by Troy Bishopp
DELHI, NY — When the Watershed Ag Council’s Agriculture Program Manager, Larry Hulle, ask young farmers, Eleanor Blakeslee Drain, Nikki Sebastian Hager, Tim Sherwood and Tyler Hymers to be on a panel to visit with a “few” people; little did he know, it would be a standing room only event.
This eye-opening dialogue held at the 15th annual Catskill Regional Agriculture Conference on the SUNY Delhi campus immersed a multi-generational audience in the opportunities and challenges facing a new generation of hard-working local farmers in the rugged terrain of the Catskills. “We want to know the needs of young farmers. We think we know but we really don’t know all the dynamics they face, said Watershed Ag Council’s Chairwoman and farmer, Sally Fairbairn. For us to learn the real stories and direct resources, human and financial, we must hear from the ground up. That’s the premise of this workshop.”
The round table discussion started with introductions:
Eleanor described how her husband, two young children and three full-time employees work six acres of certified organic vegetables at Berry Brook Farm in Delancey, NY. The operation uses leased land and diverse crops all year long to supply local farmer’s markets, the 607-CSA and wholesale accounts throughout the Catskill region.
Nikki, a Morrisville State College graduate, is bringing her family’s Peaceful Valley Farm in East Meredith, NY back into organic dairy production with the help of her husband and parents. She supplies milk to Organic Valley Cooperative from her herd of multi-colored cows on 500 acres of mixed pastures, hayland and woods.
Tim is in the midst of buying his parents’ 67-acre farm in Delhi and manages several acres of leased land for hay production. He milks 35 certified organic cows and feeds baleage, hay, pasture and grain.
Tyler also manages and milks 65 cows and young stock on 220 acres in Delhi with his mom and dad since 2011.
Hulle asked the quartet about their obstacles in farming. Sherwood humorously quipped “Obstacles? I’m in farming, enough said.” They contributed that better land, shortening the learning curve, lack of financial resources because they rent, low milk prices and the shortcomings of having loans (student and equipment) and trying to buy the farm too were all barriers.
When asked about the positives, Eleanor Drain commented their markets and customer base were robust and they were “excited” about 2018. They are “making leased land work and the operation is a great place to raise a family.” Hager relished her cows, being her own boss and building equity in a historic property. Hymers emphasized their new dairy facility (after a fire) has made them more efficient. “For us, keeping costs low and adding fertility to increase our homegrown forage base is key.” Sherwood said, “I love grazing cows and being in an organic milk market. It’s been great for my hill farm.”
Each one talked about financing their ventures. Parents’ support of their passion was a key ingredient for success as was working with Farm Credit East and the Farm Service Agency. They also explored grant funding from the Watershed Ag Council, Crowdsourcing loans from and the Southern Tier Agricultural Industry Enhancement Program. They cautioned there are many stipulations in using grant funding, finding matching funds as well as the stigma of being a renter, which in most cases disqualifies them from applying.
Nevertheless they remain optimistic. They shared advice for others: Start small and scale-up, be realistic in your investments for livestock and equipment, know your finances and always keep your hand on your checkbook. Working with their parents and continuing to learn from mentors were attributes for personal growth. “I’m glad I’m not in an office. Being my own boss and working with cows and people make the struggles fun. Every day on the farm is a great day,” said Hymers.
This session complemented other workshops at the yearly agriculture conference on Agri-tourism, livestock and grazing management, milk marketing, soil health, pasture renovation, maximizing profit with tomatoes and growing industrial hemp. The day was a collaborative effort between the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County team, the Watershed Agricultural Council, local farmers, SUNY-Delhi, trade show vendors and conservation partners. For more information, contact Dale Dewing at 607.865.6531.