Saratoga County

Farm Aid’s spotlight shows changing look of agriculture

About 40 farmers and others associated with the national Farm Aid movement toured Willow Marsh Farm

Ballston dairy farmer Chuck Curtiss sells most of the milk his 25 cows produce to Stewart’s Shops — but he hopes within a year to be using most of the milk for himself.

Curtiss is building a creamery at his Willow Marsh Farm on Hop City Road, where he plans to make his own cheeses and yogurts, adding them to an existing and growing sideline selling raw milk, and a farm store the family opened this summer.

It’s all his strategy for dealing with milk prices that make it tough for a small farm to turn a profit.

Farm Aid 2013

BASICS: The Farm Aid concert, with 17 artists including Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, will be at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this evening.

TICKETHOLDERS: Gates open at noon, with the concert expected to last until 11 p.m. Those attending are asked to bring a food item for donation to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

SOLD OUT: The concert is sold out. With 25,000 tickets sold, state and city officials are cautioning motorists using Route 50 to expect long delays.

WATCH & LISTEN: The concert will be webcast at starting at 5 p.m. Willie Nelson’s SiriusXM Channel, Willie’s Roadhouse, will broadcast from SPAC starting at 2 p.m.

“We’re doing things different from most farmers. … It’s all geared toward retail. It’s not how much can we grow so we can sell it wholesale. It’s to sell our products retail, so we can set our own price,” Curtiss told a delegation from Farm Aid on Friday.

About 40 farmers and others associated with the national Farm Aid movement toured Willow Marsh on Friday morning, one of numerous activities surrounding today’s sold-out Farm Aid benefit concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

The concert — featuring musicians including Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews — raises money to support family farms across the country, part of a national effort that began in 1985.

This is the first Farm Aid concert held in upstate New York, and it’s making quite a stir. The concert sold out in four days, surprising Farm Aid organizers.

“We’ve been really excited by the response,” said Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid’s program director. “There’s a lot of innovation out there.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday announced that 13 beer, wine and cider vendors from across the state will be selling their products at the “Taste NY” tent as part of the festivities.

“There may be no better venue to showcase New York’s wine, beer and cider than at the Farm Aid 2013 concert as we celebrate the history and role of agriculture in our state and country,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The visitors Friday sampled milk, cheese and yogurt from the Curtiss farm, as well as the family’s roast corn.

switching gears

Harvie said the Curtiss farm and another in Argyle, Washington County, were selected for tours because they are family farms doing innovative things to stay in business.

“We want people to understand that thriving family agriculture creates a thriving community,” she said.

Much of the talk among Farm Aid backers, though, was about how difficult it is for a traditional dairy farm to thrive in modern America.

“I used to be a dairy farmer years ago,” said Kevin Jablonski of Argyle, who now raises beef cattle. “The milk price is the thing in that business. They talk about the free market, but that’s not what you have with milk prices.”

Milk prices are set through a complex government formula, though for the last decade federal policy has allowed prices to fluctuate more widely than in the past, leading to long cycles of high and low prices — and lows are so rock-bottom they put farmers out of business.

“What farmers are doing is looking for alternatives to the traditional model, and that’s in value-added products,” said Joan Pott, chairwoman of the Town of Ballston Farmland and Agricultural Protection Committee, which is developing a plan to preserve the town’s farmland.

At Willow Marsh, Curtiss and his wife, Darlene, live on a 130-acre farm that’s been in the Curtiss family for five generations. A few years ago, the farm scaled back, cutting its mostly Holstein milking herd from 50 to 25 to reduce overhead.

“The problem with milking 50 cows is it’s just not doable anymore,” Curtiss said. “It got to the point where we were borrowing money just to stay in business, and that gets old fast.”

Milk prices have improved since the business-breaking lows of 2009, but still aren’t making farms profitable, he said. “It sounds great, but grain and fuel track right up with it,” he said.

Turning to yogurt

Curtiss has responded to the low return on wholesale dairy sales by having more of his farm’s milk processed into farm-brand yogurt, and selling milk raw and unpasteurized — one of just a handful of farmers in New York state with permission to do so.

Some advocates believe raw milk is better because it contains beneficial bacteria that pasteurization kills. “This is happening. People are beginning to ignore government warnings” said Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

The creamery the Curtisses are building will let the family process its own yogurts and cheeses on-site, supplementing the raw milk sales.

“It could get to the point where we’re looking at adding more cows again,” Curtiss said hopefully.

Joel Greeno, a family farmer and Farm Aid supporter from Wisconsin, said the milk price problem is a national one. Wisconsin — long famous for its dairy industry — has seem the number of farms drop over the decades from 143,000 to 10,000, he said.

The tales of New York farmers cutting back on milking herds and switching to raising beef is familiar even in the state known as “American’s Dairyland.”

“We’re having the same issues,” Greeno said. “We’re cutting back on milkers and switching to raising beef. … At the end of the year, you’ve made nothing.”

Farm economics

Family farms are in competition with enormous corporate farms, and there’s no immediate likelihood of change in the economics, with the federal farm bill due to expire Oct. 1.

“There needs to be a system that works, that allows farmers to recover their costs of production,” said Katherine Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Contributing to the economic issues in the Capital Region is the pressure on farmers to sell their land for housing developments. That’s been the case in Saratoga County since the 1950s, though there’s a new round of development pressure coming with the arrival of GlobalFoundries and other high-tech businesses and the people who will work for them.

“Yes, there is a lot of pressure here,” Curtiss said. “The chip plant and Tech Valley, there’s a lot pressure from that.”

For a few days, the Farm Aid concert is bringing national attention to upstate agriculture,

New York state has 36,000 farms and 7 million acres in agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — though many of those farms are part-time or hobby farms.

“It’s amazing to get this kind of exposure,” said Jennifer Stevens, Saratoga County’s agricultural economic development specialist.

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