by Pat Malin
HUBBARDSVILLE, NY — When asked about Congress’s handling — or lack thereof, of the Farm Bill, New York State Farm Bureau director Darrell Griff let out a deep sigh.
“How can you get politics figured out?” Griff replied during a visit to neighboring Endless Trails Farm in August.
Griff was visiting Endless Trails for two reasons: to get an update on the Farm Bill directly from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and to promote the new Side Hill Farmer’s Cooperative Market in Manlius.
It’s been exasperating, he admitted, to follow the snail-like pace of the bill. A five-year Farm Bill was passed by the U.S. Senate in June, but the House of Representatives came up with its own watered-down counterpart which has only complicated passage of the new legislation.
Now Congress is in summer recess, so the two sides will try to negotiate a compromise measure when the representatives return to their desks in September.
Griff, who raises pigs and beef cattle on a 70-acre farm in Hamilton, Madison County, wonders how long it will take Congress to reach an agreement. “A lot of farmers are concerned about next year. How can you operate when you don’t know the rules of the game?”
Griff is a Farm Bureau director in District 5, which includes five counties. He supports the version approved by the Democrat majority in the Senate. By contrast, the House, which is controlled by Republicans, split the Farm Bill into two parts, one dealing with farm programs and agricultural reform, and the second with nutrition, including the SNAP or food stamp program.
During the press conference, Gillibrand reiterated her support for the Senate’s entire Farm Bill package, which “includes priorities to help grow specialty crops, expand markets for farmers, and increase the availability of nutritious, locally-grown food for consumers,” she explained.
The farm bill includes funding for programs that “invest in the local agriculture economy, and assist consumers by improving access to healthy foods at direct and retail markets,” the senator added.
The Senate’s version, she insisted, would also increase farmers’ access to credit, low-interest loans, crop insurance, flood insurance and streamline the food inspection process. “With today’s tough economic climate, I would argue for more support dollars for farmers,” she said.
“Forty-eight percent of the land in Madison County is dedicated to farming,” she noted. These farmers are not waiting for Uncle Sam, but taking advantage of USDA and state grants to operate a retail market in Manlius and eventually start a food hub.
Griff has invested in the new store with fellow farmers Paul O’Mara of Canastota and Dave and Pam Williams of Endless Trails. The Side Hill co-op is an organizing partner of the Growing Upstate Food Hub LLC, which will bring a shared-use, value-added processing facility to Madison County.
Last April, the Empire State Development Corp. approved three grants worth a total of $2.5 million for the hub. It includes funds to renovate two vacant buildings on Barlow Street in Canastota and buy equipment for food processing, refrigeration, a teaching kitchen and a farmers’ market.
Endless Trails Farm is an agri-tourism destination located on 340 acres where the Williamses raise 150 grass-fed beef cattle in addition to running a guesthouse and renting out horse stalls. Horse owners from throughout the Northeast are attracted to the farm, which is located opposite the Brookfield Trail system.
Though Dave Williams gave up dairy cows 20 years ago, he still has some cows and calves at Endless Trails. The new calves are later sold to his son, Dan, who finishes them at his grass-fed Sunnybrook Farm in Deansboro. Dan Williams also operates Williams Fence.
The Growing Upstate Food Hub will provide farmers with access to more customers, shared business services, as well as aggregation and distribution services. Thus far, just the three Madison County beef farmers have put up money for the project, but the retail outlet and the hub will welcome all farmers.
“We know there’s a demand for local products,” said O’Mara, who has 60 beef cows and grows alfalfa, hay, and corn silage. “We’re trying to raise awareness of local foods and get them to consumers. It’s difficult for a farmer to find time to raise animals or grow crops, distribute the goods and sell too. We will be sharing services like accounting, storage, freezers, maybe vehicles, and sharing overhead costs. It will be more efficient.”
Madison County farmers will then be able to process such diverse products as beef, malts, grains, crops, milk and eggs.
Beth McKellips, a Cornell Cooperative Extension educator in Madison County, helped organize Senator Gillibrand’s visit to Endless Farms. McKellips said food hubs have sprung up within the last three years in the Finger Lakes, Kingston (Hudson Valley), northern New York and Long Island. They’re getting logistical assistance from Cornell University, and financial support through a combination of New York State grants and private equity from local farmers.
Griff started his farm 22 years ago. He currently supplies some pork to the Side Hill store in Manlius, a suburb of metropolitan Syracuse. The market sells meats, dairy products and vegetables strictly from local farms and even offers prepared meals.
“When the food hub gets going, it will open up local markets to farmers who don’t have access now because of quantity and quality,” he explained.
He said the Madison County farmers have spent four years working on this project, but with the details involved in purchasing the property and organizing the infrastructure, it could take another year before the hub opens.
Pam Williams said Endless Trails Farm began selling its beef to the food co-op a year ago and is beginning to see increased demand from the store in Manlius. This year the farm raised 57 calves.
Gillibrand pointed out that with the help of USDA loans, food hubs are proving very popular with farmers and consumers alike, as demonstrated in New York City. “With just one delivery, (farmers are) getting grass-fed beef in the best restaurants and a link to markets worldwide,” she said.
by Pat Malin