Six Questions for a Successful Farmer
Despite graduating with a double major in elementary education and English literature, Megan Minchak Bowdish ’88 stumbled onto a completely different career path. After meeting Ray Bowdish ’87 as an undergraduate, she got married and ended up leaving teaching behind. She and her husband started operating Never Tire Farm with his parents in 1992. In 1997, the couple bought the farm outright and then in 2006, when Ray started working in the Department of Biology at SUNY Potsdam, Megan started running the farm on her own. With eight greenhouses and between 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of growing space, Megan now serves more than a dozen businesses throughout the North Country. She has also partnered with SUNY Potsdam over the years, offering 29 internships to biology students looking for some hands-on learning opportunities since 1997.
Can you discuss the work you do on Never Tire Farm? We grow spring bedding plants, and we are a wholesale provider to local retailers in the North Country. We do hanging baskets, geraniums, flats of flowers, vegetable starts and perennials. It’s busy! I work seven days a week from the beginning of February to the second week of June. The growing season wraps up in October and then there’s the planning and the ordering for the following year. We’re the only wholesale supplier in Northern New York. We do about 3,000 hanging baskets, 6,600 flats, and 20,000 pots of different sizes. So, we’re planting and growing in February, March and April and then all that product goes out in one month. I would say that flowers are about 90 percent of what we sell.
We really strive to use natural ventilation. We try to mimic a little bit of what’s outside, so we always open large vent doors and roll up the sides of the greenhouse to let the air blow over the plants, more so than just having exhaust fans. The more you can toughen up your plants, or have air blow over them, the stockier your plants will be. We don’t have to use growth regulators to keep our plants tough. We like to grow cool and dry—It cuts down on the pests, fungus and other diseases.
What are some of the greatest challenges about running a farm and a greenhouse? Fortunately, I’ve been lucky with help, with workers, which is usually the biggest challenge, especially in a seasonal business. The other challenge is that Northern New York has a small population, so your market is smaller, which works fine for us because we’re not that large. The weather is always a factor, there’s a lot of stress and worry with, what I say, ‘growing in a plastic bubble’ in Northern New York winters—you have extreme cold as you’re moving live plants around.
Can you talk about the transition from majoring in education to your profession in the field of agriculture? Having the liberal arts background gives you the confidence to try different avenues, and you don’t have to feel like you’re locked into one career path at SUNY Potsdam. Even though I did major in education, I explored so much while taking different classes during my four years on campus. There was a learning curve as I got into farming, because I never had a houseplant and we didn’t have a garden when I was growing up. So, I learned it from my in-laws and from Ray and just from experience. Luckily, it was a second-generation farm for us, so there was a lot of knowledge to glean.
It’s interesting to think one way when you’re 18, 19, or 20 years old and you’re pretty sure about your goals for life, and then realize, ‘oh, that might not have been my best decision.’ I didn’t enjoy teaching as much as I thought I was going to. I was probably immature at the time. There’s a lot with classroom management. I laugh and I say, ‘Plants sit down when you tell them to sit down and they don’t move—there’s no talking back to me.’ But I do miss the interaction with learning and being out in public and having colleagues, so that was a tough thing. But, I think it’s important to just to let life take you, and say yes to opportunities and be all right with your decisions, even though you didn’t think that’s how you envisioned yourself in years to come.
Can you talk about the work that you’ve done with SUNY Potsdam interns over the years? We’ve hosted SUNY Potsdam interns and I think our first one was in 1997. Our first intern, Todd Lighthouse, now has his own greenhouse operation in Honeoye Falls, N.Y. He does succulents, his own herbs and he’s involved with community supported agriculture. We always tell him that the student surpassed the teacher. We probably hosted interns every year for about seven or eight years. It’s been nice to be able to provide a close enough place to work so they can live on campus, still, take their other classes and come out and get a little experience.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about farming? I think people romanticize it on the outside. No matter what farming it is, it’s all hard work and 100 percent effort—not that other jobs are not, but if you don’t water a plant, it’s not going to survive. The consequences are faster coming along in farming than maybe in some other careers.
What you do like about running a farm? One, it keeps you physically active. Two, we always joke that you work for the worst boss: yourself. And you’re in charge of your own fate. You have to be diligent and cross your Ts and dot your Is and if you fail, it’s all on you. To succeed is the same way. So, we’ve enjoyed that. We donate plants to the St. Lawrence County Jail, they have a program there for guys to take a gardening class. We try to give a little back, which we enjoy. We also host tours for garden clubs.
I enjoy the seasons and I enjoy watching the plants grow. It is nice to walk into a greenhouse at the end of the day and see what you did for the day. There is tangible evidence right there. It’s also neat when you give a tour and people come in when the flowers are blooming. It smells good and it’s warm inside the greenhouse even when it’s cold outside.
Based on an interview with Jason Hunter