Coffee, cows and crops: How a northern Poconos man makes his way as a young farmer
It's Saturday, and while the Monday-Friday crowd sleeps after a week spent in the 9-5 grind, an alarm buzzes as the sky begins to lighten in the pre-dawn twilight.
Zach Jones, 28 of South Canaan, rises and heads to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Sipping his cup of Joe, Jones gazes out the window contemplating the litany of farm chores ahead of him.
"I like to start early in the morning to get stuff planted," Jones explained on the day reporters followed him around the farm. "And then, later in the day, work about. You know, like groundwork, stuff like that. Mowing grass, weed whacking."
Whether he's tilling, planting, harvesting, minding the cattle or seeing to needs in the greenhouse, it'll be a long, fulfilling day on the farm.
Getting 'stuck' in agriculture
Jones' agricultural interests started early. "My grandma used to watch me when I was a little boy," he said, noting he grew up in Sterling, "and I remember coming here and my great, great grandfather let me walk through the barn with him one time. And I just thought it was the coolest thing ever."
To put it succinctly, "I stepped in manure and I can't get it off my boots," said Jones. "It stuck."
Jones spent a lot of time in his youth working on the farm alongside his grandfather and now works those same fields and tends the new cattle herd alongside his uncle, Tim Jaggars, the current farm owner.
"I bought this house which was my great grandfather and great grandmother's house two years ago and put up a greenhouse high tunnel and started farming in my yard," Jones explained.
Continuing a legacy
Jones' great great grandfather Charles Robinson bought the property around 1890. By 1920, the Robinson Family Farm was in operation raising beef cattle.
"This used to be several farms back in the early 1900s," Jones explained. "He bought them all up during the Great Depression." Robinson earned his living by clearing lumber which he brought to Carbondale to sell. From there, he would grab a load of coal to bring back with him and sell in the South Canaan area, Jones explained.
In 1919, Robinson built a farmhouse on the property which stands to this day. It has housed every generation of the family all the way down to Jones.
"Everybody in my family at some point has lived in that house," said Jones, pointing to a wing where the eldest sons would live with their wives until they built houses of their own.
Robinson's sons Daniel and Virgil Robinson took over farming and lumber operations alongside their father, ultimately inheriting the farm after he retired from the toil of his life.
Daniel Robinson, Jones' great grandfather, and his brother Virgil were dairy farmers. They milked cows from the 60s through the 80s, Jones explained.
Jaggars lived in the farmhouse at the time. He would milk the cows alongside Daniel, learning the trade. He purchased the farm in 2004, continuing operation into the current day, passing his own knowledge onto Jones.
"It is a family farm and we couldn't do it without everyone," said Jones, noting at least three generations of his family pitching in to help farm, sell or manage some aspect of the operation.
Like many historic Wayne County farms, Robinson Farm has pivoted away from dairy. Jones and Jaggars survive on grass-fed beef cattle and sales of vegetables and flowers.
"We're a cow-calf operation," Jones explained. "We only have the cows that we breed. So we'll keep some females, heifers, and replace some of the older cows as they start to mature and get past their life expectancy. All the boys, we castrate."
Robinson Family Farm sells its produce at local farmers markets and have a greenhouse set up on the farm where they sell vegetable seedlings, sprouts and other small potted plants.
"We want to have the opportunity to have customers here on the farm," said Jones. "I think it means more as a customer to see where the food is grown and how it's grown rather than just buying it off of a table— we're not selling food, we're selling a good feeling and our relationship."
The Robinson Family Farm started selling vegetables around three years ago, Jones estimated. Some of what they grow includes onions, garlic, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes to sell locally.
"We don't have the resources here to really make it only on beef," Jones later added. When COVID broke out, Jones and his family started planting vegetables as a means of providing food for themselves. "I had way more than I needed and the Newfoundland Farmers Market was starting up in August, so we started selling and it's kind of taken off like crazy since then."
To be as economical as possible, the vegetable plot started small but has grown incrementally each year."Every year we still have a lot of stuff that we need to do better and clean up, but it's all a process. It can't be perfect," Jones explained, noting he's happy he and his uncle work together to find new solutions and stay ahead of things.
Refurbishing the past
With such a rich history behind the last five generations of stewards on the Robinson Family Farm, comes the upkeep necessary to keep the farm in operation.
"This is the old dairy barn here," said Jones, pointing to a well-worn structure. The chipped white paint and cracked wood on the exterior walls demonstrating the decades it's stood on the property.
Jones explained when the barn was newly built in the 40s, milk was sold by the can. In the 70s, development of milk sales in bulk tanks came into vogue following changes in the milk industry.
According to a 2019 study of Pennsylvania's milk production between 1960 and 1980, the shift to bulk tanks over individual cans saved distributors costs and labor. Additionally, some markets would only issue "A" grades if milk was delivered from bulk tanks. "This shift usually assumed machine milking and electric refrigeration," states the report.
"So that's when they put this milk house on," said Jones. "That was a feed room that I repurposed into a kind of—like just a storage room for potatoes, like a root cellar."
"But it has a lot of leaks in it," he continued, "so everything got moldy. So I have to fix the roof on that now."Keeping up with infrastructure repairs is a constant struggle, said Jones, pointing to various other projects, such as a drainage issue, simmering on the back burner. Keeping the old equipment afloat, however, is more cost efficient than building it new.
As Jones put it, "If we try to build something new like that, it would just be unreasonable to afford."
Jones is also repurposing an old herbicide/pesticide sprayer as the farm hasn't used chemical solutions in about five years.
"The more I learn about agriculture and the more that I learn about soil health, a reason why pests and disease afflict plants is because they're not healthy," Jones explained. "So, if I can make my plant as healthy as it can be, I can make it resistant to any kind of pathogen or pest."
Jones noted this mode of thinking "is not a common modern ag thought. It goes against the grain, but it's something that I believe in and I'm learning, and there is science behind it to prove it."
The sprayers will instead apply a foliar fertilizer comprised of calcium-rich crushed shellfish exoskeletons. The mixture contains bits of seaweed and molasses as well which, "supplies energy to the microbes in the soil," Jones explained.
Through the sprayer, he can apply the fertilizer exactly where it needs to go to feed the plants most in need of assistance.
"I can manage nutrients very easily and effectively with less inputs if I do it as a foliar feed every two weeks rather than applying everything that that crop would need as I plant it."
Traditional farming with a Millennial twist
While Jones's desire to work the land as his family has for generations is an age-old tradition, the methods by which he accomplishes his dream have been shaped by the modern technology available.
"If I have something that I don't know, I can Google it on my phone like that," said Jones with a snap.
Modern technologies such as social media also helps promote the farm's goods and activities, said Jones.
He also uses platforms such as YouTube and various podcasts to learn new farming techniques and other useful information. Jones also noted he can share his mistakes to help teach others how to succeed in their own endeavors.
"I have a lot to learn, a lot of questions to ask people who do it and a lot of mistakes to make yet," said Jones, expressing a healthy optimism towards mistakes. "Everything I do, I know I'm going to learn something from, and it's usually by not doing something right. That's how you learn."