6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — An farm-related event that attracts more than 3,000 people annually will highlight horse racing’s importance to upstate New York’s agricultural economy.
Sundae on the Farm, an open house-type activity, is designed to educate the public about agricultural life and the issues faced by today’s farmers.
Quite often it’s held at dairy farms. However, in Saratoga County, racing is a major industry so this year’s event from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 16, will be held at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, where 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide was born.
“It’s a great day for people to get out in the country and get a taste of all the agriculture that goes on here,” owner Joe McMahon said. “It’ll bring out a lot of awareness. Also, people will learn what it costs to have a place like this.”
Sundae on the Farm includes farm tours, children’s games, a farmers market, horse-drawn wagon rides, live music, agricultural exhibits and demonstrations by three area chefs using local farm products.
There’s also a spelling bee and one of the main attractions is an ice cream eating contest sponsored by Stewart’s Shops, a Saratoga Springs company whose award-winning ice cream is world famous.
Sundae on the Farm 2013 is organized by the Saratoga County Agricultural Promotion Committee and sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County, American Farmland Trust, Saratoga County Farm Bureau and the town of Saratoga with support from the Saratoga County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board.
Also, the agricultural promotion committee awards one $500 scholarship annually to a Saratoga County college junior or senior pursuing an agricultural degree and career. The award will be presented during the event.
McMahon and his wife, Anne, founded their breeding farm in 1972. When they bought it, the site had 100 acres of Christmas trees.
Today, there are almost 1,000 acres of land, both owned and rented, which the farm uses for raising thoroughbreds as well as growing most of the grain, hay and bedding that horses need.
The farm has a year-round population of about 220 horses, with 12 stallions and the rest brood mares. Additionally, about 120 foals are born there each year.
Horses from the farm have been sold to leading racing stables in England, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Mexico and India.
Thoroughbred racing has a glamorous image, but McMahon said his operation is faced with many of the same challenges as today’s dairy farms, which includes the high cost of feed, fuel, fertilizer, labor and increased competition for land.
“Profit margins are getting slimmer,” he said. “The cost of production has gone up. The selling price hasn’t. Most horse farms are owned by big, wealthy owners who aren’t bottom-line oriented. We have to be very, very cost conscious about everything we do.”
The farm raises all the hay, feed and bedding straw that it can to save money.
However, McMahon said he still spends about $10,000 per month on feed, which has gone up 40 percent the past few years.
“Labor has been scarce to get and it’s expensive,” he added. “You have to supply housing if you’re going to get and keep good people.”
McMahon’s employs 22 full-time workers and everybody there is involved with both horses and agricultural production.
The farm also has a large fleet of big, expensive equipment.
“The price of steel has gone up so that costs more and diesel prices are high, too,” McMahon said. “So we’re facing the exact same problems as dairy farms. Plus, we’re in competition with them for land all the time.”
The trend among dairy farms has been to increase herd sizes to generate more profits, which means these farms, too, need more land.
The one bright spot for equine breeding farms is that a large new casino opened at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens in October 2011, which has generated considerable revenue to New York’s racing industry. Many out-of-state stables have sent some of their top stallions and mares to be bred in New York because of the promise of increased financial rewards.
However, the political landscape surrounding New York racing seems to be in a continual state of turmoil. New York Racing Association, which runs Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct, has been without a chief executive officer for more than a year.
So the optimism McMahon should be feeling is somewhat tempered.
“People look at New York to be a leader and they don’t see it,” McMahon said. “They don’t see leadership at the racetrack.”
However, Sundae on the Farm is a fun, family-oriented activity where kids especially enjoy getting a chance to see horses, including recently-born foals.
“This area around Saratoga is loaded with armchair racing enthusiasts,” McMahon said. “There’s great interest in the horse industry.”
For more information call Cornell Cooperative Extension Saratoga County at 518-885-8995 or go to www.saratogafarms.com.