New Farming in the Catskill Region
By Jack Barnum
There are few residents of the Catskills, native or transplant, who are unaware of the changes brought to the region's dairy industry over the years. In many counties - including Delaware, Schoharie, and Sullivan, and even Columbia -- the business of dairying is a strong and viable countywide industry. The only areas in which farming has been a problem are Ulster and Greene Counties, although this may be corrected by more aggressive marketing in the future.
Through the use of new cooperative production and marketing strategies, plus the continuing development of techniques for reducing each farm's individual overhead costs, dairy farms in the greater Catskill Mountains region are successfully building on their agricultural heritage. With the able assistance of educational institutions, governmental agencies, and elected officials, the economic future of the regional dairying industry can not only be saved, it can prosper.
Although a certain number of dairy farms have ceased operation, the farmland itself has often not been removed from the agricultural industry. Farmers, both veterans and first-timers, are bringing new types of farms to the Catskills, and there is a new breed of farmer operating them.
The crops, products, and harvests of these farms are as diverse as the size of their operations and the specialty markets they serve. They run the gamut from sheep cheese to rodeo cattle, from quail eggs to gourmet mushrooms, and from medicinal elk velvet to meat rabbits, with all points in-between.
Literally, farming is a growing industry in the Catskills.
Helping to define that new industry and encourage its growth is the institutional expertise of Cornell University, long a friend to the farmer in New York State. Through the staff and field personnel of its individual county "extension" offices, Cornell brings technical advice, financial planning assistance, and farm management guidance to the local level. It is no different with the new breed of farmer.
In each of the Catskills region counties, the extension educators of Cornell, formerly known as "ag agents," all stress the same fact. The key to the new operations lies in direct marketing with one or more specialty products.
Cornell Cooperative Extension's Paul Cerosaletti, of the university's Delaware County unit, explains, "You've got to have a market and you've got to get your product out there."
Mick Bessier, CCE's Greene County educator, agrees. "It's micro-niche market oriented, and many of the farms are marketing their own product," says Bessier.
CCE's Sullivan County educator Joe Walsh explains that direct marketing is so well thought of in Sullivan County that the County Legislature is helping to fund the concept.
"The county has provided funding for a farmers market in Bethel which drew well over 7,000 people last year," says Walsh. "We've got some very active farmers markets in the county that allow for direct marketing opportunities."
Walsh adds that strong federal support is also helping the local direct marketing concept via the Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) program. About a year ago, with the assistance of Sullivan's Congressman, Maurice D. Hinchey of Ulster County, all of Sullivan County plus the Ulster County border town of Wawarsing was designated a federal REAP zone.
"We have received a REAP grant to expand the two existing markets in the county, and to develop two new markets in the REAP zone," says Walsh. The two new ones will be in the Sullivan County community of Callicoon and Ulster's Village of Ellenville.
Ulster County CCE Executive Director Lydia Reidy says she is not only pleased about the creation of the REAP zone, but the growing strength of the green market industry as well.
"Quite a few farmers are doing things with green markets in the county," says Reidy. "Ulster County has the second largest number of farm stands in the state. We have some beautiful farm markets here."
Lisa Fields, Cornell's Schoharie County educator, notes the strength of the market concept comes from its diversity.
"We have a farmers market in Cobleskill," says Fields. "There are producer groups that are becoming strong, and I think that's a big plus. People need to work together to break into new markets. The farmers market has grown."
Ask Stephen Hadcock, one of CCE's Columbia County educators, if direct marketing is a key, and Hadcock leaves no doubt. "Absolutely," he replies, "There's no question about it."
Hadcock explains that when people approach them about starting up a new farming operation, the first thing they are asked is, "Do you have a market for it?"
Hadcock notes that one of the more popular and successful market destinations is New York City. He explains that, without checking the figures, his sense is that a large amount of the products go to the Big Apple. "It's not necessarily a majority," he adds, "but a significant portion goes to the green markets and retail outlets in NYC."
Producers in the other counties also sell a solid portion to New York and it's not only produce and green vegetables. In Delaware County, rabbit meat is profitable. "We've got some fairly large rabbitries in the county," says Cerosaletti. "There's one in Walton and one in Bloomville. They're having them processed and then take it to New York City."
ln Ulster County, there are Asian vegetables that are grown for the NYC market, and there is even one farmer who successfully forces peach blossoms in early spring for the metropolitan area.
