Why do farmers farm?

Tue, 11/20/2018 - 9:16am

Leila Hawken

Lakeville Journal: www.tricornernews.com

CORNWALL — A panel discussion by Cornwall farmers at Town Hall on Saturday, Nov. 10,  yielded unexpected insights into the rewards and challenges of farming.

There were two panels, one in which farmers shared their personal stories and one in which farm resources and finances were discussed. About 70 people attended the two events. 

A farmer is his own boss

Bart Jones, president of the Cornwall Conservation Trust,  introduced the first panel by describing a local effort to attract young farmers and their families to the town. Cornwall has historically been a farming town; attracting more farmers with young families would offer the added benefit of helping to increase the shrinking student population at Cornwall Consolidated School. 

“We need to figure out how we can feed ourselves without destroying the environment,” Jones said, encouraging panel members to share personal stories of how farm life brought them to town and how they have been rewarded and challenged by farming.

Bill Dinneen of the Cornwall Agricultural Commission served as chair of the panel. 

Richie Dolan of Maple Hill Farm has a farming background. Generations of his family have farmed in Cornwall; his specialty has become pigs and hay. 

Farmers face several challenges, he said. 

“If you have livestock, then you can expect to have deadstock.” Not all animals survive; there is die-off. It is a fact of agriculture. 

Weather is always a concern. This year, he said that the hay season seemed too good to be true, with perfect weather conditions promising a superb crop. Then, in the third week of July, conditions reversed, and the season became extremely difficult for hay.

“It’s just awful, just now,” Dolan said, speaking of the economics of farming, with many farmers nationwide going bankrupt. Young people are not going into farming, Dolan explained, as they tend to shy away from the hard work involved. He said that the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 67.

The rewards of farming are many, though, Dolan said. For one thing, he can control his own schedule. He can engage in community activities and still keep the farm going. 

Farming teaches life lessons, he said. The skills learned are invaluable; he cited the value of hard work and compassion for others, as well as for animals. 

He said he would rather spend 70 hours a week working on a farm than be confined to an office.

Mark Orth of Birdseye and Tanner Brooks Farm and Bill Hurlburt of Hurlburt Farm echoed the sense of satisfaction with farm life in Cornwall.

New farmers are coming

Sarah Cassel and her husband, Jeff, came to farming from a background as artists who shopped at farmers markets in Brooklyn. 

Sarah said that she is new to farming, and their search for the right farm was long, but they have found it in the Stone Wall Dairy. They expect to complete the purchase this month. 

They are both drawn to the farming life for its lifestyle and a chance to experience a bond with their animals.

Local farmer Debra Tyler (of Local Farm) grew up in Wisconsin and came east after high school to spend a few months with her aunt and uncle on a farm in Canterbury, Conn. 

“After those few months, I was completely hooked,” she said.

She took agricultural courses at the University of Connecticut. She then spent 15 years working on farms to gain experience. She settled on bottling and selling raw milk and had the first farm in the state to be certified “organic.”

“My goal was to provide the best milk possible for my community,” Tyler said. Her current focus is on offering workshops to help people connect with the land.

Her greatest challenges, she said, include hostility from the dairy industry and the reluctance of insurers to cover sellers of raw milk. She added, though, that area dairy farmers have been supportive. The industry is the problem, she said.

The public can be a problem, also, Tyler said, when people drop their children off at the farm to see the animals. She said that she does not want to discourage them, but that people need to realize that a farm is a place of work, not a playground.

From ranchers to farmers

Roxann Roche of RD Farms was born in rural Alaska. Her grandparents were Wyoming ranchers. She evolved into farming. 

“It’s been incredibly rewarding. I have grown up a lot in the process,” she said.

Roche described challenges in marketing her beef and pork — the economic part of it. 

“It’s hard to get money back from the investment,” she added. It has also been difficult for her to come to terms with losing animals. Time management can also be a problem. The animals depend on the farmers.

Watching animals in a herd interact with one another is a great reward, Roche said.

“I got into farming so I could raise my own food,” Roche said. “The hard work has taught me the priorities in life: keeping my animals safe, well fed, and happy.”

Someone in the audience asked a question about marketing and was told that the best way for consumers to access local farm fresh products is to find them at farm stands and farmers markets.

How to make it happen

Resources for farmers were the focus of the second panel, which offered expertise from five experts in the business of farming, including representatives from the Connecticut Farmland Trust, University of Connecticut Extension Services and the Solid Ground Farmer Training program, an accounting firm, and the Weantinogue Heritage Land Trust.

Dan Horan, CEO of Five Acre Farms, a farm-to-table business based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is presently working with 30 farms in the northeast bringing locally-produced food to restaurants and supermarkets. 

Horan was formerly the head of Papaya King in New York City and then the general manager of the Gourmet Garage, a pioneering New York City business providing farm produce to city dwellers.

To participate in his services, farmers need to provide a reliable, steady supply of produce that looks consistently good and has attractive packaging. 

Administering farming on land that is under a conservation easement was the focus of Paul Elconin, director of Land Conservation through the Weatinogue Land Trust in Litchfield County. 

“We lease land to farmers,” he said, under a dual mission to support farming and to protect habitat.

“A number of towns own land and are willing to lease it for farming,” said Elizabeth Moore, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. 

This allows the trust to  “protect smaller farms,” she explained. Many of the state’s farms are smaller than 49 acres.

Many modern farms are engaging in agri-tourism, offering bed-and-breakfast options, or special events such as pick-your-own and seasonal corn mazes. 

Other speakers offered advice on business services for farmers.  Chelsea Hahn of the University of Connecticut Extension Services said her agency offers help with business plans and marketing plans and does online training.  

Wendy Kennedy, representing Digits and Sums, described services including help with grant applications and farm financing options.

Sam Waterston, owner of Birdseye and Tanner Brooks Farm, moderated the panel discussion, urging the public to be supportive of local farmers. “Go out of your way to help,” he urged.