper forest management, responsible tree tapping, and selling syrup over the Internet.

Coombs introduced organic maple syrup in the late ’80s, and today it makes up roughly twenty percent of the company’s business. The certification process, though costly, has proved to be a good investment.

Maple farmers face a new challenge in global warming, which has shortened the sugaring season and caused production to move northward, where freezing nights and warmer days still enable sap flow. Partly as a result, Canadian syrup production has more than tripled since the ’70s, while Vermont’s continues to decline. Invasive species like the Asian longhorn beetle are also a looming threat.

Arnold acknowledges the ups and downs of his industry. “You can’t do something else and do sugaring on the side—it’s really a way of life,” he says. When asked if he thinks his own sons—Max, 17, and Addy, 15—will carry on with the farm, Arnold shrugs. “I think right now, basketball coach and pro skateboarder are what’s on the agenda.” He adds, though, that Max accompanied him to a conference recently, and that Addy will be working in the farm’s candy kitchen this summer. “For the first time this year, they volunteered to work in the sugar house,” says Arnold, who admits that in his own case, it took a bit longer. “The more I was into it and looked into the heritage, it became a bigger part of it for me,” he says.

Sitting at a table with a maple-print cloth, a maple calendar on the wall, and a jug of syrup in front of him, Arnold’s father, Bob, puts it perfectly. “Maple,” he says simply, “is just what we do.”

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

It's a family farming affair: Vermont
Behind the scenes of eco-conscious farms.