Back in May, when most things were shut down, Mike Vecchio was finishing his associate’s degree in engineering at SUNY Cobleskill, working a bunch of day jobs and planting fifty acres of corn and soybeans with his own farming equipment. He’s only twenty years old.
“I enjoy seeing the seeds come up and grow into a ten-foot stalk,” he said as he pulled his pick-up off the side of Eureka Road and jumped out to show me his cornfield. The stalks were already taller than him, and that was two weeks ago. It was only a year ago that he struck out on his own. That field was where it began.
“Last winter, I scouted for property,” he said. “I bought the tractor, planter, plows, utility equipment in January.”
Back then, he was studying at college five days a week. Well, actually four-and-a-half days a week.
“Every single Friday afternoon, he’d drive home and work straight through until Sunday and drive back,” his mom, Terri, told me.
He did that week after week except for one weekend when “we insisted he stay at college and study for mid-terms!”
By May, he graduated from college, got out in the field, and planted all day from morning until about three o’clock the next morning. He had to beat the rain. All fifty acres were planted in only two days.
“I could have done it in one day,” he told me later via Facebook Messenger. “But with all the fields being so spread out, it was tough.”
It’s a good thing he got the plants in when he did.
“The drought [earlier this season] hurt a lot of people and stressed the crops,” Mike said. “But people who planted early were okay because the plants had an established root system.
Farming is one of the toughest jobs out there. There is a lot that can go wrong. It requires an incredible work ethic and tremendous planning and foresight. Even when you do everything right, things can go wrong. He told me farmers could buy crop insurance, but he doesn’t because it would “just be another bill.”
So he has to make careful decisions. The field on Eureka Road is fertile, and it holds moisture. Still, this is an industry impacted by COVID-19. Ethanol plants have closed down, which has driven down the price of corn. So Mike is diversifying. We got back in the pick-up, and he drove around the corner to a field on Lowell Road, where he is growing soybeans.
On the way over, I asked him how he got into the business. His late grandfather was a farmer in Canastota, so it’s in the blood, but he got his first real experience working on farms in town.
“I love being outside,” he said. “I worked on the Pick’s farm, and I thought to myself, ‘this is something I could do.’”
“Working with Mike was always a pleasure,” Mike Pick said. “He would always be the first person to get at the farm and would be the last to leave!”
The Pick farm began in Westmoreland in 1919. It covers almost 500 acres. Mike (Pick) said that growing up on a farm was a blessing and that “the pros of working on a dairy farm are learning the worth of a dollar at a young age.”
For Mike (Vecchio), that is a constant consideration. Diesel fuel for his tractor would be $200 if he filled the whole tank, and that’s with the price at a low. It can cost over $500 to plant a single corn crop. Soybeans are cheaper, and the price is better, so proud as he is of the tall cornstalks, he is diversifying.
His friend, Mike Pick, told me he “decided to part ways in the farming industry due to the lack of appreciation and roller coaster effect on milk prices.”
A lot of other farmers have too. I asked Mike Vecchio if any of his classmates at Cobleskill have gone into farming as he has.
“Not really,” he said.
Only those with established family farms are going into the business.
“It’s not lucrative enough,” he explained. “It’s just hard.”
On the way over to his soybean field, he pointed out to a field that was cleared but not being farmed.
“See that ‘for sale’ sign?” he pointed. “Somebody’s going to build a house there. More and more land is going out of production. To find good land, you’re up against people who can afford to buy it for five or six thousand dollars an acre. So when I go to buy it…”
He told me it was going to be “tough” to find land of his own. Right now, he’s focused on finding new land to rent. One of the reasons he asked me to write this is in the hopes readers with land would get in touch about renting to him. He said that he could be reached through Facebook, you can also email me (the link is above) and I will forward inquiries to him.
We got out of the pick-up and set off into the soybean field. Mike showed me the parts of the soybean plants. I asked him who else I should talk to for the column. He said he didn’t have many friends.
“You do, though,” I laughed. “Everyone who drove by honked their horn at you when they saw your truck.”
That’s how I got in touch with Mike Pick.
“He was always willing to learn and wanted to involve himself,” Pick told me. “Whether it was milking, planting, harvesting, or learning how to work on machinery. Mike will always further his knowledge in the world of farming through his personable and easy-going personality.”
A farmer has to be a salesman too. Deals have to be struck before the planting even takes place with grain traders before the first seed is even planted. The market fluctuates. It’s a negotiation with high stakes.
“We were obviously apprehensive,” his mother told me by phone. “We encouraged him to go to college [he did that]. We helped him with his education, but the rest is all him. For some of those farm jobs he was there at quarter-to-four in the morning Saturday and Sunday. What kind of kid does that?”
“He has a very strong work ethic,” his father, also named Mike, told me. “We tell him there will be a lot of struggles, but you have to keep plugging away at it.”
Mike’s father grew up on the family farm in Canastota. It was a lot of hard work. He described to me how he and his siblings were out in the fields weeding onions in cold weather and in weather so hot and humid he could see the steam rise off the ground.
“The rows and rows of onions were so long,” he said.
Once lightning struck the barn and burned it to the ground. They were a second-generation Sicilian family. His father, Paul Vecchio [Mike’s grandfather], came over from Sicily after his aunt had flown over with a woman she thought might be marriage material. They hit it off and decided to marry after five weeks. The marriage lasted more than 50 years.
Standing in the soybean field, I asked Mike what his grandfather would think.
“He would be proud as hell,” Mike said, smiling.
He’s right. His parents are incredibly proud, too. So are his friends. They should be.
“The corn is over his head, and the soybeans are up to his waist!” his mother told me. “I don’t know anyone who works harder than him. He gets out of work [at his construction job] at 3:30, and we don’t see him. He’s out there on his tractor.”
The amount of work Mike is taking on to be part of this country’s food chain is heroic. It’s doubly impressive considering how young he is. I told him I hoped people reading this would share it with their children. He is a great role model.
Plus, as the grandson of Westmoreland dairy farmers (the Spavens), and Peckville strawberry farmers (the Sawners), and someone who’s first job was throwing hay on Dave Fedor’s farm, I like seeing fields of corn and soybeans.
“He’s a hometown boy,” his mother agreed.
I knew what he meant when he said, “It’s always been a part of me.”
“What are your plans for the future?” I asked.
“I’m planning on being big enough someday that I don’t have to work a day job,” he replied confidently.
I believe he’ll do it.
I have video clips of Mike Vecchio talking about his corn and soybean crop at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein