By SONJA HEDLUND
Consumer demand for local food is strong and growing steadily. It is evident here in Sullivan County as well as in New York City. The opportunity to meet this demand brings the possibility of development in a county seeking to create a sustainable local economy.
Eggs and dairy cows have been the mainstay of agriculture in Sullivan County for decades. Eggs are still a major industry, though there are only two or three producers. These survive because of increased efficiency, consistently doing a good job, finding markets and doing new things—especially operating their own feed mill.
In years past, there were over 300 dairy farms using thousands of acres of land. Now fewer than 30 ship fluid milk. The price received for 100 pounds of fluid milk fluctuates greatly, and has led some to think of other ways to make a living. It is not that they want to quit dairy farming. They want a fair return for their labor and investment.
Dairy farmers have carefully tended their land and animals for generations. They have a diverse skill set, one broad enough to impress any human resource manager: animal health and breeding, nutrition analysis, soil health, refuse management and recycling, planting, harvesting and storage of diverse crops, water conservation and control, woodlot management, basic skills in carpentry, electricity and plumbing, and enough mechanical expertise to do repair work on farm equipment—not to mention business skills. Many have taken on other jobs: transporting saw dust, cutting lumber, trucking animals, family members working in town where health insurance is an added benefit, etc.
Without a doubt, a rise in the price of fluid milk to exceed the cost of production is the desire of most dairy farmers. Will that happen in the near future? Hard to say, as the price of fluid milk is determined by a complex set of variables beyond the control of farmers. Having farmed one way for a long time, changing direction even slightly requires careful thought—a review of personal preferences, desires, skills, responsibilities, family needs and values and thorough exploration of market options.
Given the recession that has gripped the nation since 2008, many Americans find that the way they have earned a living may no longer be adequate. But those in agriculture have one great advantage. Everyone needs to eat, every day, 365 days a year. Our dairy farmers know how to produce milk, lots of it. And our meat and vegetable farmers also have this know how.
Here are a few of the many farming ventures already happening, with products sold both locally and at the NYC Green Market: the Tonjes Farm has expanded to cheese, yogurt, kefir and veal. The Dirie Farm sells raw cows’ milk and eggs. Another sells raw goats milk and cheese. M&S Farm runs a USDA kosher slaughter house and bottles milk. At least 20 sell beef and pork directly to customers. A few take animals for USDA processing some distance away and sell to local retail outlets. Others make maple syrup, honey, jams, jellies, breads and cakes. A few plan to expand farm stands and/or start micro dairies.
This is just the beginning of the list of farmers who have already started operations to produce niche products that can command profitable prices. Part 2 of this column, to be printed in July, will examine opportunities still to be explored and the ways in which we can move the county forward as an agricultural haven.
[Sonja Hedlund (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is one of the founders of the Sullivan County Farm Network, and co-owner of Apple Pond Farm, a Renewable Energy Education Center.]