October 21, 2009

Encouraging smaller farms

While most of the large farms in Dryden are dairy farms, we have many more small farms. Driving around Dryden, I regularly see beef cattle, goats, sheep, and horses, not to mention beehives, U-pick farms, and orchards. These tend to be smaller operations, and I'm sorry to report that I've heard them derided a few times as "hobby farms" for "weekend warriors", or just plain "too small to be important".

Right now I see more potential in small farms growing a limited amount of food than in larger farms producing huge volumes of commodities. For the last few decades, "bigger is better" has been the motto of people striving to make farms more profitable, applying economies of scale wherever possible to increase production while reducing the cost of inputs, especially labor. Small farms, though they can share equipment and facilities, can get only limited economies of scale.

Mother and chicks at my house.
Mother and chicks at my house.

Small farms have other advantages, though, as Americans (and especially Tompkins County residents) take a closer look at where their food comes from and don't always like what they see. "Whatever the grocery store has" isn't a good answer for a lot of people any longer, whether because of quality, environmental, nutritional, or other concerns.

Chasing economies of scale has had consequences beyond increasing profits. The conversation on this tends to bang back and forth between those who defend the current system and those who question it, but this regretful-sounding comment from a defender of large agriculture points to ways that Tompkins County isn't like the megafarms of the midwest:

I would point out that there's a - everyone talks about local - local sales and local farming, and we need to remember that not all of us are able to have - sell directly to the consumer. Within a 30-mile radius of my farm, there's probably only 6,000 people. It's almost impossible for me to have the kind of relationship with the consumer that the caller is talking about. - Blake Hurst, Missouri farmer, in response to a question about Community-Supported Agriculture

The potential for small farms in Dryden isn't just about our soil, which isn't perfect, or our capability for automation, which is limited. The potential for small farms here has much more to do with the growing local market for local goods. We can establish those relationships. If you've looked at Edible Finger Lakes, you might reasonably suspect that it's all about yuppies and wineries, but there's a growing broader market. In many cases (though not for meat, that I've found), fresh local seasonal food costs the same or less as its long-distance grocery store equivalent, and a customer base is noticing.

Much of that market is down the hill in Ithaca, where the Farmers' Market is packed on Saturday mornings, but there is also a lot of it in Dryden itself and elsewhere in the county. The Fall Creek farmstand offers its own sweet corn in all kinds of varieties, and Back to Basics sells local sweet corn as well. We have strawberry and blueberry U-Pick farms. Ludgate Farms offers homegrown vegetables, and BB Farms posts where its produce came from as a matter of course. I heard a few years ago about Ithaca Produce supplying local food to Cornell. (I don't know if that's still true, but it certainly opens possibilities.)

The existence of local markets means that local farmers can sell their produce without having to figure out how to deal with larger grocery stores who are more comfortable working with year-round suppliers. It also creates opportunities for them to differentiate their products beyond the usual categories. Varieties, approaches to production, and kinds of processing all help farmers reach customers looking for new or particular experiences.

Many of the crops for our local markets can be grown well in small spaces. You don't need 100 acres to grow lettuce or tomatoes. A market garden could be a fraction of an acre, perhaps even a chunk of an existing large yard. They don't even need or necessarily want a tractor. (Some could be greenhouses, even hydroponic greenhouses like Finger Lakes Fresh.) Maintaining small herds of livestock still requires constant effort, but it's certainly possible and can even be lucrative.

Goats off Etna Road.
Goats off Etna Road.

Figuring out local food processing is going to be a key next step. Direct contact with customers gives farmers much more flexibility in choosing how (and if) to process the food they create. I've been impressed by the steady rentals of the Varna Community Center's commercial kitchen, and might be an example on which to build. One category of processing, slaughterhouses, remains a special challenge, as there aren't huge numbers of them any more and they have a lot of regulatory overhead to deal with.

It may not be all about food, either. Dryden certainly has a lot of farms centered on horses for riding. Some of these breed horses, and others provide stables and teaching. These can also bring money to Dryden homes.

What can the Town of Dryden do to encourage this wide variety of small-scale farms?

  • The Town allows farming in every category of zoning, I believe, and plans to continue doing so in revisions to zoning next year. (I believe both the Villages of Dryden and Freeville prohibit keeping farm animals, and I don't think it's likely they'll change that.)

  • Some of the possibilities are much like the usual economic development plans. The Individual Development Accounts program the Town set up recently with Alternatives could help people raise the funds needed to get started on a market garden, for example.

  • Other possibilities are more specific to farming. Encouraging Cooperative Extension to make some presentations out in Dryden might expose a lot more people to the possibilities and would cost very little. They filled the Dryden Community Center Cafe with a home energy presentation a year or so ago, and I'm sure there are enough people in Dryden who'd be interested in such events to fill a room again.

  • There have been occasional suggestions of setting up farmers markets in Varna or in the villages. We enjoyed blueberries and carrots while attending Music in the Park and Old Home Days, though I don't know how well that worked out as a business. We also have a lot of farmstands in the Town (Dedricks, Fall Creek, Garden of Eatin, BB Farms, Ludgate Farms), which offer more reliable business hours and a steadier selection of food. While I would very much like to see a farmers market somewhere in Dryden, that will likely be a slow and experimental process as we figure what works.

  • I also wonder if there's more room for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Dryden. I'm not sure the Town can play a role in that specifically, but I'd like to see more of them. Customers pay in advance for weekly deliveries of food over a season, even over the winter. One combination I've liked is the (non-Dryden) Full Plate Collective's offering customers the opportunity to pick up their shares at Ludgate Farms. While the share competes with a lot of things Ludgate Farms sells, I often end up buying more at Ludgate just because the share brought me in there.

  • Finally, on a different note, when I first moved to Dryden there was some discussion of setting up a larger network of horse trails. That's definitely something I'd like to see as a part of the broader conversation about trails. Horses and riders both seem to like long rides.

Small farming is not an easy project. Both the farming side and the marketing sides are complex and difficult. Nonetheless, it's becoming a larger and larger opportunity, one that seems to me to fit Dryden well.

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Posted by simon at October 21, 2009 12:02 PM in
Note on photos


Sarah said:

Simon- do you know anything about the Dryden CSA listed in the Shopper recently?

I don't see anything about a CSA in the November 24th Shopper, and don't yet have the December 1st. I'll keep an eye out. We do have a few CSAs in the Town of Dryden, though.

Yes! There is a CSA in Dryden! In fact, it's my farm you are talking about. Although we're called Ithaca Organics, we are located in Dryden right off of Simms Hill Rd, near TC3. Check us out at ithacaorganics.com or visit us at the Ithaca Farmers' Market starting in June.