ESSEX, N.Y. — A new generation of farmers is flocking to the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, providing economic and environmental benefits such as job creation and carbon sequestration while also supplying fresh, high quality and locally produced food.
But despite producing 11% of the market value of all New York agricultural goods, about half the region’s farms operate at a net loss, raising serious concerns about the industry’s long-term sustainability in this part of the state.
For positive trends to continue, farmers must understand their markets, grow crops that thrive naturally, raise financially viable livestock and take advantage of government grants and similar funding sources that can help them survive in this high-risk occupation.
Such findings are contained in a new report, “Agriculture in the Adirondacks: Past, Present and Future,” by the Essex Farm Institute, a program of the Albany-based Adirondack Council environmental group.
“There’s definitely been a shift away from dairy toward smaller scale, diversified agriculture and more niche-market high-value products,” said Racey Henderson, Institute program director. “But if new farmers quit after five to seven years, that’s not a positive long-term trend. We need to support farmers by encouraging policy that allows farmers to grow the food they want for people who want it.”
The Adirondack region’s mountainous geography is extremely challenging for agriculture. Most farming is in Essex County, bordering the western shore of Lake Champlain, directly across from Vermont.
“This area is very unique in terms of diversity,” Carly Summers, of Essex County Cornell Cooperative Extension, told the Board of Supervisors’ Ways and Means Committee on July 29.
Dairy, horses, pork and alpacas along with vegetables and fruit, including some of New York’s highest-producing apple orchards, are found locally. The Board of Supervisors recently passed a resolution celebrating farming’s growth and several programs and initiatives are helping make Essex County a North Country agricultural hotbed.
“Twenty-eight percent of principle producers in the area are new and beginning farmers (defined as fewer than 10 years of agricultural occupation),” the report says. “This generational shift presents us with an opportunity to revive agriculture in the (Adirondack) Park with an eye toward increasing local economic development and protecting the region’s incredible environmental resources. However, whether this shift represents a true change in the face of Adirondack agriculture or only a fleeting local food movement will depend on our ability as a region to support the Park’s agricultural future.”
Cooperative Extension cooperates with other community partners in the Well Fed Collaborative, which helps farm businesses find new markets for their goods.
Tourism is one of the Adirondack region’s primary industries. Recently, Extension hosted a farm to chef event in an attempt to connect locally grown food with area restaurants.
“Can you imagine if 150 restaurants in the Lake Placid/Saranac Lake region were purchasing local food? That would be an incredible economic contribution to our area,” Summers said.
Similarly, Extension’s Adirondack Harvest program seeks to put more local food in area schools, colleges and health care facilities.
“If we can help increase local food purchasing we will help grow these local (farm) businesses that will bring all these communities up and support sustainable economic growth and keep dollars within communities,” Summers said.
Essex Farm Institute has spawned many new and beginning farmers by teaching people how to pursue agriculture. But the agency, since joining the Adirondack Council last fall, is now more focused on legislative advocacy.
Henderson said transportation is one of the main obstacles to profitable farming in the Adirondacks because of the region’s remoteness and long distances to population centers.
State and federal funding, such as loans for farm delivery trucks, would make a considerable difference as would assistance to transport goods to farmer’s markets, retail stands and for CSA deliveries. Likewise, consumer incentives such as SNAP benefits encourage people to visit local farms, Henderson said.
Kim Trombly, Essex County Farm Bureau field adviser, said one of agriculture’s biggest benefits to the picturesque Adirondack region is simply keeping farmland in ag production.
“From what I’ve observed, quite a few older, conventional farmers have sold their farms to new farmers or new farmers are putting former farmland back into production,” she said. “All agriculture is good. It’s just a different type of agriculture.”