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‘The small farms  are disappearing’

Census data show long-running consolidation trend in New York state

Saturday, March 1, 2014
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Art Graulich stands beside some of his cows at his Argus Acres farm in Carlisle last week.
Art Graulich stands beside some of his cows at his Argus Acres farm in Carlisle last week.

— Art Graulich used to count farms on the drive from his 20-cow dairy operation in Carlisle to the cooperative milk station in Cobleskill.

He started making that run 65 years ago. There were 26 farms then on the 10-mile route.

Now there are just two, working all that same farmland.

“The small farms are disappearing,” Graulich said.

His pronouncement is born out in national statistics decade after decade — big farms getting bigger and small ones going away. It was reinforced in the most recent farm census data released in February by the United States Department of Agriculture.

According to the figures, New York state lost more than 800 farms from 2007 to 2012, while gaining nearly 9,000 acres in farmed land.

Those figures were no surprise to Graulich.

He started Argus Acres, his Carlisle farm, with just 200 acres and 20 cows. Corn and hay from the land fed the cows. The cows produced milk. Graulich sold the milk.

He still works on the same basic business model, only now he owns 1,700 acres scattered over three towns and two counties, and milks 400 cows.

“I just bought another 450-acre farm this December,” he said. “The owners were in the nursing home. They had no one else to take it over.”

The USDA census data appears as just another installment in a long-running farm consolidation trend — a version of Graulich’s area played out on a statewide scale.

According to Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman, the numbers are actually a bit more complicated.

“We bucked the trend in several ways,” he said.

The state still contains 35,538 farms. The 800 lost farms represent only a 2 percent decrease — which Ammerman said is significantly less than most other states. Minnesota and Iowa, two Midwestern powerhouses of agriculture, lost 8 percent and 4.5 percent of their farms, respectively, over the same period. Nationwide, farmed acres also decreased, while New York slightly increased its farmed acreage.

“We don’t like losing any farms,” Ammerman said, “but looking at the rest of the country, it could have been a lot worse.”

The most recent numbers are fairly basic. They don’t include what types of farms prospered or what crops failed, but Ammerman had some ideas.

“I think a fair number of the farms we lost were dairy farms,” he said, adding, “2009 was a bad year for dairy.”

Graulich remembers 2009 as the year he had to log one of his wood lots to stay afloat. He said feed prices shot up at the same time milk prices dropped.

Things have recovered since. In fact, local growth of Chobani and Fage greek yogurt facilities gave the dairy industry a boost. New York recently reclaimed the title of third-largest dairy producing state in the country, but Ammerman expects the hard year took out a few dairy operations.

“That doesn’t mean we actually lost any product,” he said. “Neighbors often buy out failing farms.”

What the hard year didn’t take was likely dissolved or sold out through what USDA Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Jim Barber called “natural attrition.”

“Farmers get old,” he said, “and maybe there’s no one to take over.”

That attrition took its toll in many other states, even diminishing the amount of land being farmed nationwide by nearly 100,000 acres. Barber said New York stalled the slide from farm to nursing home with new startups.

“In the last 10 years,” he said, “9,000 new farms started.”

Not all those farms are strictly new. Some are just the children of farmers taking over from the old guard. But Barber said thousands are the work of fresh-faced hopefuls. A lot of them, Barber said, are planting their farms upstate.

“You need three things to start a farm,” he said. “You need land, market and access to capital.”

The market, he said, is well established in the upstate area. In addition to being a USDA official, Barber also runs a 180-acre vegetable farm in Middleburgh. He and his family have always sold produce from roadside stands, but since the 1990s, he said, more and more farmers markets are popping up in the area.

“The growth has been astonishing,” he said. “People want to know where their food comes from. They want to know who grew it.”

Upstate farmers markets are a venue for local fruits and vegetables, which require a lot less land than grain crops. Wheat, corn and even cattle farms cover thousand-acre fields in Western and Midwestern states.

Shelling out like Graulich for 450 acres can be prohibitively expensive for new farmers. Market-friendly crops, managed well, can generate good income off of five or 10 acres, Barber said. That makes upstate farming more attainable.

Barber told of one couple who started growing vegetables on a rooftop in New York City, expanding into some rented land in the Hudson Valley as their client base grew.

“They just bought 40 acres,” he said.

As for the capital, Barber said the USDA has a slew of low-interest loan possibilities available, including a $35,000 maximum micro-loan designed to simplify the farm startup process for extreme beginners.

According to Ammerman, a handful of new programs laid out in the recently passed farm bill will help further stall the loss of farms. Crop insurance is expanded for new farmers and there’s additional money set aside to help organic growers through the lengthy and expensive certification process.

“We have more small farms in this state,” Ammerman said, “and the bill is very good for small farms.”

He and Barber both hope the legislation will reverse the trend toward farm consolidation, bringing new farmers into the industry faster than the old ones leave.

In his Carlisle farmhouse, Graulich has hedged his bets against natural attrition. These days, his son runs most business around the farm.

“And he has children waiting to take over,” he said.

 
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