The number of farms in Saratoga County, one of the fastest growing areas of New York, is shrinking. At the same time, farmers are looking toward new technologies and markets to adapt to a changing landscape. A new report released Wednesday provides a snapshot of the county’s agricultural economy.
Agriculture is a half-billion dollar industry in Saratoga County. At a lunch event Wednesday at Ellms Family Farm, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership provided details on the local agricultural sector.
A century ago, there were more than 3,600 farms across the county on more than 392,000 acres. According to census data, in 2012 there were 583 farms on nearly 79,000 acres.
SCPP presented results of a survey conducted earlier this summer. Seventy percent of farmers surveyed are optimistic about the future of farming in the county, which is undergoing a transformation from historically rural to more developed – Saratoga County is home to growing suburbs and is at the center of upstate New York’s Tech Valley. The GlobalFoundries chip fab facility in Malta alone employs more than 3,000 workers.
But while optimism is high among the farmers surveyed, 82 percent agree that new creative mechanisms and incentives to keep farms sustainable are needed.
During a panel discussion, stakeholders explained their challenges and successes in adapting to changes in the agricultural sector.
Rachel McDermott is CEO of Whole Feeds of the Hudson Valley, a soybean processing facility located on her family’s farm in Schaghticoke.
McDermott said when she returned to her family’s farm two years ago, she focused on diversifying its crops. The farm began producing ingredients for New York’s brewers and distillers.
“It had a really big impact on our first year. It generated about 10 percent of our overall gross income with margins that were triple, quadruple what our feed business would have generated.”
Farmers are keeping their eyes on producing value-added products.
State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, a Democrat representing Washington and Saratoga Counties, sees an enormous opportunity in hemp farming. She’s supported efforts to expand hemp production in New York from 2,000 to 20,000 acres by 2020.
“We have some farms in this area that have made the decision to put in a few acres of hemp to see how it goes. So we’re excited to see the first crop come out this year – this month, actually – but there’s a lot of places in the supply chain that we need to fill in.”
An issue addressed during the discussion was how money “passes through” a farmer’s hands. Without new capital, it can be difficult to make the investments that will lead to growth – not only in new technology, but in marketing and branding.
According to SCPP’s survey, 82 percent of respondents are farmers who have had their farm in operation for more than 26 years, and 76 percent of farms have been in operation over two generations.
Jennifer Koval is manager for the three-generation Koval Brothers Dairy Farm in the Town of Saratoga, which supplies milk to Stewart’s Shops.
Koval, who has three children, said it’s important to attract the next generation of farmers.
“Schools need to be supportive of ag education, especially in the more rural towns and villages that have farms. If kids don’t see it as a viable future occupation, then it’s not even going to be on their radar when they go to college.”
Another hurdle: energy and infrastructure. Northumberland Town Supervisor Bill Peck is also a sixth generation farmer.
“Anybody who has done economic development for the last 20 years knows that one of the biggest trouble spots that we have is energy,” said Peck.
Peck and Woerner highlighted the potential in anaerobic digestors on farms to use animal waste to produce biogas for power generation. Woerner said currently there are 24 digestors operating in New York, with about half in danger of going off-line for being too expensive, which she attributed to New York’s net-metering rules.