Samulis moves into retirement
MOORESTOWN (Feb. 1, 2018) — After more than four decades helping Burlington County farmers grow better produce and prosper, Ag Extension Agent Ray Samulis has retired.
Although Samulis, 66, has departed his beloved post on a high note, he said he is looking to stay on and be available to farmer friends as a consultant.
“Two or three of my friends retired 15 and 20 years ago because they didn’t really like their jobs,” he said, “but when you like your job, it’s a hard decision to just walk away from it.”
At the New Jersey Farm Bureau dinner in mid-November, Samulis was presented an Award for Distinguished Service to New Jersey’s Ag Community.
In an interview in December, Samulis said his career as a Burlington County Agricultural extension agent began 41 years ago with a Christmas card.
“My whole career with the Ag Extension Service started with a Christmas card,” Samulis explained. At Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., one of his classmates was Abbot Lee, a prominent cranberry grower in Burlington County.
“I was working in Illinois and Abbot sent me a Christmas card; he said, ‘Hope things are going well in Illinois. By the way, our county Ag Agent is retiring.’ That one Christmas card changed my whole life. That was 41 years ago.”
Samulis was raised in Barrington, Camden County, near Cherry Hill and Voorhees. Interestingly, he was not raised on a farm or in an agricultural setting, “but early on, it was something I had great interest in, so by the time I was in 9th grade, I knew what field I wanted to get into.
“I saw and felt that farming was important and saw all the good it does for the local, general populace,” he said. He worked landscaping jobs during summers in high school, and part of his graduation requirements at college included a summer job in his field of study.
“So I worked at three different farms and as a landscaper,” he recalled. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture from Delaware Valley then went on to get his Master’s degree at Cornell University.
Samulis returned to the Garden State and was hired as instructor for two years and taught out of offices in Mount Holly.
“In just the last three or four years we’ve also been teaching a lot of classes up on campus too, so that’s something that’s relatively new,” he said, “most of the classes back then were in south Jersey and in Burlington County.”
The Burlington County Ag Extension office was located for years on High Street in Mount Holly until about a decade ago when it moved to a larger space in Moorestown.
When Samulis started working 41 years ago there were many more farms in Burlington County than there are now, but the consolidation and loss of farmland has not been as pronounced as it is in other central and northern New Jersey counties.
“I did a survey about three years ago. Out of memory I went to every single farm I ever visited and knew of and I figured out that exactly 39% of the guys I worked with then were still farming,” he said. “What really happened was there was consolidation. In terms of landmass it went from about 130,000 acres to maybe 95,000 acres of farmland. Many guys didn’t quit farming, they sold portions of their land to developers and other guys bought other farms, so the percentage was not as dramatic as the numbers made it look.”
Samulis said he’s enjoyed almost every minute of every day of his varied job as an Extension agent through the years.
“I’m probably proudest of my work with vegetable growers and cranberry growers in general. Some work I started on my own 15 years ago was the farm safety aspects of things, because, when you look at the statistics, farming is an extremely dangerous occupation,” he said. As a result, Samulis has delivered dozens of seminars and talks at all kinds of agricultural gatherings on farm safety. The Cranberry Growers Association of New Jersey even gave him an award “for being ‘an unofficial safety mentor’ for their industry.”
In the fall of 2017, Samulis was given awards for distinguished service from both the Farm Bureau and the Burlington County Board of Agriculture.
Asked about changes he’s eye-witnessed through four decades, Samulis said it’s the number of farmers who now run profitable retail operations.
“With fruits and veggies, the vast majority of the farmers were wholesalers back then. We still have a number of farmers that do that exclusively, but now, more of the farmers go to farmers’ markets and have their own road stands, and they sell to other road stands,” he said.
“Back then, it was 80 percent wholesale growers and 15 to 20 percent in retail,” Samulis explained, “now it’s more like 60 percent retail and 40 percent wholesale.”
Another big change Samulis saw was in the dairy industry. When he started there were 50 dairy farms in the county, now there is just one.
“My predecessor, when he started in the early 1950’s, just Burlington County alone had 250 dairy farms,” Samulis said. “That’s more than five times what the whole state has now.”
Samulis also recalled eight distinct drought cycles during his tenure, “and not only did we survive them, but now the farmers have good irrigation systems” to minimize the effects of the next big drought.
“Hail is another problem, and I’ve been through six or eight hail storms where the farmer growing peach trees has pruned them and kept good care of them, and then, in one 30-minute hail storm, everything is lost, not just peach orchards, but vegetable growers, too.”
Given the local food movement and related organic movements that seem to be sweeping the country, Samulis is optimistic and heartened to see younger farmers taking an active interest in being farmers. He said he’s encouraged by younger farmers doing good work and producing high yields on smaller plots of land.
“If you’re doing tailgate markets, you don’t need a 500-acre farm anymore,” he said, “you can do well on a 20-acre farm, and prior to this, if someone didn’t give you a farm, it was still very tough for younger farmers to get into farming.”
The whole trend, he added, “is something very positive and very good, that people with smaller acreage can do pretty well. It’s a different game than it used to be and you can cater to the local people and forget about competing with California.”
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925