1996 Farmer to Farmer Conference
Bill Spiller of Spiller Farms in Wells tells beginning farmers to diversify. “Don’t raise too much at first of any one item,” he told his audience at the Farmer to Farmer Conference in November. “This is hard. It takes a lot of expertise to grow many crops, but it seems you can sell a little of a lot of crops. After a while you can find some specialties. Plan on not making much money for a long time.”
He has learned the latter from experience. One of two “Farmers in the Spotlight” at the 1996 conference, Spiller and his wife, Anna, bought their 135- acre farm in 1967, while he was still working full time. An apple orchard was already on the land, so he cultivated and sold the apples as well as sweet corn and pumpkins for the first few years, simultaneously clearing more land with a chainsaw and a tractor. “It took quite a while to get the land back into production,” he said. He now works about 25 acres of tillable ground and raises 60 acres of hay.
Over the years he has gradually taken out the old apple trees and replaced them with dwarf and semi-dwarf cultivars. He now cultivates 7 acres of apple trees and is still working toward getting them all on M26 rootstock. “Anything you have to do with big trees just doesn’t work anymore,” Spiller explained.
The Spillers use mechanical cultivation, crop rotation and hand hoeing to minimize or eliminate herbicide use on most crops, with Anna doing a lot of the tractor work. However, they do apply an herbicide to eliminate grass around apple trees; otherwise the trees would take two or three years longer to produce a crop; the apples would be smaller; and the yield lower, said Spiller. When asked about using mulch instead of herbicide, he said that it’s harder all the time to find organic mulches, such as sawdust or manure, in the southern part of the state, adding that mice can be troublesome when trees are mulched.
A half acre of raspberries, sold mostly U-Pick at $2 per pint, adds to the farm income. “It’s a good price and we don’t get much complaint about the price,” said Spiller. Here again, Spiller controls some weeds with an herbicide application in the fall, but he pulls bindweed by hand.
His favorite variety of raspberry – the one with the best yield and flavor – is Taylor, although he warned conference participants that fruit specialist Dave Handley claims that Taylor doesn’t do well north of Portland. He also grows Boyne, Killarney and Newburgh. He has never been satisfied with the fall- bearing Heritage. “It bears so light, and a lot of [coastal] dews result in 90% moldy berries. Often an early frost wipes out 80 to 90% of Heritage berries before they mature.”
The Boyne and Killarney cultivars are staked. “You might get away without staking Boyne,” Spiller said, “but what little work it is to stake them, you might as well do it.”
Another 5 acres of Spiller Farm is devoted to four cultivars of strawberries: Honeoye, which “probably yields and sells best – It’s big, shiny, firm, productive, very winter hardy, but just doesn’t have much flavor;” Sparkle, which “has great flavor and doesn’t last long on the shelf;” Annapolis, which he recommends for an early berry and for a berry that holds its size throughout the picking season; and Cavendish, which has large fruits and a good yield, although “on some soils it’s slow to make a good plant bed, and the root weevil seems to prefer it.” Still, “Customers seem to be pulled in by it more and more each year.”
The strawberry plants are covered with Remay from September until the end of October to help promote flower bud set. In late fall the plants are mulched with “a good 6-inch loft [of straw] so that the crown doesn’t get below 25 degrees.” The straw comes from Spiller’s land from rye that is planted in September and is harvested around the last day of May. The straw is removed from the strawberry crop in the spring, when about 5% of the flowers are blossoming, and at this point the Remay is put back on the crop for protection against frost during the night and is pulled back during the day to allow for pollination. Spiller could leave the Remay on all winter, but it would last only one year if he did; by putting it down for just a short time in the fall and again in the spring, he gets three years out of a $460 roll.
About 40% of the Spillers’ strawberries are sold U-pick or at the farm store on his property, while the rest are sold wholesale. The Spillers help to pick them, “otherwise I try to stay away from things that take a lot of labor to pick.” Anna works with the help, which includes many kids, and she takes care of the U-pick operation while Bill does the wholesaling.