One important group of growers in Delaware and Schoharie counties actually got their start-up funding from New York City. Because so much of the Catskills lies within the topographical boundaries of the City's West-of-Hudson watershed, part of the 1997 Watershed Agreement between the City and local communities was an agreement to help farming.
One of the results of that Watershed Agriculture Program was the creation of a cooperative called Catskill Family Farms. Some of the members were former dairy farmers, and the intent of the program was to help perpetuate the economic viability of farming. The initial crop was a specialty potato that met with good success in the NYC market. The group now continues as an independent cooperative and is breaking into other products.
In Schoharie, Field explains they have had an official Agriculture & Farmland Protection Plan approved by the county legislators. She explains that under State Law each county has the authority to develop such a plan and that among other things it will help facilitate producers' cooperatives.
"But the first step in the plan," says Field, "is to hire a marketing specialist, so there will be some specialized help for people that are looking to develop any type of agriculture business." Thus, once again, it is back to marketing as the key to niche-market farming.
To meet that need, a growing trend for vegetable and produce growers in both Greene and Columbia counties is for a different type of direct marketing called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
In CSA the marketing is customer-identified and, in essence, pre-arranged. In many CSA's the purchase price of the product is even paid before it is grown. This not only allows the farmer to use the capital towards planting, growing, and harvesting costs, but also ensures he or she doesn't sink unnecessary dollars into unwanted overproduction. On the customer's end, each individual member of the CSA is ensured a fresh product in the amount desired as it matures.
Greene County's Bessier explains, "This is a fairly new concept. Community Supported Agriculture didn't exist in the U.S. until 1985."
"CSA members work with a farmer, and there may be a subscription price, to get delivery throughout the summer," says Bessier. "So they'll get bags of green goods throughout that summer."
"The farmer can use the money up front, and you'll get good fresh product every week. We have three or four fellows in the county already doing this. Some market in NYC, and some locally."
"CSA is a coming thing," notes Bessier. "It'll probably expand more."
In Columbia, Hadcock says CSA's are also working. "We have five or six farms that are doing Community Supported Agriculture. They're usually vegetable producers, but some have broadened their horizons to provide a variety of other products to CSA members."
The final aspect of successful niche farming is the niche itself. Just what types of specialty markets exist out there? Who's growing what in the Catskills? The diversity is amazing.
One of the unifying themes to all the Catskill region counties is fresh organic produce. In Delaware County, however, the concept goes a step or two further.
"Some folks are marketing their own certified organic meat product, or using a pasture approach that leads to an organic-type product," says Cerosaletti. "We also have some folks that are shipping organic milk, which is certainly an alternative to the traditional process."
Cerosaletti explains that to do so, those farmers strictly comply with the standards required for organic labeling by NOFA, the National Organic Farming Association, which establishes the rules for the use of antibiotics, prohibits pesticides, and sets other pasturage conditions.
Some of the more exotic farm products in the region include elk, buffalo, llamas, alpacas, red deer, fallow deer, meat goats, beefalo (a cross between beef cattle and buffalo), emus (an Ostrich-like Australian bird), rainbow trout, meat ducks, sheep milk and yogurt, ginseng, quail, and goat cheese and milk.
There are also specialty items like currents, gooseberries, and blueberries, a growing market for the bramble species, blackberries and raspberries, free-range eggs, pasture poultry, mushrooms, golden, blue, and fingerling potatoes, and "day neutral" strawberries, which bear fruit more evenly throughout the year regardless of the day's length.
Other operations supply the cut-flower market, the herb market, and growing Christmas trees, as well as value-added farm products being offered, such as woven wool goods and jams and jellies. In Ulster County one operation is making salsa from local product. In Columbia, another is growing cabbage and making kimchi, Korean whole-leaf spicy sauerkraut.
Not to be overlooked is the region's maple syrup industry. "We have a lot of maple syrup producers," explains Delaware's Cerosaletti. "It's almost such an important alternative crop that we often don't seem to think of it as an alternative crop anymore. We make a lot of maple product here," he states.
Another growing aspect of farming is the tourism industry, whether as a simple farm-based bed-and-breakfast setting or a "working" vacation to learn the joys and rigors of farm life first hand. Agri-tourism is coming on in all the Catskill region counties, and possesses good potential for helping the farm economy.
Thus, farming in the greater Catskills, while perhaps changing to a certain degree, still retains a strong and important future. Tightly focused, directly marketed, niche-product operations, combined with a growing consumer appreciation for fresh, quality local product and the value of farming, will help ensure that products grown and harvested in the Catskill
Mountains will continue to be an important factor in the region's cultural heritage and local economy.