6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent
The phrase "multiple streams of revenue" has become popular for a good reason: when one area of the business suffers, another can pick up the slack. The Robbins family has been applying this principle to their three ag operations for decades.
Ron and Nancy Robbins and their adult son, Brian, operate North Harbor Dairy, Robbins Family Grain and their agritourism business, Old McDonald’s Farm.
Julia Robbins, Ron and Nancy's daughter, heads the New York Corn & Soybean Growers Association.
Beginning with 100 acres of rented land in 1977, the Robbinses have grown their business to include 6,000 acres of owned and rented land. They raise field crops and vegetables, including corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, hay, pumpkins and sweet corn.
Their 1,400-head dairy averages 85 plus pounds of milk per day, per cow and they raise more than 700 head of dairy replacements. The grain processing business boasts a capacity of 150,000 pounds of grain.
The family opened Old McDonald’s Farm to the public 29 years ago, long before "agritourism" was coined. It began as a means of educating city friends on the importance of farming and providing another revenue stream, and now offers numerous educational stations and tours, children's activities and party/group hosting. The farm is open to the public from May through October.
Growing the business gradually helped the family keep the scope within what they could handle, but as with any business, the Robbinses experienced their share of hurdles.
"We did tours of our original 100-cow tie-stall barn dairy, but a lady fell in a gutter, broke her ankle and sued us four to five years into it," said Nancy Robbins.
Some friends advised the family to re-evaluate the worth of remaining open, but the Robbinses liked sharing the farming lifestyle, so they continued. As they added more attractions, Old McDonald’s Farm became more of a destination. The more tourists, the more lucrative the operation became.
"When we weren't making money on dairy or in the crops, we put ourselves into the fun part of it and worked on ideas for Old McDonald’s Farm," she said. "It was like an escape from the struggles."
In 2005, the Robbinses built a visitor's center with a cafe and gift shop that sold fruits and vegetables too. Adding the visitor's center helped generate more revenue and direct traffic away from their home. It also created a more professional appearance for the business. The Robbinses provided employees with farm logo shirts as part of the farm dress code.
"We put on a good image," she said. "It helps us keep on our game for keeping things nice."
Nancy Robbins likens the experience of operating an open farm as having a wedding at the farm every day of the year "but it's easy to do when you do it every day."
The farm's location isn't prime for many types of businesses, but its proximity to a state park and Fort Drum, a U.S. Army base which teems with young families, makes it work well.
Nancy Robbins advises other family farms considering agritourism to "persevere. It took a long time to make money," she said.
It's also important to work with and not against the strengths inherent to your team.
"My husband and I have a good combination that works," Nancy Robbins said. "I grew up in a city and I like working with people. He likes making things look really nice. He doesn't like working with people."
Therefore, she greets guests and leads tours, and her husband keeps the show running behind the scenes. The family's creativity represents a big part of the reason for the farm's success.
"We entertain children and they don't know they're learning," she said. "Education is the top priority, but we have to make it fun."