Since 2017, Cortland County has lost nearly 20% of its farms because farmers just couldn’t make ends meet, farm experts say. Donning rubber boots and denim jeans, nearly two dozen legislators and municipal leaders spent Saturday touring farms to learn about agriculture and the effect their policies can have.
They watched chickens made ready for sale, learned how technology helps farmers milk 40 cows at once and explored gardens of fresh flowers and fields of fall pumpkins.
Officials of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County and Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District spent months organizing the farm tour to help state and county lawmakers gain a better understanding of what farming means to their constituents.
“We needed to do something to make sure that our policymakers are more engaged and more aware and more supportive of agriculture in this community,” said Amanda Barber, manager of the conservation district. “To understand agriculture, you need to experience it.”
Assembly members John Lemondes (R-Lafayette) and Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) joined the tour, along with about half of the Cortland County Legislature and town supervisors. They started at New Hope Dairy
Farm in Homer before making their way to Cobblestone Valley Farm in Preble, Catalpa Flower Farm in Homer and the Villnave Family Farm in Little York, before finishing their tour at Anderson’s Farm Market for lunch.
The county’s 536 farms generate $69.5 million a year in sales, shows the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 agriculture census, but those numbers may be dropping.
“In the last five years, we’ve lost about 20% of the farms in the county, and it’s because they can’t continue to operate at a loss,” said Janice Degni, a field crops specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County. “The smaller farms have less of a buffer, with fewer savings or lack of access to loans. That’s why we’ve lost so many smaller farms.”
In Cortland County, most farms are smaller and face challenges, including a combination of state and federal regulations, milk processors dropping small farms and fluctuations in market demand, said Brooke Head of New Hope View Farm.
“Dairy farmers, on average, receive about $1.33 per gallon of milk — but it takes us $2 to create (that gallon),” Head said. “It costs us more money to produce our products than we are receiving for it. Every dollar you spend on milk in the grocery store, the farmer actually gets about 16 cents. We have bad years and good years, but we’ve been in a bad year for about six years now.”
Head led the tour through the farm’s milking parlor and explained how farmworkers attach rotolactor technology to the udders for more efficient milking. New Hope View has about 1,400 milk cows that need milking three times a day, but the farm has only 20 full-time employees.
Legislator Richard Stock (D-Cortland) grew up on a farm, but it was nothing like the farms he toured Saturday.
“It was good for me to see both the new technology and understanding the expense that they have to go through compared to what we did,” Stock said. “Back then, we didn’t sell that stuff, we would just give milk to our neighbors, unpasteurized, with the cream still on top.”
“I’m from a farming community, so I’ve been on a farm before, but it was impressive to me over there at New Hope,” said Legislator Mitchel Eccleston (R-Cincinnatus, Freetown, Taylor, Willet). “When I was on a farm, it was all conventional and today we’ve got robots doing that job.”
“I want to talk to the smaller farmers and follow up with them,” Kelles said after the tour. “I want to ask what are their unique challenges, given that the operation is so unique and the labor is so different. Every farm is so diverse and every system is different.”
Already, Kelles has reached out to two farmers to discuss their individual needs, and learn more about how she can help small farmers through state policy.
“I think just understanding the systems operations of farms is really important in order to help them,” Kelles said.