October 22, 2021

A growing phenomenon

Federal data show more sales, more farms since '12

Kevin Conlon/contributing photographer

Emily Baker checks out young chestnut trees growing in tubes on her Cincinnatus farm. The number of farms in Cortland County has increased since 2012, federal data show, largely from small farms.

Graham Savio and his wife, Emily Baker, are no stranger to farming. However, just 14 months ago they decided to start their own farm — Conrad Hill Farm — centered around two types of tree crops — apples and chestnuts.

About 4 1/2 acres of trees make up an orchard at the two farmers’ farm on Conrad Road in Willet. Twelve sheep flock the land as well.

“We both come from rural America,” Savio said.

Baker grew up in Montana and Savio comes from rural Schoharie County. They met in college in the international agricultural development program at the University of California-Davis.

It was clear to both of them they wanted to work on farms and with farmers.

Numbers released earlier this month from the 2017 Agriculture Census show a contrasted view of what is happening here in Cortland County from the rest of the state.

The number of farms in Cortland County increased between 2012 to 2017, although that number is down statewide.

Beef producers have increased more than 50% since 2002, while dairy in Cortland County has declined more than 50% in the same time period.

Trends in smaller farms — an acre to just under 10 — have also spiked. Farm sales were up for smaller production farms making $2,500 or less, as well from 155 in 2012 to 202 in 2017. “It’s a fascinating time to be a new farmer,” Savio said.

New farms

New census data numbers show an almost 3.5% increase in farms in Cortland County — 536 farms in 2017 from 518 farms in 2012. Sales also increased 10.3%, to around $69.5 million in 2017 from $63 million in 2012.

The number of farms in Cortland County increased between 2012 and 2017, federal data shows, driven by a spike in the number of new, smaller farms. Sales also increased, in part because of sales growth from larger farms.

“A bunch of folks coming in now have idealistic visions of saving the world,” Savio said.

Savio sees that as a good thing. The new farmers, and the existing ones, are the people driving the environmental and conservation policies, he said.

“Farmers want to do better,” he said.

Savio and Baker originally planned on a sheep dairy farm, specializing in cheese. They soon realized they had a lot of dreams.

With Baker working on a Ph.D. at Cornell University and Savio working two jobs, producing cheese at a sheep dairy was not feasible.

They settled on a plan to grow apples and chestnut trees, as well as raising some sheep.

“Two-thirds of our apples will go to cider production,” Savio said.

The chestnuts, once ready for harvest, will go to a processing plant where they’ll be turned into flour, Savio said.

“It’s a good crop to get into,” Savio said.

Dairy down, beef up

Census data shows a decrease — around 4% — in dairy farms in Cortland County. On the flip side, beef farms have increased by around 30% in the five years between 2012 and 2017.

Paul Fouts, a dairy farmer in Groton and director of district five for the state board of the New York Farm Bureau, hadn’t yet seen the agriculture census data, but said the numbers go along with his guess that the number of dairy farms was decreasing.

Those who left the dairy industry most likely made the move to beef cattle or even crop farming, he suggested.

The increase in beef and decrease in dairy could be connected, Fouts suggested. “You’re going from one cow to a different kind of cow,” he said.

Fouts has heard plenty of talk from fellow farmers over the past year about staying in or leaving the dairy industry.

“We’ve been discussing it ourselves,” he said.

The number of dairy farms in Cortland County dropped more than 50% between 2002 and 2017, even as the number of farms raising beef rose more than 50%, show data from the U.S. Agriculture Census.

Betsy Hicks, a farmer in McGraw and area dairy management specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, was intrigued by the census data.

The growth in the beef industry is only reflective of what is going on, Hicks said. As dairy farms go out of business, it’s easier to move to beef.

Hicks said Cortland County has great agricultural land and will always be strong in dairy. “People are dedicated to dairy,” she said.

Monika Roth, an agriculture educator through the Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension, said as people are moving out of dairy, the next suitable option is beef.

Smaller farms may also be equipped to handle a couple of beef cattle. “Beef is a suitable land use for small farms,” she said.

Small farms on the rise The increase in smaller production farms — making a profit of $2,500 or less — has increased in Cortland County by around 30%.

Fouts isn’t sure what has spiked that. One reason he could think of is the recent push on people wanting to know where their food comes from. “There’s been a focus on local foods,” he said. “Especially in Ithaca.”

However, smaller farms tend to come and go. That could be driving the numbers up, as well, Fouts said. Yet he doesn’t see that being a long-term trend. “Some might fight that,” he added.

Many of the trends shown in the new census data correlate to the increase in small farms across the area, Roth said.

“There are lots of small little specialty farms,” she said — farms with crops like Savio’s and Baker’s chestnuts.

Across the state

The number of acres farmed in New York is down — 6.8 million acres in 2017 compared with 7.2 million in 2012 — an in the number of farms, too.

It’s the same in Cortland County — 113,519 in 2017 from 115,024 in 2012.

“The most startling statistic is we now have 33,438 farms in the state, about 2,100 fewer farms than 2012,” David Fisher, New York Farm Bureau president, said in a release. “This is the largest drop in more than two decades and is triple the national average of a 3% loss. The losses run the gamut, including a 9% drop in both the smallest and largest farms in terms of value of sales.”

On the positive side, there were elements of growth, Fisher said. New York saw a 35% increase in organic farms, to 1,330 farms in 2017 from 864 in 2012.

The number of farms statewide is down, however they’ve increased in Cortland County.

The area’s resources — fields, soil, equipment dealers and other essential elements to a successful farm — could be driving the difference between the state totals and what’s going on in Cortland County, Fouts said. “I think that’s maybe the case in Cortland County,” he said.

Fouts said people are going to see pockets of growth. This area is one of them.

“There’s strong infrastructure here,” he said.

Farm fields are plenty, soil is good and farm equipment dealerships can be found around.

The numbers released in the census may not be a good representation of what is going on now, Roth said. the USDA started collecting the numbers in 2015 and 2016. “They’re already almost five years old,” she said.

While those numbers can be used to compare 2012 to 2017, it’s hard to say if that’s what we’re seeing now, Roth added.