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December 08, 2016
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The changing face of agriculture; Why we need to support it

Agriculture is a foundation of our community, essential to our social, environmental and economic wellbeing, not only historically, but also today.

Despite its low overall employment rate (2.2% of Sullivan County’s workforce), its vital impact is indicated by its stronger growth rate and higher multiplier effect compared to other sectors. It is connected to tourism and recreation and a wide variety of ancillary businesses such as supplies (seeds, feed, etc.), machinery and maintenance, veterinary services, insurance and financial services, sales and distribution of agricultural products, and more. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, from 2011 to 2012, Sullivan’s 323 farms contributed $85.9 million dollars to our local economy with a total economic impact of $257.7 million dollars, considering that every dollar generated by a farm turns over three times in the community, staying in our local economy.

As vital as agriculture is, it is has also been severely threatened for several decades by the corporate-industrial forces, often referred to as the market forces pushing for globalization. At the height of the depression in the 1930s, we had some 2,000 dairy farms in Sullivan with six or fewer milking cows each. Now we have under 30 dairy farms with 60 or more milking cows each. Our traditional family farmers simply cannot compete with industrial giants in the Midwest, West and further upstate with a couple of thousand cows producing for world markets.

Fortunately our agricultural sector is resilient and has been making the adaptations that have great potential for its future. What has been emerging is a widely diversified multiplicity of small-scale producers taking advantage of our greatest competitive advantage: the growing interest in nutritious, wholesome foods that are not full of chemicals and artificial ingredients and the proximity to the vast New York metropolitan markets with consumers willing to spend a bit extra for a quality, healthy product. Our producers are connecting directly to consumers locally and in the metropolitan area, and in general, people are interested in supporting local farmers rather than large agricultural businesses and processors and distributors operating nationally and internationally.

The diversity of our agricultural sector augers well for its potential as does the growing number of enterprises that use local ingredients to produce value-added products, notably cheeses but also artisanal production using fibers from alpaca and sheep, and breweries and distilleries using local products.

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.]