Photo by Candace diCarlo
It may be hard to imagine Penn set in the countryside among barnyards and farmhouses. But for James Riggins, farm crop manager of the New Bolton Center in Chester County, Penn isnt just about the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia. The Penn he sees, and has seen everyday for the past three decades, includes fields of corn, grazing cows and acres upon acres of pasture.
With just a team of seven, Riggins oversees the 600 acres of land which
belong to Penns School of Veterinary Medicine. From mowing the lawns,
maintaining the fences, to growing the feed for the centers animals,
Riggins does it all. Still not impressed? Well, just imagine a 1,500-pound
cow that eats 70 pounds of feed a day. Now multiply that by 170 cows and
you finally grasp the cale of Riggins responsibilities.
During a recent tour of the center, Riggins talked about corn, alfalfa, hay, and what it takes to feed a small army of cows.
Q. How did you become interested in farming?
A. My father was a farmer all his life, and I guess I more or less backed into it and stayed the same way. I got out of school and went straight into it, and Ive been here for 29 years now. My family has been here all their lives.
Q. What are the advantages of growing your own crop?
A. You get a better crop. You get better proteins. You get to do yours how you want it.
Q. Is there a big difference out there in terms of crop quality?
A. Yes, a big difference. If you get a custom cropper to come in, he might not be able to come in that day and it [the crop] gets too dry. It can make a big difference. So [much of the] research that they are running, they want the material to be just the way they want it. We work with the doctors real close to determine the nutritional value.
Q. Describe a typical day.
A. Youre almost not doing the same thing everyday. Youre gonna be at some different part of the farm each day. I like to do the hands-on. I dont want to be sitting at a desk eight hours a day. Thats not me. Maybe two hours of the day Im in there, but the other six Im out there, getting parts [for the machines] or doing the plowing. There are times when you start at 5 in the morning and dont finish until 8 [in the evening].
Q. Weather obviously plays a part but exactly how big? How do you
compensate for a bad year?
A. You just hope that you get a better year. For example, these last few months weve been only getting half a crop of hay than what we normally get because of no rain. But now weve been getting more rain, which is helping the corn develop the ears and everything, but its still not the best crop we can have. A lot of times you just try to plant more. Sometimes you have an excess and sometimes you dont have enough. Well, you cant fool Mother Nature thats the one thing that you pick up.
Q. Whats a misconception that people have of farmers and the
work that you do?
A. Youll have people that come in from the city and they constantly complain about the odor. Thats the only thing that burns me. Ive been around it for so long that the odor probably doesnt bother me. But I tell you there are some mornings that I come in here and theres a mushroom complex thats near here and let me tell you it smells twice as bad. And we get blamed for it sometimes.
Q. What are some of the highlights [since youve been here]?
A. Its unbelievable what theyve been doing here. When I first came 29 years ago, I was asked to stay as part time just because they needed an extra hand for a while, and we were mowing with 30-inch mowers and now were mowing with 11-foot mowers. Its just unbelievable the time and expenses that you can save. Its just getting bigger and bigger.
Q. Is there any one tried-and-true method that works regardless of
A. A normal plow. A normal plow is the way to go with me, where you can turn the soil over six inches and everything. Some of the new stuff they got out there, what they call chisel plows, and my father used to say this and Ill say it too, it only does only half of what you want them to do. It takes swipes, but it doesnt turn over the entire ground like what you want it to do.
Q. Can you imagine doing something other than farming?
A. I had a couple of odd-end jobs for awhile. But I like the farming. It feels like you get a lot accomplished [and] for the good. When you can feed a cow and end up getting the milk and the butter, you feel as though youve done something.
Originally published on September 13, 2001