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Young New Jersey farmer charts new path

Technology and high-value crops drive Spring Brook Farms.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

June 11, 2024

8 Slides

At a Glance

  • Spring Brook Farms is a 3,600-acre vegetable and crop farm.
  • Spinach and tomatoes are its highest value crops.
  • Labor challenges drive adoption of technology.

Cross any Delaware River bridge from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, and you get a sense of why “The Garden State” is a place of contradiction.

Developments are everywhere, cars whiz by at breakneck speed, and everyone is in a hurry. Yet, there are numerous high-production farms sprinkled throughout the nation’s most densely populated state, owing to its famous nickname.

In southern New Jersey, Byron DuBois is helping keep his family’s multigenerational farm alive by not only continuing his family’s legacy, but also charting his own path.

DuBois and his father, Henry, are owners of Spring Brook Farms in Salem County, a 3,600-acre operation that’s made its mark growing high-quality vegetables and grains.

“A lot of our focus is just trying to get more efficient at what we’re doing. We don’t necessarily want to get bigger. We just want to get more efficient and do better with what we’ve got, and drive the growth of the farm through that,” says Byron, 40.

The farm’s name is fairly new — it’s only been Spring Brook Farms since 2009 — but farming in the family goes back several generations.

Henry DuBois set the foundation for the farm’s current iteration when he was only 14. He and his brother, Steve, Byron’s uncle, started H&S DuBois Farm by planting 26 acres of lima beans. The family dairy-farmed for many years, but Henry didn’t want to continue the dairy business and instead got into vegetables.

The business grew as Henry and Steve rented other farms in the area, eventually growing it to 4,000 acres. Lima beans, peas and green beans were the biggest crops, but they also grew spinach, collard greens and other high-value crops. By 2004, more than 20 different types of crops were grown.

Next generation comes home

Farming has always been in Byron’s blood. “I grew up carpet farming, farming in the sandbox, everything else. This is what I wanted to do,” Byron says.

He attended Delaware Valley University and majored in ag business while working part time on the farm. In 2005, he joined the farm full time, helping coordinate day-to-day operations and supervising some employees. Getting thrown “into the fire” of managing the business was something Byron was accustomed to, ever since his father was diagnosed with cancer in 1996.

“That made me grow up quick,” he says. “We still like to joke around and have fun; it makes the day go by. But still, at a younger age and through high school, we all kind of had to grow up quick just in case something ever happened again, so that we were somewhat prepared.”

But Byron didn’t just want to come back and help. He wanted to set his own path.

“I was kind of trying to focus on a couple of the main crops that would give us the most profit potential down the road, and kind of just focus on them instead of trying to do so many different things,” he says.

For many crops, the profit margin wasn’t there. Peas and lima beans, he says, were hit and miss. Plus, local processors started going out of business, reducing the number of outlets. Greens weren’t very profitable either.

“Instead of being good at 27 different crops, or 26, we decided, ‘Let’s be great at nine.’ And have a better profit potential, better quality,” Byron says.

Green and red lead the way

In 2006, Byron says he was approached by Furmano’s, a local tomato processor, to grow tomatoes.

The company rented some ground and paid the farm to custom-grow tomatoes, along with a bonus if the farm exceeded a certain tonnage. Byron says it was a good way to get his feet wet without jumping all the way in.

He grew tomatoes for Furmano’s in 2006 and 2007, and resumed in 2009, but he did so under a more traditional growing contract.

With tomatoes coming into the fold, Byron started focusing more on tomatoes and spinach as the farm’s two leading crops. Of the farm’s 3,600 acres, 300 acres are in tomatoes, and between 450 and 500 acres are in spinach.

The first spinach crops were harvested in April. Winter spinach is planted in rows of five in early October and harvested mid-April through the end of May. Spring-planted spinach goes in the ground in mid-March and is harvested from late May to mid-June.

Fall plantings are in the ground mid-August to September, with harvest in October and November. Six varieties of spinach are grown.

Tomato planting begins in late April and finishes around mid-June. Harvest starts in early August and goes through early October. The farm grows five varieties.

The rest of the crop rotation revolves around field crops, but spinach and tomatoes are the highest value, with spinach being No. 1.

“Our yield on spinach, tomatoes, wheat and all of those things has actually come up because we’ve been able to narrow our focus onto that smaller cropping group,” Byron says. “Plus, it’s helped with cutting out some of the greens and some of that stuff — being able to stretch our rotations out more years between vegetable crops.”

