Arnold: ’Always something to figure out’
CHESTERTOWN, Md. — As a young farmer decades ago, Bob Arnold made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t be farming past age 50 and let his curiosity lead him to something new.
Now at 65 and still farming, he didn’t keep the promise to the letter, but hasn’t stopped looking for the next adventure.
Arnold grew up in Northern New Jersey where his father, Robert Edward Arnold, worked in heavy equipment and construction but had an agronomy degree from Rutgers and a penchant for farm tractors. In 1967, Bob was 11, and his father, seeing his son needed something to focus on, worked out a deal with a neighbor to rent a half-acre to grow sweet corn and sell it by the dozen along the roadside.
“I think he recognized that I was a bit of a drifter, but I think he also wanted to do it for himself,” Arnold said. “The whole project was also sort of therapy for my father. I was enthusiastic because I loved mechanics and all the equipment. I was on board.”
On the success of the first year, the father-son team planted an acre the next year, selling corn for $0.75 a dozen. But later that year, Bob’s father, who he called his “guiding light,” died and the sweet corn project dissolved.
“He was my strength,” Bob said. “I adored my father.”
Arnold moved on to start a landscaping business while he was in high school. He said the money was pretty good — good enough to pay cash for a new truck to go to his graduation — but he wasn’t attached to that work like he was growing corn.
Arnold said he tried college – three times, a different school each time – but it didn’t work out.
“I wasn’t disciplined,” he said, noting his interests were far and wide and would easily distract him from class and school work. “I probably thought I knew more than the teachers.”
After the third try, his mom told him, “There’s two things you need, a job and a place to live, because you’re out.”
Before long he sold the landscaping business and bought a John Deere 3020 tractor, admitting “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.”
Arnold said a seminal moment to his farming career came while driving through South Jersey and he stopped at a field of squash. He vividly remembers walking up and down the rows and studying the plants intently.
“I remember thinking, ‘I really like this, I could do this,” he said.
Though no longer an official student, Arnold could still get into the Cook College library at Rutgers reading soil science books and anything he thought would help him.
“I looked like a student,” he said with a shrug. “I made good use of that library.”
Arnold said he was “terribly shy” growing up and farming served as a refuge for him.
“It allowed me to retreat and kind of hide from things.”
Farming for Arnold got a jumpstart when he connected with a landowner and developer in Summit, N.J., west of New York City, who needed someone to farm some of his land to keep the state’s Farmland Assessment benefit until it was developed.
Arnold started there in 1976 and soon added several other estates in Morris County’s affluent Harding Township, eventually reaching 40 acres of crops, selling retail and wholesale.
“The people were very kind to me,” he said of the landowners, many of whom he gleaned advice and business knowledge. “Throughout my life, I’ve been very fortunate.”
Arnold also picked up truck driving and other jobs during the winter adding more learning opportunities.
Looking back at those years, Arnold smiles, recalling the raft of mistakes he made as a new farmer, but said he could make up for them by buying from the wholesale markets in New York and retailing the produce at his stand.
“We were horrible farmers, even with all the books I read,” Arnold said. “But I made enough money that I could afford my mistakes and learn how to farm. You could make mistakes back then and still make money. You can’t do that today.”
Arnold continued farming the Harding Township estates for another decade, improving all along and in 1985, purchased a 70-acre farm in Long Valley, N.J. from Henry Schubert, who is a vegetable grower Arnold met through the Newark Farmers’ Market who would become a huge mentor.
“That was a farmer’s farmer,” Arnold said of Schubert. “He was a remarkable farmer, he taught me a lot.”
Arnold only kept the farm for three years before putting it in the state’s farmland preservation program and selling it to a nursery crop grower.
“I didn’t want to see it developed,” he said. “It was just too beautiful of a farm.”
The sale allowed him to purchase a larger farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an area he marveled at as a child when passing through to North Carolina for vacations.
“I just liked the Shore,” he said. “I knew I was going to live there.”
In 1988, Arnold moved the operation to Queen Anne’s County, between Chestertown and Crumpton.
His first year on the Maryland farm, living in a barn during an extremely hot summer, was anything but a vacation. The soil was much different than that of Long Valley and Harding Township. He had to adjust to different needs in fertilizer and irrigation, too.
“That first year I lost so much money,” he said. “It took about three years before we felt comfortable about what we were doing.”
Arnold Farms grew to about 400 acres, wholesaling to Giant Foods for much of the 1990s along with many other wholesale and retail outlets.
In moving to Maryland, he gave up the retail stand he had in Harding Township but kept a second one going that he started in Gillette, N.J.
A crew of about 40 workers harvesting and packing kept everything humming along.
“It was crazy,” he said. “This place was 24-7.”
But after about 20 years, that pace eventually ran its course on Arnold and on the land, he said. There wasn’t a clear path to keep expanding in acreage and Arnold said their productivity in the soil was dropping.
“We’d gotten to a point where we were adding inputs, namely fertilizer, and weren’t getting as much out of it,” he said.
At about the same time, Arnold said he was on a hiking trip in the Grand Canyon with his brother when he remembered the promise he made to himself years ago that he would farm until he was 50 and then embrace the drifter lifestyle, exploring and traveling. He was 53 at that point.
“That was going to be my second life,” he said.
Instead of dropping farming completely, Arnold scaled back, retooled his operation and makes more time to travel and pursue other interests.
He gave up land he was renting and leasing all but about 50 acres of his owned land to another farmer growing no-till grain. Arnold’s operation now is split about equally between retail and wholesale acres, maintaining a wide mix of vegetable crops and flowers and drilling down on improving his soil.
Arnold expanded the farm’s use of cover crops, focusing on planting dates and crop blends for more benefit and managing high phosphorus soils with less commercial inputs.
“It’s not an easy thing but I think we’re slowly slowly getting there,” he said. “Now, it’s more the challenge of growing it and making perfect crops.
“Soil health is critical to our food security as a nation,” he added. “The next problem in agriculture is the lack of diversity, its effect on different species. It’s going to be a big issue.”