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New York farmHer Megan Burley turns produce dreams into a lifelong career

Sophia Vander Dussen for Progressive Dairy Published on 10 August 2021

Megan Burley grew up on her family’s farm in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, where they grew about 160 acres of fresh market produce for Seigworth Farm Market. As a senior in high school, she was managing some of the buying and selling of the product, as well as helping to manage staff and employees. She was set on one day partnering with her family, but little did she know this was not the plan in store for her.

While studying agronomy and horticulture at Penn State, Megan met her future husband, Ryan Burley, and was introduced to a whole new world – dairy farming. Ryan worked on his family's dairy, East Hill Farms, which was established in 1981 by his parents Gary and Betty Burley in the small town of Warsaw, New York. The Burleys began with only 18 cows and made it their goal to increase their herd size. So, in 1991, they built a flat barn parlor, allowing them to increase their herd size to about 200. However, in 1996, they wanted to reduce inputs and simplify their dairy operation.

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Megan says, “The confinement dairy operation was working but wasn’t as profitable as it could be.” So, after extensive research and frequent trips to look at dairy farms in New Zealand, the Burley family decided to build a double-14 parlor while still milking about 200 cows and slowly transition into a grazing farm. A livestock auction was held in 1998 to sell animals not within the freshening window for the seasonal dairy farm. In 2000, the farm held an auction to sell equipment to help with the purchase of more land for grazing, allowing the farm to transition completely into a seasonal grazing dairy farm. At this point, they were milking about 300 cows. Megan says, “In a grazing dairy, this is a significant amount, but given the ability to purchase properties near where the original farm was gave them the opportunity to increase their herd size.” In 1999, East Hill Farms became one of the first farms in the U.S. to build a complete Dairymaster swing-40 parlor.

There was one major challenge they faced when transitioning to a grazing dairy farm. Because their operation was a paddock grazing system, every day the cows had to cross the state road in order to get to other pastures. So in 2001, the Burleys closed the state road for two weeks to build an underpass for the cows. This underpass not only benefited their neighbors, but it put them on the map. Megan says, “East Hill farm is often referred to as the ‘dairy farm where the cows go under the road.’”

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In 2013, Megan and Ryan got married. Megan was working off the farm and had a part-time job at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Erie County as a farm business management educator. During this time, she also started her business, Burley Berries.

Megan says, “I love growing produce, especially fruit, and it's always been a dream of mine.” The first year of their marriage, she began drawing up plans and eventually planted a half-acre of strawberries. “We started Burley Berries because there was no real opportunity for me to work at East Hill Farms, and Ryan and I wanted to work together, and I just love growing things. So, this was just something that I felt in my heart that I needed to do,” Megan says.

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Things were set to take flight. However, 2015 turned out to be a very busy year. Ryan and Megan were blessed with two babies, Jud and Leena, who were only 11 months apart. On top of that, Gary and Betty, owners of East Hill Farms, opened their raw-milk cheese factory, East Hill Creamery, and were in the process of slowly transitioning the ownership of East Hill Farms to their children. Ryan’s sister Holly and brother Kyle partnered with Gary and Betty on their satellite farm, Graceland Dairies, and Ryan and his younger sister Diana became partners at East Hill Farms.

“I was working full time, Ryan’s income wasn’t able to sustain us, and we also needed to make sure that we had insurance. Extension had really good benefits, so I ended up sticking with it,” Megan says. “I helped out on the dairy farm where there needed to be extra help,” Megan explains. “I sometimes fill in for a milking. If needed, I help with some calf feeding, and I help manage the cow records.” Although she loved working an off-farm job, she says it wasn’t her passion. Eventually Ryan and Megan want to end up working together, but at this moment, working separately is not a challenge.

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In 2017, Megan and Ryan expanded the berry business and added cut-flower production. She started off with a 50X50 plot right across from her farm shed and put in about 50 varieties of flowers. Her first venture was hosting off-farm floral workshops. Megan says, “My goal was to take plants that were not very expensive, such as wheat, and figure out a way to turn it into a significant profit.”

