Top Story, Jan. 1, 2015
FB president Suydam stays busy wearing several hats
By RICHARD SKELLY
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, Somerset County — Given that his extended family has been farming the same land since 1713, you might say that Ryck Suydam was born into a farming career and expected to follow that path.
In fact, the University of Maine graduate who got a bachelor’s degree in education, spent time as a high school history teacher in Maine and in nearby South Brunswick Township before leaving the profession in 1986.
Currently, he spends time in insurance sales aside from overseeing the family farm at 1803 Route 27, just outside of New Brunswick on the way to Princeton.
Suydam Farms goes back to 1663 when both Suydam brothers left Holland and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. After 50 years one brother moved to the Somerset section of Franklin Township and began farming the 300 plus acres that Ryck Suydam and his 85-year-old father Abram oversee today with the help of farm manager Tom Cummings and others.
“The farm has always been pretty diversified,” Suydam explained one day in late December, “but in the early 1900’s it became much more specialized as a dairy farm. Dairy products were being shipped into New Brunswick and also on barges to be shipped to New York.”
“As we rolled into the 1960’s, we lost a corn crop three years in a row due to drought and our expenses were going up. My father knew we’d have to do a huge modernization in equipment, so a decision was made to sell out of the dairy business, to sell the cows when they were most valuable, and not to make that capital investment,” Suydam recalled.
The farm evolved again as the focus was turned toward producing mostly forage products for other people’s animals and “growing hay is mostly what we did through the latter half of the 1960’s, the 1970’s and 80’s while the horse industry continued to grow in New Jersey.”
In the 1990’s, when Suydam’s children were starting to come on the scene, “we grew pumpkins, built a couple of greenhouses and went back to slowly diversifying again. We’re growing more hay than we ever have and now we’re even doing a bit of ag tourism,” he said. But with his duties as president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, there are only so many hours in the week. Suydam was just re-elected to another two-year term as president of the Farm Bureau. As such, he spends a lot of time in meetings in Trenton as well as on-site meetings with farmers all over the state.
“My partner in the insurance agency is my sister Robin, and she does the majority of day-to-day operations there. I’m still a partner, but the farm is a full-time job and the Farm Bureau is a part-time job with a full-time commitment, so for that I’m available 24-7 and do a lot of things at night for the Farm Bureau,” he explained. To say he’s busy in his current capacities is understatement, yet, Suydam offered up great kernels of advice for young farmers and small family farmers, perhaps an extension of what he sees with his post as president of the Farm Bureau.
“I was the only son with two sisters, and their hearts were not into farming, but mine was, and luckily my career choices allowed me to continue to farm, at least, seasonally,” he explained.
In December, Suydam Farms sells a lot of Christmas trees, wreaths and assorted seasonal products, but during the rest of the year, with its greenhouse operations and full-time manager Tom Cummings, the farm is able to offer vegetable plants, a variety of vegetables and perhaps most uniquely, herbs.
Given that he works six and seven days a week between the farm, the insurance agency and his duties as Farm Bureau president, Suydam said satisfaction comes not just from dollar and cents sales of goods produced at his farm, but with happy, satisfied, repeat customers who come back each spring and summer.
“The satisfaction comes from seeing the products grow on the same ground my family has farmed for 300 years and turning out quality products and our customers coming back for them again and again. It makes you feel good.”
The primary crop at Suydam Farms is 30,000-plus bales of hay each year for the state’s equine industry.
Given that his father started the nearby insurance agency and he and his father have been working together on the farm for more than 40 years, what has he learned?
“It’s not unique to agriculture by any means, but in general, make changes slowly,” Suydam stressed, “Wholesale changes in the way you do business can be very expensive.”
While Suydam Farms currently does a little bit of agri-tourism, he recalled how his father slowly transitioned from a dairy farming operation to a hay producing facility.
In the last decade, Suydam and his father, G.M. Cummings and others who work the farm added retail and small production greenhouses to keep things diversified.
Suydam Farms does sell tomatoes and other vegetables in-season.
“The thing I like about making hay is if you don’t sell it today, you can sell it tomorrow,” he said, “if you don’t sell it tomorrow, you can sell it next month. Tomatoes, if you don’t sell them in the next couple of days, they turn into chicken feed and you feed ‘em to the animals. Making hay is the most profitable way for me to go, for my lifestyle and the way I’m set up.”