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Surviving on a small farm

By Fritz Mayer
March 29, 2011

The three farmers on the panel agreed: making a success of a small farm today is a lot of work and requires adaptability. The matter was discussed at the day-long convention called Farm to Market Connection held at the CVI Building in Ferndale on March 27.

For John Verhoeven, the key to keeping his farm alive was getting out of the dairy business five years ago, switching to raising beef cows and selling the meat directly to the public. Verhoeven, who operates a farm with his father in Greene County, said the farm is located between two ski resorts in an area with a lot of weekend homes.

The people from those homes make up a large part of his customer base and don’t mind paying a good price for quality cuts of beef. Verhoeven said he raises some livestock entirely on grass, and also finishes some on grain for a few months. He said his customers tend to prefer the beef that is finished on grain.

For Shannon Mason, who manages the Danforth Jersey Farm in Schoharie County, the key to making ends meet has been to branch out into making butter and yogurt. She said the farm can make twice as much money selling those products than it can by “putting the milk on the truck.”

She said the decision to produce butter was also a good fit with the history of the farm because her great, great grandmother had made butter to keep the farm alive when she became a young widow in the late 19th century. In fact, she sent some of her butter to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where it won an award.

Mason said the butter and yogurt is sold at grocery stores, farm markets and restaurants and they “tend to have consumers who really care about locally and ethically produced food, which is where we want to be.”

Deborah Kavakos and her husband started a farm in Greene County in 1996, knowing from the start that it would be done on the community supported agriculture (CSA) model. They started with a single CSA location. Through the years, customers would move to another neighborhood and ask the Kovakos to start another group to serve them. The farm now serves 18 locations in New York City, the Hudson Valley and Western Connecticut.

She said the most difficult part is delivering the goods into the city, where traffic nightmares can wreak havoc on the schedule. She said the truck is unloaded at each stop with the help of volunteers, and she breathes a sigh of relief when the truck gets back at night.