“If I had to grow my own vegetables, I’d starve and die,” says Kingston transplant Melanie Hargrove, reflecting upon her experience farming in her back yard during the pandemic.
According to the USDA Agriculture Census, there were 33,438 farms across New York State in 2017 with 6.8 million acres of arable land in production. That’s around 20 percent of the land area in the state.
Dairy and milk production lead the output in New York State, accounting for nearly 26,000 jobs, followed by corn harvested for grain, and hay to feed livestock. Cattle farming, which seems the purview of Nebraska, is widespread enough here that it ranks fourth.
Then, of course, come apple orchards, most visibly in the Hudson Valley. Naked in the wintertime, the twisted, contorting, craggly branches make the perfect scare tree for nervous nighttime strollers. New York produces the second largest apple harvest in America, with over 40 varieties. Cideries proliferate.
Vegetable farming is further down the top-ten rungs, with cabbage, sweet corn, potatoes and tomatoes harvested in such quantities that they are mentioned here, though even outmatched by floriculture, the farming of flowers.
For a farmer, the days are long, the nights are short. The odds are variable and the margins are small indeed.
In New York State, the minimum wage is a mandated $14.20 for farm laborers, The markets must compete with cheaper produce flooding in from the neighboring states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which pay their labor less. Because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian produce is also in the competitive mix. Even Mexico, whose labor costs must be cheap indeed to offset the transportation costs, still undercut the local product in price.
Because of the interstate commerce law, which prohibits any sort of tariffs on out-of-state produce, New York farmers are forced to circle the wagons and be satisfied to tout the value of buying local. Some of those who double down on local quality engage in organic farming practices, eschewing genetically modified crops, As a result, their crops are even more vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and insects.
A nervous crop
“My season is winding down right now,” says Delaney Taliaferro, a second-generation farmer standing next to her blueberry fields. Taliaferro Farm is a family farm in New Paltz. “We also have our strawberry patch over there. And we did do some melons. We didn’t get that great of a melon crop this year. I mean, it was a great melon crop. We just didn’t plant as many as we should have.”
Taliaferro Farm is a family farm in New Paltz.
Predicting the weather is essential to a successful harvest, like good luck to a casino gambler. Lick your finger, stick it in the wind, and predict which way it will blow in three months.
Off in the distance there’s still a long row of greens that have yet to be harvested. “That’s Romanesco, cauliflower, broccoli, kale,” says Taliaferro, ticking them off. “Then the things that are covered are beets and spinach. Arugula I’m starting to cover today, too.”
Brassicas, Taliafiero says, are your hardier greens.
Presently the Taliferro Farm is not happy with the unseasonably warm weather. “We already had a frost,” she says. That sort of thing confuses a crop. Apples that ripen and fall too early. A nervous crop, Broccoli is ever ready to bolt.”
Been there, done that
Bruce Davenport of Davenport farms in Stone Ridge has been in the business 40 years. Sweet corn is the cash crop here.
“As far as all that goes, vegetable farms are so low on the totem pole that we don’t get any help from the government at all to speak of,” says Davenport. “The USDA has programs that help vegetable farms if you fit into certain little groups, like we get subsidized for putting cover crops on our ground when we’re done farming it, which is helpful. But it’s such a small amount that it doesn’t fit into our business plan. We’re quite thankful for it because it helps us take better care of our soil, but as far as what the government gives us, it really amounts to some tax benefits that we get because of out agricultural land.”
Cover crops are those that are planted off-season primarily to manage soil erosion. They also can give the effect of engendering desired nutrients into soil depleted by the cash crop. Nitrogen, for example.
“There’s also an agricultural exemption for farmland,” says Davenport. “There’s very specific parameters, and if you’re actually farming and making your living farming that’s not a big hoop to jump through, and yeah, it reduces your school taxes.”
Davenport has concerns over the state labor commissioner’s recent changes to overtime laws for farm labor, which has reduced the threshold from when overtime pay kicks in from 60 to 40 hours a week.
“They’re reimbursing us effectively for our overtime over 40 hours but under 60. My understanding is they have to approve this reimbursement every year. And that can probably be pulled out from underneath us somewhere down the road. So we’ll have to pay it off. What it’s going to do, if we have to continue to pay overtime and not get reimbursed for vegetable farms, you’re just gonna go out of business.”
The changes are being phased in over the course of ten years. In the interim, the state government is covering the cost. Davenport is correct that the amount of money earmarked in the bill will have to be approved by future legislatures.
Davenport is a fourth-generation farmer, While no longer interested, he has flirted with crop changes in pursuit of a more lucrative harvest.
“Been there, done that,” says Davenport. “We grew quite a bit of hemp for CBD. That didn’t work out very well. You gotta go with what you know. We have what some people call ancestral knowledge because my grandfather was doing this, my father was doing this. And we’re pretty good at what we do. And to switch, that’s fine for somebody who’s just starting out. But for us, all of our equipment and all of our knowledge is geared towards vegetables. Trust me, it’s not very easy to get a crop of tomatoes off the ground, or corn or cantaloupes, unless you know what the hell you’re doing.”
Because the margins are so small. A couple of mistakes and you have a big problem on your hands.
Take care of the earth
Down Route 9W into Milton, a seventh-generations family-farming operation has expanded into growing cannabis among the more conventional fare.
“I’m very aware of food and agriculture and feeding people,” explains Amy Hepworth, pomologist and maximum green thumb of the Hepworth operation. “The job it takes to address the transformation of the Green Revolution to a more biological, sustainable, regenerative agriculture. It’s not a simple fix. It’s a continuum. There’s many steps along the way.”
The Green Revolution to which Hepworth refers was a period in agriculture beginning at the end of the 1960s, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, pushed by government initiatives, and characterized by mechanization and chemical fertilizers whose intended effect was to prevent the starvation of millions. Large-scale, high-yield farming.
“I’m giving you the background of the farm to understand how we got where we are,” notes Hepworth. “We transitioned from conventional, diverse market, wholesale, retail, complicated, cooperative marketing in ways adapting the family into what was different at the time and moving ahead. How we serve people’s essentials is so economically disproportionate, it is the tale of the ruin of a culture practically where wealth is distributed. People need to come back to abundant consciousness, we are in such a deprivation and we live within such abundance. And how do you have people feel it?”
Other farmers are reluctant to talk politics. Not Hepworth.
“I’m not a party person, I really don’t care,” says Hepworth. “But it’s a very awesome experience to have somebody who is listening to you. Metzger, Delgado, Hinchey, those are the ones that I know, and these are people that have impressed me with their continuing effort to support agriculture. They have helped our farm by understanding and listening to farmers.”
First the pandemic, now the glut, the hungry attention of a populace whose appetite has been awakened for quality, chemical-free local produce is reaching a tipping point while policies on the state level are arriving at agreement with the demand on the local level.
“You’re buying into an agricultural system,” says Hepworth, “that costs more money to do it regeneratively and to take care of the earth for those that haven’t been born.”
The soil is shifting quickly underneath the feet of the farmers in the Hudson Valley. As the market pivots away from large-scale farming, new policies to support small-scale, sustainable farming may very well be the future — like it was in the past.
“I like small-scale farming,” says Taliaferro. “I think a lot of big farmers are scared of it. Because they’re like, What are these people doing? What does that mean? Because they do mass production. So they’ve planted, you know, acres upon acres of tomatoes and acres upon acres of apples and like, which is, which I think we still should have. But it’s just also I really like the European-market style where there’s a lot of families that own smaller farms, and then they go in every single day — like that’s, that’s where people shop. They don’t go to a grocery store.”