On Becoming a Farmer’s Wife

I first met Brooke Gammie at her inlaws’ farmhouse. She was visiting from Phoenix with her husband, Ben, and baby, Henry, who was squirming in her lap. Brooke was preparing to leave the dry heat and an engineering career to relocate to Ohio. They had come together with Ben’s parents, Bill and Jacque Gammie, to discuss the requisite steps to slowly and thoughtfully transition Quarry Hill Orchard from one generation to the next.

Succession planning in agricultural businesses is a long-term commitment, and it doesn’t happen as often as it should in order to ensure a sustainable industry. Our aging farm population faces tough decisions about the assets that are designed to outlive them. The 2012 USDA Agricultural Census data revealed that the average age of a principal farm operator is 58. Only 5.6% of this shrinking population is 35 and younger, while 33.2% is 65 or older.

At the gathering, Brooke was upbeat with possibility, yet anxious about the move. There would be a lot to learn, of course. Bill had a legacy to preserve, and a proven way of doing business that has served him well since 1978 when he started working in the orchard with his parents. The property was officially willed to him in 1989. With the operational acumen required to run an orchard all in his head, it would take many seasons of apprenticeship for Ben to learn the ropes. Brooke’s encounters with farming were limited to a handful of orchard visits during her and Ben’s courtship; she would need to carve out her own unique role in the business.

Now, three years later, the young family has settled into a charming lakeside cottage in Huron, where Brooke splits her time between the orchard and home offices. She and I have become fast friends. We both understand the rewards and challenges of working behind the scenes in sales to grow our respective families’ businesses. Each year, we manage to get away for our informal “Farmers’ Wives Club,” when we drink too much and commiserate about things like the viability of sustainable growing, product diversification, and how tough it is to schedule date night when your husband’s schedule is fully dependent on the weather.

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This interview was conducted over pizza and a bottle of wine at Kelley’s Island Wine Company.

When Ben proposed, did you know you’d be moving to Ohio?

Absolutely. There was no doubt in my mind that this man would take me away to a life unknown. The orchard lived within him. I knew he wanted his children to have the same rich experiences he had growing up.

What were you looking forward to most?

In Phoenix, we were consumed by our careers. We both wanted a slower pace from the rat race. I had this romanticized vision of life in Ohio. Idyllic days in the orchard, my kids dancing around acres of apple trees while I greeted customers at the farm stand.

Has the move met your expectations?

Well, let’s just say “idyllic” isn’t the way I would describe the weather around here! I really wasn’t prepared for these Ohio winters. Wow.

Beyond the bone-chilling cold, the biggest revelation for me was that this wasn’t a lateral move for us financially. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. We ran the numbers, but it’s tough for anyone to make the transition from the perks and salary of a corporate employee to the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur.

At one point—I think this was around the time the winter killed our peach crop [January 2014]—we had to decide if I would take a part-time job as an engineering consultant to help support our household. Ben and I talked about it a lot. Ultimately, we decided that the money would have been nice, but the orchard and our family required my full focus.

I know. So many independent family farms require off-farm income to survive.

Our question was, “How can this orchard sustain two more fulltime salaries?” That’s when I really applied myself to sales, looking for new sources of revenue to help replace the peach loss and further pay our way.

Tell us about the two new revenue streams you’ve launched: the Apple Box and the Farm-to-School Program.

What I saw in this business was what I loved in Ben when we first met. The Gammies are serious about relationships. They’re all very social and they have strong, deep-seated connections across the state. Bill’s been doing business with the same customers for decades. Ben and I want to build on this network, but also expand beyond it. That’s the intention for the Gift Box—it’s eCommerce, so we can ship to anywhere in the U.S.

There’s also demand in other industries, like educational institutions, that we’re just now tapping into. With our Farm-to- School program, I’ve sold to a dozen local school systems that want to supplement their larger buys with healthy, local produce. I’m now designing a distribution system to help us reach these new wholesale buyers in a way that’s cost effective for us and convenient for them.

Have these ideas been well received by the family?

Not at first, but I think I was a little arrogant in my approach. I’m a woman of action. I have a very high work ethic and I was so anxious to bring my ideas to the table. I just expected to jump right in and do big business. In that excitement, I lost Bill’s perspective. Here was a guy who spent decades weathering storms to grow this amazing place. I know now that any pushback I received from him was his way of protecting what he had built.

What’s it like working with your husband?

Well, we met at work back in our engineering days, so we’re used to it. We’re really supportive of each other just like true business partners. At first, I didn’t realize how much he’d be working—60 to 80 hours a week! He said the work would be seasonal so I expected him to be working less in the winter, but it’s the same workload, just different tasks—inventory and planning versus harvest and packing.

What’s on deck for the future?

We’d really love for the farm to be more experiential for people. With that in mind, we’re in the process of planning our first annual Quarry Hill Orchard fall family event. We’ll have music, local food trucks, cooking demos, wagon rides, and some unexpected things like yoga and family photo sessions. It’s slated for October 17.

Aside from that, I keep thinking about making hard cider. But maybe it’s just because we really need a drink after all this hard work!

The Quarry Hill Apple Box makes a great holiday gift for those who would appreciate a true taste of Ohio. Visit the website to place an order and find out more about the fall family event on October 17. QuarryHillOrchards.com