The tomato rotation can go seven or eight years, and spinach can go around four years. If the rotation is spinach, it starts with spinach, then three to four years of grain, and then back to spinach. In the tomato rotation, tomatoes get planted first — followed by wheat, double-crop soybeans, a few years of continuous corn, sweet corn, wheat and then back to tomatoes.

“It cuts back on your disease pressures. The longer you can go between vegetable crops, the better,” Byron says. “Anthracnose is the big one. The plant just grows better, too. The ground has time to rest. It’s not farmed to death, as I call it, and it also helps to get some organic matter back in the ground.”

Cover crops are planted between cash crops, and most of the land is either minimum till or no-till.

Grains are marketed on the Eastern Shore and in Lancaster County, Pa. The farm grows 1,500 acres of corn, 1,000 acres of double-crop soybeans, close to 1,000 acres of winter wheat and 425 acres of sweet corn. About 450 acres of barley will be planted this year.

The farm has 500,000 bushels of storage capacity. Byron says he started putting up the bins in 2008, allowing him to capture premiums in the grain markets.

Embracing technology

The farm’s sandy and gravelly soils, and limited labor, have moved Byron and his father to embrace technology in several different ways.

The soil has very little water-holding capacity and not a lot of organic matter, Byron says. So, irrigation is critical. Of the farm’s 3,600 acres, 80% are irrigated using center pivots or traveling guns. Some irrigation rigs go back to 2005, when the farm had only six center pivots. Now, the farm has 52.

Byron says center pivots allow him to be more efficient with water and labor. Traveling irrigation guns, which are still used, need eight people to operate. The center pivots require half the labor to maintain and operate, he says.

All the tractors have RTK (real-time kinetics) installed, allowing the farm to do more precise variable-rate seeding and variable-rate spreading of lime and potash.

Every year, the fields are soil-sampled by a local company. Binders full of soil data line Byron’s desk for him to read, but that data is in the cloud and can be transferred to a machine, where field prescriptions can easily be downloaded and accessed by anyone.

Byron develops his own planting scripts based on field data and yield history. The investment is a lot, he says, but it pays off in many ways. “I’m using a lot less inputs, which adds up, and it has led to higher yields where the stuff is being applied, or where the seed is placed in places where it can yield,” he says.

Corn yields on nonirrigated ground average 125 to 175 bushels per acre, while irrigated ground averages 180 to 280 bushels. Soybeans average 40 to 70 bushels per acre, and wheat averages 90 to 120 bushels.

Labor is even more challenging to manage on the vegetable side of the business. For example, tomatoes required 10 people to go on a planter and place plugs in the ground. Right around the time of COVID-19, Byron heard of a company in Belgium that had developed an automatic vegetable transplanter. He made a trip to Quebec, Canada, to see one of these transplanters in action and decided to buy one for the farm.

Using robotic technology, the AgriPlanter takes trays of tomato transplants and plants them in a row into the ground. Instead of needing 10 people, Byron says, it requires only three people to operate, mostly to load the trays and drive the tractor.

Same family, new partnerships

Byron became an official partner in the farm in 2009, when he and his father split the operation and renamed it Spring Brook Farms.

For legal and liability protection, the farm itself is made up of several entities:

  • Spring Brook Farm, the operating entity.

  • DuBois Farm Properties, a partnership between Byron and his sister, Crystal, who also works on the farm. This represents the farm’s land acquisitions after 2012.

  • DuBois Properties, the entity that represents land owned previously by Byron’s father and uncle.

  • DuBois Grain, the entity that covers the grain business.

Byron’s wife, Karen, is a local schoolteacher. Together, they have three daughters — 12, 10 and 9.

Earlier this year, the Outstanding Farmers of America organization recognized Byron and his wife for their accomplishments, naming them one of just four Outstanding Young Farmers of 2024.

The couple visited Ferndale, Wash., in February for four days, where they went to local farms and visited with other young farmers.

Winning the award is a nice recognition, but Byron says he could not have gotten far without the support of his parents, and especially his father.

“Mom and Dad were real good about giving us an opportunity to start doing some of our ideas,” he says, “getting to try some things out and let us learn on our own. With the tomato thing, they were kind of like, ‘Well, that’s your baby.’ And it worked out, and we’ve been doing good with them.”

“Sometimes the older generation … hangs on for so long they don’t give the younger generation the chance when they’re full of energy and want to try new things, and things can kind of get stagnant. But we were greatly blessed with having an opportunity. I can’t thank my parents enough for trusting myself and my sister and all of us with the opportunity to do things a little different.” 

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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