Spiller keeps his strawberry beds in for a rather long time, the last one for nine years. “One place in New Brunswick had one for 12 years,” he said. “Four to five years is more realistic; any longer creates problems with the root weevil.” He added that you need a two- to three-year rotation before putting a piece of land back into strawberries, otherwise oxalis and cinquefoil populations become damaging.
One of the “better items” on his farm, as Spiller describes them, are tomatoes, which he grows indoors and out. “Most years the tomatoes outside are two to three days later than the ones in the hoop house, but the ones in the hoop house have perfect shape and color.” The hoop house has rhubarb growing along one side of it, and tomatoes are held up by a basket weave system inside. Ultrasweet and Jet Star are Spiller’s favorite cultivars. “No matter what happens, Jet Star seems to produce. Others are variable, great one year, not the next.”
Outdoors, Spiller has tried growing tomatoes on land that was in a rye cover crop over winter. He rototilled strips of rye, put down black plastic and planted the tomatoes through it, and mowed the rye that remained between the strips of plastic. “The [tomato] yield was terrible,” he said. “There was probably too much competition from the rye.”
Spiller still grows 14 acres of sweet corn, one of his original crops, always leaving some stalks and ears for the wild turkeys at the end of the season, and he grows 5 acres of cucumbers, melons and mixed vegetables. His vegetable land is usually planted to rye after harvest, or to a hairy vetch/rye mixture. Of the latter, he says that he can plow it easily if he can get to it early in the spring, but if it grows too high, he mows it before plowing.
Last fall, during the last two weeks of October, Anna started a new marketing enterprise for the farm’s pumpkins. She was concerned that Halloween hay rides in the area were too scary for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, so she organized less frightening hay rides for preschool and kindergarten classes, charging $2.50 per child. The first stop is the pasture where the kids can see cows. “If they just walk up to the cows, some of the kids are afraid. If they’re on the trailer they feel more secure and then the cows are more friendly,” said Anna. Then they go to the pumpkin field, where they get to choose their own pumpkin. The Spillers’ try to grow sugar pumpkins for this age child, because they’re a good size for them to carry. The rides last about 45 minutes and seemed to go over well.
In a 30 x 96 greenhouse, a local woman, Heather Maxell, grows flowers and vegetable transplants, which she sells from the greenhouse. Heather is well known for her mums, especially, which she grows directly in the ground in the greenhouse and cultivates meticulously. “I think she knows every one by name,” Anna Spiller told The MOF&G after the Farmer to Farmer Conference.
Finally, Spiller takes 2,000 bales of hay from 60 acres of land each year. To control weeds in his rye hay fields, he sows the crop thickly. He then bales the crop when it’s headed out but before the seed is mature.
Much of the hay and produce at Spiller Farms is sold at the farm store on the premises, which is run by Spiller’s son and his son’s wife and is open all year. They have a produce-filled wagon outside, made by Spiller from some old iron tires that were “around here for years,” according to Anna. “It looks rustic; it’s not a modern thing!” “An outside display is a great help” in attracting customers, explains Spiller, adding that his manure spreader sits outside the store around Halloween and is filled with pumpkins. The Spillers also sell their hay from a trailer near the store.
Spiller likes to work with tools and tile. He has made much of his own equipment, including a mulch layer and a cultivator with Bezerides disks that loosens and brings soil up around plants. The latter “did a great job in pumpkins.” He has also made a plastic layer and a strawberry planter. He has an irrigation pond that provides water for some crops and runs driplines off of an artesian well for others. He set drainage tiles covered with landscape fabric and rock to make a road on which he can drive any time of year, and he put in 10,000 feet of underground tile to turn marginal farmland into a productive field. “A lot of small farms in Maine have wet spots that hurt you when you try to work the land,” he said. He believes these spots could be turned into productive land, as his was.
During the off season, Spiller still works in his woodlots, using much of the harvested lumber on his farm. He also tends two Hereford “pets,” and he has a new interest that keeps at least his mind occupied: an archeological dig on his farm has uncovered a Native American encampment that dates back 11,000 years. “The University is excavating it now,” said Spiller. “They say it’s the biggest one they ever found. It’s very exciting to me to think of how people must have lived at the end of the last Ice Age.”
– Jean English