He spent this past Christmas on the family farm in Monticello, a 3,000-acre operation that is Maine’s biggest seed potato farm, then dodged the storm right before New Year’s and headed down to Elkton, Florida. The 1,550-mile commute is a breeze, he says, starting with a flight to Jacksonsville out of Bangor and ending with an Uber ride to his beach house. “Within five hours I’m on the farm and in a tractor,” Corey said.

The Elkton farm was hardly an impulse buy. Corey had been selling seed potatoes to the former owner for years, so he knew the land and location. He had also picked up some advice from a hardcore snowbird, Lance Smith, a friend from The County whose family-run farm based in Presque Isle is the largest broccoli producer east of the Mississippi. Smith has been growing broccoli in Florida since 2000 and now spends only summers in Maine. But whenever they can, the two men go salmon fishing and the subject of farming in both the East Coast’s southernmost and northernmost states came up over reel and rod.

“I told him, ‘You’ve got to have an appetite for some risk,’” Smith said in a telephone interview from St. Augustine in northeast Florida, where Smith’s Farms Inc.’s Southeastern operation is located. “Because things can go wrong here. It can be cold and rain 4 or 5 inches in a day and then the next, turn 85 degrees and those potatoes are going to cook.”

There’s a lot more to manage in Florida, Corey concedes. He’s already learned that from one growing season. “We irrigate from the bottom up because we are at zero elevation.” It can be “very, very dry” or the exact opposite, and he’s got to pick a summer crop that can hack the Florida heat (sorghum or an early cabbage, he’s thinking). But the challenges posed by somewhere so different from Aroostook County was part of the attraction.

“This farm is running really good,” he said, referring to Daniel Corey Farms in Monticello. So much so that, “I’m kind of getting bored with it.”

Florida ought to shake him out of any doldrums. As Smith says, “He will get a lesson or two if he stays with it.”

IS IT A TREND?

The United States Department of Agriculture does not track multi-state farming operations, so it’s hard to know if this a trend. But Maine’s Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb, says it’s unlikely. “I don’t see it as a particularly common business model,” he said. “I think it is going to be limited.”

It’s not that Maine farmers don’t run operations elsewhere, Whitcomb said, but more typically it’s less about seeking a warmer climate elsewhere and more of a space issue. Some of the bigger wild blueberry farmers, for instance, have operations both on barrens Down East and in places like Prince Edward Island. That’s about the right climate for growing a very specialized crop (one which is native to these places but cultivated) that all comes in at once and requires rapid processing. There are also Maine farmers who spread their operations over a fairly wide geographic range in Maine itself, piecing together a farm that’s impressive on paper, acreage-wise, but is represented by scattered fields, like a crazy quilt that has been blown apart.

But Whitcomb is impressed with those engaged in the snowbird lifestyle, in large part because of what it represents in terms of their commitment to the future of farming.

“To me, the exciting part is that they are willing to go to that length to help secure their place in the industry for the next generation,” Whitcomb said.

In the Smith family’s case, expanding into Florida in 1999 was a means of holding onto its wholesale customers by providing more product consistency. The family had been farming in the Mars Hill area since 1861, but only began seriously growing broccoli in 1984. Aroostook County has the perfect climate for it. They load 20 tractor trailers full of broccoli every day during the summer harvest. As they expanded and grew their wholesale base in supermarkets throughout the East, they found that vendors in the Southeast tended to forget them from season to season.

After just one growing season Dan Corey has already learned that farming in Florida is quite different than farming in Aroostook County.

After just one growing season Dan Corey has already learned that farming in Florida is quite different than farming in Aroostook County. Photo courtesy of Dan Corey

“Every year when we were starting in Maine, it felt like we were fighting to get the Southeast market back,” Smith said.

The family had a deep history with selling potato seed in Florida, dating back to Smith’s grandfather. “We knew growers and we knew where to partner,” Smith said. It also had some hugely expensive cooling equipment – a crop of broccoli has to go right on ice when it’s cut or it quickly yellows and loses its shelf appeal, Smith says – that sat idle in Maine after the last broccoli harvest at the end of October.

Then they bought land of their own to farm in Florida, and the million-dollar icing machine began making the commute as well, Smith said.

“It’s already mounted onto a 45-foot trailer,” he said. “So we just hook onto it with a tractor,” and off it goes to Florida and vice versa. Even some of the migrant workers the Smiths employ in Aroostook County make the commute, about 80 of the 250-member crew.

The expansion into Florida (and later, to land in Santa Maria, California, which fills in the harvest gap in Maine and Florida from April through June) has allowed the Smith family to win the loyalty of those formerly fickle Southeastern customers. They sell to Market Basket, Wegmans and Winn-Dixie 12 months a year. “It’s worked for us.”

LEGACY FARMING

But it’s not just about markets; it’s about growing a farm, and a brand, for their descendants. “If I didn’t have the kids, I think my cousin Greg and I would have sold this company,” Smith said. Likely to one of America’s bigger food companies. “I would have put on a ‘Dole’ hat by now.”

Lance Smith has three children, two of whom work for Smith’s Farms Inc.. Tara Smith Vighetti, 41, has an MBA from Northeastern and worked for Ernst & Young until her father “reeled her” into the family business. She runs the sales company, while up in Maine, Emily, 39, runs the 4,000-acre Aroostook County operation (acreage-wise, it’s about four times the size of the Florida farm).

“They are as different as night and day,” Smith said fondly. “Emily is all boots and jeans, Tara is all handbag and shoes. I call them Ann Taylor and L.L. Bean.”

They’re both so good at what they do that he can “disappear” to go fishing with Dan Corey. “I am very comfortable walking away for a few days.” He’s 65 and happy to be slowing down. “I don’t have to work 100 hours a week anymore.” And while he could go to the beach, he’s not so interested in putting his toes in the sand. “If I wasn’t farming down here, there isn’t too much about Florida that would thrill me too much.”

Dan Corey’s children have also made his Florida operation possible. He’s 56 and not even close to thinking about retiring. But his daughter Sara Corey, who was named the Maine Potato Board’s Young Farmer of the Year in 2013, has taken over the Monticello operation with the kind of gusto that has taken the burden off him, especially in sales. His son Ben took a business job after graduating from the University of Maine, but he, too, is preparing to come back to the farm, taking over the production side in Monticello. Corey believes the more hands-on experience his children get, while he’s hands off, the better, both for them and him.

“It’s the only way young people can figure it out,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s figuring out some new things for himself in Florida, such as what to do about tropical storms or sudden Florida freezes. “The weather is a lot more volatile.” On the other hand, he sells table stock (the kind of potatoes you buy at the supermarket) nearly as fast as it comes off the field, and he doesn’t have to worry about storage. “It’s got some benefit.”

Including those hours on the beach for his wife. But what about the commute, how does Corey manage the expense of that? He says he typically gets a $200 flight from Bangor, and that those Uber rides from airport to the field are about $50.

“They make it sound easy,” Whitcomb said. “But it is quite a commute.”

And a feat to successfully manage crops in two very different places.

“You’ve got to look out for moose damage in one place and flooding in another,” Whitcomb said.

True, Lance Smith said. “The growing risk in Florida is horrendous.”

But, he added, “farmers love risk.”

And green things pushing out of the earth.