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August 24, 2016
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The changing face of agriculture; Why we need to support it

Recent agricultural censuses show that our agricultural sector is increasingly based on smaller operations both in terms of land and income. That, too, is a positive development. A majority of our farms earn less than $50,000 a year in gross sales, but their growing numbers generates more income, and diversification means that our agricultural sector is less vulnerable to market fluctuations. The data show that the largest increase in the number of farms was in those between 10 and 49 acres (62%) and an 80.3% increase in the total value of agricultural products sold by all farms in Sullivan County from 1997 to 2007. The highest increase was registered by farms with the lowest value of sales (less than $2,500 a year), but showing a 55.7% increase in their total value of sales from 1997 to 2007. This indicates a slow, but steady level of growth consistent with a healthy and sustainable type of economic development.

But while these trends show great potential for our growing number of new farmers, potential is not certainty. Agriculture, by its very nature, has always been an uncertain, unpredictable and fragile enterprise. It needs our help to succeed.

Sullivan County’s Strategic Economic Development Plan indicated a good starting point by emphasizing four key action plans:

1. A program to build dairy processing capacity (including a focus on value-added cheese production);

2. Ensuring that the Liberty red meat processing facility is developed in a way that farmers will use it and sustain other businesses;

3. Furthering the efforts to develop a food hub and foster regional partnerships (including also the cooperative extension’s EATkitchen facility using local ingredients in commercial food preparation, emphasizing smaller micromodes); and

4. Tasking the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan update with exploring other opportunities for expanding agriculture, including among others: hops development, wine/cider, distillery production, berries, hoop-houses and renewable energy.

But for these plans to become reality will depend on all of us getting involved as advocates for our farmers, supporting them as consumers of their goods, and pushing our elected officials to be more responsive to our farmers’ needs. It is ultimately up to all of us to make sure we have the kind of community we want to live in.

[Tom Kappner sits on Sullivan County’s Agricultural Advisory Board and serves on the Steering Committee of the Strategic Economic Development Plan for Sullivan County.]