Randy Starr likes to farm the way the old-timers did it
Out on Starr Road in Pavilion, on 125 acres of farmland with a view, Randy Starr farms his way.
He's not making a political statement, riding an organic trend -- Starr Farm is not organic -- or trying to reach for some idyllic, romanticized agrarian lifestyle. He just farms according to his own idea of how farming should be.
It's a little bit old school, a little bit high tech, and without the headaches that go with larger operations, but still all the frustrations of a two-person farm using older equipment.
“Once in a while I’ll have somebody say, ‘hey, if I was ever going to be a farmer, I’d be a farmer like you,’' Starr said. "And I think, 'Yeah, but you ain’t doing it, are you?'"
Starr was born to be a farmer. It's all he's even known and what he went to college to study. He's never given a second thought to doing something else.
As the fifth generation to plow and plant the hills along Starr Road, Randy is just pursuing the family tradition.
The farm was started by Noah Starr, Randy's great-great-great grandfather, a Dutch immigrant who bought 270 acres in what's now Pavilion from the Holland Land Office in 1818.
Noah built a log cabin high atop a ridge, married four women during the course of his life (three divorces, one death) and fathered 10 sons.
One of Noah's sons built the first version of the house (about 1890) that Randy and his wife Cindy live in, and it's been added on to and taken away from so many times over the years that now "it's just an old house," according to Randy.
Randy and Cindy both attended Pavilion High School (Cindy was four grades back from Randy) and met when Randy's older brother married Cindy's older sister.
Starr graduated from Alfred College with an agricultural degree in the late 1960s. He said of the couple hundred ag students in his class, only a handful became farmers.
"For some foolish reason I wanted to be a farmer all my life and now here I am. I’m 61 years old. Was that the right move or not? Who knows?"
The Starrs married in the early 1970s and moved into the farmhouse in 1974.
Son Chris, 37, and daughter Sarah, 33, are also farmers. Chris and his wife own a farm on West Middlebury Road, Wyoming County, and Sarah and her husband own a farm off Route 63 in Pavilion. Both Chris and Sarah also work other jobs, and both have children who might some day become farmers.
The Starr Farm sits on rolling hills above Pavilion with a clear view far into Wyoming County. The farm's white house, red barns, glistening silos and well used farm equipment could fit on a picture postcard depicting agricultural life in Upstate New York.
Starr said his son Chris has an even more picturesque farm, but like Chris told him one time, he said, "You can't pay your bills with a view."
No doubt about it, the Starr Farm is a working farm. Cindy helps out as do Chris and Sarah, but Randy does most the work.
On the 125 acres, Randy grows wheat, barley, hay, oats and black beans. They also run about 80 head of cattle -- mostly steers bought as calves from a neighboring dairy, and sold for meat after 18 to 22 months of raising.
Cindy takes care of the hogs, which also go to market.
“Divide that into 125 acres -- we don’t have a lot of anything."
Irrigation is rainwater, so when it was too wet in May, it was hard for Starr to plant, but for the past few weeks, he's been praying for rain.
Life on the Starr Farm certainly has its frustrations.
Just about all of the farm equipment Starr runs is decades old, some of it he bought decades ago (or his dad bought), some of it he finds at auction.
Starr's father, who died 22 years ago, taught him that equipment may become obsolete, but if well maintained, it will run forever.
What Starr needs to buy, he said, he can get at a pretty good price. The equipment he needs is too big for the hobbyist looking to tinker with old farm machinary and too small for the mega-operations.
“It’s an area where you can find things sometimes that nobody else wants. My combine is a good example. It's got a 12-foot grain head and 3-row corn head. It’s a good little combine. I picked it up for $1,400. Sometimes if you’re at the right place at the right time you can get the equipment I need at a reasonable price."
The big operations, of course, are spending $150,000 to $200,000 on a single piece of farm equipment. The plowers and planters are guided by GPS to make perfectly straight rows over dozens of rows.
Big or small equipment breaks down and it's just a different kind of headache.
"My tractor breaks down and their tractor breaks down, theirs is maybe a $50,000 fix and mine is a piece of baling wire and something I can keep it going with."
Why does he farm the way he does? Can't really say. His operation just kind of evolved that way.
When he was young, he said, it seemed like any time he bought a bigger truck or bigger piece of equipment, something would go wrong.
"I can’t be real specific, but it just seemed liked any time I’d jump ahead, I’d got slammed against a wall. It was like, ‘OK, slow down and do it my way.'"
He also watched some of his fellow farmers try to take on too much and it often didn't work out well for the farmer or their suppliers.
He's never going to get rich farming his way, Starr admits, but he'll also be able to keep farming.
"Nothing ventured nothing gained, perhaps, but that’s the way I’ve always been," Starr said. "I’ve seen people go too big too fast and the people they did business with got hurt financially. They file for bankruptcy and these people who put their trust in these farms, building, equipment, whatever it would be, and they lose it all."
Starr's way isn't a complete rejection of technology. He owns a new hay baler because they're now easier to get supplies and parts for, and he grows, for example, genetically modified corn to help control pests and disease (which keeps the farm from being certified as organic).
The reason Starr doesn't spray his crops with a lot of chemicals, has nothing to do with trying to be organic, he usually doesn't see much of a need.
If there was a need, he says he would spray.
He doesn't spray for weeds in his wheat, for example, because the wheat grows so fast, it smothers out the weeds.
As for insects, he tells a couple of stories about what he's learned about using pesticides.
First, there is the story of the army worm.
"A few years ago the alert went out, look out for army worms, and the guys, they had their sprayers and were just flying, but we didn’t spray," Starr said. "I went out looking to see if I could find army worms. I went through all my fields – I had a grand total of I think 40 acres of wheat that year – and I found one little army worm about a quarter of an inch long. It didn’t do any sort of damage at all. We didn’t need to spray."
The second story goes further back and is about a salesman visiting the Starr Farm.
"I had a guy come in years ago and say, ‘I went through your field’ – and I didn’t even know he’d done that -- and he said, ‘Oh, man, have you got insects. We’ve got to spray.’
"Now this was years ago," Starr said, "and I said, 'How much will that cost?' and he said, 'How many acres do you have?' I told him. He said that will probably cost you $3,000 to $4,000. I said, 'Oh my gosh, I haven’t got that kind of money.' I said, 'What would happen if I don’t spray?' He said, ‘Oh, by the time the frost comes, it will kill them all and it won’t be a problem.'”
Starr laughs and adds "He almost got me."
Typical of Starr's demeanor, he's quick to add that he's not criticizing the salesman for trying to make a living or the farmers who think spraying for insects is necessary. He just does it his way for his own reasons.
"I always thought the old-timers knew what they were doing. Work hard, keep your nose clean and you’ll be all right. This is just the way we go. It’s the way we do it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else in the world, but it seems to work for us all right.”