Co-owner, Tulmeadow Farm, West Simsbury
Highest education: Bachelor's degree in animal science, UConn, 1977.
Executive insights: "What I tell all the staff that works here is that we make really good ice cream, good sweet corn and all that, but the product is only half of the retail experience and the other half is the way that you treat our customers."
Don Tuller, like the six generations before him, has had to adapt and be resilient farming the 265 acres in West Simsbury that comprise Tulmeadow Farm.
The Tuller family has farmed the land for 249 years, since 1768. Tuller, 61, co-owns the farm with his cousin, Buzz Tuller, 76, and has spent all but four years of his life, when he attended UConn, living on the property.
He travels the country, though, as the first Connecticut Farm Bureau president in at least 18 years elected to represent 12 Northeast states on the American Farm Bureau Federation board of directors for the next two years. He's been state president since 2008 and is a member of the Hartford County Farm Bureau.
The farm — which includes vegetables, hay, 73 acres of managed timber, beef cattle and a Community Supported Agriculture program — also is known for its 54 flavors of ice cream. The top flavor: red raspberry with chocolate chips. Ice cream, sold from the farm store and some local markets, is the biggest retail seller.
Tulmeadow was principally a dairy farm for years, including what Tuller referred to as "the last golden age of dairy" in the 1970s, when milk prices were favorable to production costs. But milk prices flattened in the early 1980s, grain was hard to acquire and farm revenues flattened, so the Tullers tried direct marketing, growing vegetables and selling them and other goods directly to consumers.
Later, with milk prices and revenues still flat, the cousins sought to make the farm more of a destination.
They considered bottling milk, which the farm sold to Guida's Dairy in New Britain, or making yogurt, cheese or ice cream. They chose ice cream, starting in 1994 using a milk/cream mixture from Guida's still used today.
"[Ice cream is] a happy product, you just keep it cold, if somebody doesn't come, you sell it to them the next day or the next week," Tuller said. The farm makes 600 gallons a week during summer.
The farm's sweet corn is its most popular vegetable and its two greenhouses are already growing tomatoes and other veggies like lettuce, kale and peppers.
The farm once grew tobacco, raised chickens, harvested eggs and had fruit trees. The farm sold the dairy cows in 2003 and transitioned to grass-fed beef.
Developing the ice cream business is among highpoints for Tuller.
Another occurred about 1985 when the farm got the OK to temporarily move topsoil off some of its hilly farmland, mine the sand and gravel below for a few years, and return the topsoil for farming.
Gravel sales helped to recapitalize the farm, he said.
Another highpoint was completing the sale of farm development rights to the Simsbury Land Trust in 2011.
"That was not a small thing to pull that off," Tuller said, noting it took 8½ years to complete.
In his national farm board role, Tuller said he represents the voice of the small farmer selling directly to consumers.
The top issue facing farmers nationally and in Connecticut is labor, not enough people willing to harvest crops, he said.
"What we're trying for nationally … is what we call a workable guest-worker program," Tuller said, lamenting an H-2A program mired in problems. "There's a lot of people who want to come work legally and go home."
While farm numbers are increasing in Connecticut, farms are small and the state farm bureau is challenged to connect with small farmers and grow membership, he said.
"We'd like [farms'] membership, we'd like their financial support because the reason they can do what they do is, in part, because of the work that we do in the Capitol and nationally through the American Farm Bureau," Tuller said.
Buzz runs the farm when Don's away and the two have a good working relationship.
Don is "just a nice person to work with," Buzz said. "We don't always agree on everything."
But they don't fight, Don said.
Don Tuller and his wife Carol have a daughter in college.