“When you can feed a cow and end up getting the milk and the butter, you feel as though you’ve done something.”



Farm crop manager, New Bolton Center

Length of service:
29 years total, two as farm crop managers

Other stuff:
The 48-year-old farmer ejoys surf fishing in his spare time.

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 isn’t 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 Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. From mowing the lawns, maintaining the fences, to growing the feed for the center’s 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?
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 I’ve been here for 29 years now. My family has been here all their lives.

Q. What are the advantages of growing your own crop?
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?
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.
You’re almost not doing the same thing everyday. You’re gonna be at some different part of the farm each day. I like to do the hands-on. I don’t want to be sitting at a desk eight hours a day. That’s not me. Maybe two hours of the day I’m in there, but the other six I’m out there, getting parts [for the machines] or doing the plowing. There are times when you start at 5 in the morning and don’t finish until 8 [in the evening].

Q. Weather obviously plays a part but exactly how big? How do you compensate for a bad year?
You just hope that you get a better year. For example, these last few months we’ve been only getting half a crop of hay than what we normally get because of no rain. But now we’ve been getting more rain, which is helping the corn develop the ears and everything, but it’s 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 don’t have enough. Well, you can’t fool Mother Nature — that’s the one thing that you pick up.

Q. What’s a misconception that people have of farmers and the work that you do?
You’ll have people that come in from the city and they constantly complain about the odor. That’s the only thing that burns me. I’ve been around it for so long that the odor probably doesn’t bother me. But I tell you there are some mornings that I come in here and there’s a mushroom complex that’s 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 you’ve been here]?
It’s unbelievable what they’ve 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 we’re mowing with 11-foot mowers. It’s just unbelievable the time and expenses that you can save. It’s just getting bigger and bigger.

Q. Is there any one tried-and-true method that works regardless of what’s new?
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 I’ll say it too, … it only does only half of what you want them to do. It takes swipes, but it doesn’t turn over the entire ground like what you want it to do.

Q. Can you imagine doing something other than farming?
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 you’ve done something.

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Originally published on September 13, 2001