When Christian Yunker left his family’s farm to study finance and economics at Cornell University, he didn’t know if he would ever return. While his parents never pushed careers in agriculture on their children, Christian’s passion for farming drew him back home after six years working in the banking industry. “As part of the next generation, I take a lot of pride in the farm my family has built over three generations. For me, farming is much more than just a job. It’s a way of life.”
He believes that young farmers have a responsibility to reconnect people to their food. “I’m not just talking about things like the upswing in farmers markets, eating local or the farm-to-table movement. These are all good things, and to some extent, they’ve helped create a need for that connection point. But a lot of farmers and farm families aren’t part of these trends, and I think that’s where young farmers can fill the void. We bring a new way of thinking and a belief in technology to our family farms. And like the generations before us, we have a passion for producing sustainable, safe and nutritious food.”
“…I think that’s where young farmers can fill the void. We bring a new way of thinking and a belief in technology to our family farms.”
Located in Elba, New York, CY Farms employs around 45 people and covers three counties and 6,000 acres The operation grows fresh and processing vegetables, row crops and turf grass in addition to raising dairy replacement heifers. “What I enjoy most about our farming operation is the diversity,” says Christian. “Each day and each season, we are performing such a wide array of strategies and tasks.”
His number one challenge is labor availability and cost. “We are always concerned about finding enough people to work in this industry, and the cost of labor continues to escalate. We are competing for labor with industries that have the ability to set their own price or are union type jobs. Additionally, New York State continues to put pressure on our labor cost through forced overtime pay, workman’s comp insurance, unemployment and health insurance.”
That’s where the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association (NYCGSA) comes in. “It’s a critical organization that serves as the voice for our industry,” he says. “We don’t all have time to spend in Albany or Washington DC to advocate on our behalf. We know someone is there in our best interest all the time. They are also a great source as research administrators and advocates always trying to better our industry for our growers in New York.”
His crop production manager, Emmaline Long, is on the board of NYCGSA and agrees with Christian’s assessment. “I have been really impressed with the board’s willingness to think outside the box, especially in promoting products grown in our region.” She cites a program last spring where NYCGSA distributed snack packs to the New York City Fire Department, which is one of the largest municipalities in the country to use biodiesel made from soybeans. “We thought it would be a great connection to educate and support them while they were working super long hours during the pandemic.”
At the outset of COVID-19, NYCSGA delivered snack packs full of New York State food to NYFD.
Like Christian, the diversity of CY Farms makes Emmaline love her job. The 30-year-old, who spent her teenage years showing sheep in 4-H, devotes her days to assessing10 different crops in 300 fields across three counties and developing crop rotation and integrated pest management plans. She came to the farm in 2014 with a bachelor’s in agricultural sciences and master’s in animal sciences from Cornell University and approached CY Farms because she wanted to work for a well-known and diverse operation.
“I love the problem solving aspect of my job. It’s like a giant puzzle that’s fun to put together,” she explains. “All parts of the farm complement each other in some way. For example, we use the manure from the heifer farm and crop residue to replenish the soil. I also love figuring out what to do if a field isn’t performing to its highest standard. Is it the soil? Is it a corn variety that doesn’t fit with that soil? Every single day is different, and it keeps me on my toes.”
Christian believes the relationship between a farm owner and its management staff is what makes a farm run on all cylinders. “The farm owner’s responsibility is to empower that manager to make critical decisions and take ownership for actions and decisions. Ideas are generated with fantastic results that an owner would not think of, as well as making mistakes. These experiences are incredibly powerful and ultimately lead to a more successful relationship and a better run farm.”
Emmaline concurs and adds that communication is also vitally important. “Trying to balance all the moving parts and make the puzzle fit together is a challenge. With almost 50 employees, it’s vial to make sure that everyone is communicating and on the same page all of the time.”
An endurance athlete who runs marathons and triathlons, she also stresses that success is about constantly learning. “Being on the NYCGSA board and working at CY Farms have been really great learning experiences. As a board member, I’ve not only been able to interact with farmers in the corn and soy industries, but with people in finance, insurance and trading. On the farm, I’ve learned the weeds, soil fertility, diseases and insects for 10 different crops.”
So what does the future hold for Christian Yunker and CY Farms? Quite simply, growing at a sustainable pace and being known as a progressive operation that is also an employer of choice in his area.
“I’ve seen the many changes our farm has gone through over the years, and it is exciting to think about what the future will bring. We will always look to try new ventures and look for opportunities. I don’t think I can guess what our operation will look like 10-20 years from now and that is what is exciting. I doubt my grandfather or father thought the farm would look the way it does now!” he concludes.