After a couple months, Megan decided to open her field up for u-picks, where customers cut the flowers themselves. Ryan built her a 10X14 shed for hosting her workshops, and they began the zoning process. However, this part of the business certainly came with its challenges. “We had to work for eight months with our town because they wanted to zone our shed commercially, making it non-agricultural, because we were hosting workshops,” Megan says. “So, I had to prove to them that flowers and having classes related to flowers is definitely agriculture.” And, with enough persistence and the help of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Megan succeeded. She offered u-picks along with many new workshops. Because of the success of the business, they were also able to build a greenhouse, giving them the ability to grow and expand their flower production.

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Megan works hard to engage the community in agriculture. A top priority is to involve education in her business efforts. Each year, she and Ryan host a Farm to Table Dinner fundraiser with all proceeds benefiting the local FFA chapter. Megan explains, “It is important that people know where their food comes from. One of the missions for Burley Berries is to ensure we communicate this to our customers, so many of the things that we do include agritourism or are related to ag education.” For the fundraiser, a local chef cooks dinner using only local ingredients from Wyoming County. She also works with the Arts Council for Wyoming County and Shake on the Lake, a local theater company, to host a Shakespearean fall show. Connecting the arts to agriculture is a unique way to include folks in the food system using agritourism. “Agritourism is an untapped opportunity in our county. It has really impacted my business because it’s also given me a different customer base and provided me a look from a different angle,” she says.

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All was going smoothly for Burley Berries until 2020 when COVID-19 struck. Megan and Ryan have had to make many changes and decided to stop u-pick and cut back from two farmers markets to only one. Although this was a setback, a new opportunity arose, which was adding a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, where customers pay for a seasonal share of produce before the season begins). The CSA turned out to be successful and has expanded in 2021. With the extra time in 2020, Megan began making some value-added products, including cow's milk soaps, jams, jellies and candles.

Over the years, Megan's patience has been put to the test, and she has had to overcome many obstacles. One of the hardest things for her was being able to make time for every aspect of her life. She says, “I have so many hats to wear. I’m a mom, at the time an educator at CCE Erie, a wife and a business owner. Being a mom is obviously at the top of my list, but making sure I do justice to all those jobs is very important.” In spring of 2021, Megan was finally able to make her business a full-time venture.

Megan adds, “I’m not quite 30, so I’m sure there are going to be way more challenges and way more successes that lie ahead.”

One thing that she says has been extremely helpful throughout this whole process is social media. She says, “It is the best thing we’ve done for this small business.” Through Instagram, Facebook and her own website, Megan was able to increase her customer base and communicate with students at the university, breweries, the arts council and other community engagements. She and Ryan have already added an online store to create a sales expansion for Burley Berries and increased the CSA membership. They are also working on plans to open a micro-creamery to sell creamline milk and a line of coffee creamers.

At one point, Megan only viewed her life right now as a pipe dream. But, one thing happened after another, and she overcame every obstacle that was thrown her way. Now, she is living her dream and paving the way for other young women in agriculture who, just like her, hope to one day turn their dreams into reality.  end mark

Learn more about Megan and her multifaceted business.

PHOTO 1: Megan Burley is the owner of Burley Berries and Blooms in Perry, New York.

PHOTO 2: Burley has found success for her produce with a community-supported agriculture program. The Fruit and Flower Share runs for 10 weeks, from June to September. 

PHOTO 3: Megan’s family – husband, Ryan, and children, Jud and Leena – are active in her produce and flower business.

PHOTO 4: Megan helps out on Ryan’s family’s grazing farm whenever needed. 

PHOTO 5: Megan hosts floral workshops, including wreath making. Photos provided by Megan Burley.

Sophia Vander Dussen is a student at California Polytechnic State University.

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