CHARLTON — An agricultural index unveiled Wednesday points out the strengths and importance of Saratoga County’s farms, which do more than $500 million a year in business.
But a panel discussion following the release of the statistics focused more on the continued pressures the farms face, along with some ideas for how to respond.
To release the index, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership chose a barn converted to an event space at Ellms Family Farm.
It was a fitting venue: Ellms is a Christmas tree farm that goes far beyond Christmas trees, with events and activities to keep the revenue flowing the rest of the year. Other farms have adopted or are looking for such a strategy as they struggle with rising costs and varying revenue for their products.
Much farmland in Saratoga County have been plowed under for housing and commercial development, especially near the Northway, but many successful operations remain: Saratoga County ranks third in the region behind Washington and Montgomery counties for value of agricultural output.
“Agriculture still plays a very important part of the Saratoga County economy,” said Marty Vanags, president of the Prosperity Partnership, which is Saratoga County’s designated economic development agency.
Horse farms and related equine businesses remain closely identified with Saratoga County, due to the famous race course in Saratoga Springs. But dairy farms are the most valuable sector, as they are in New York state as a whole.
The ranks of dairy farms have dwindled over the years — down to 23 by the 2012 agricultural census, and further since then, according to one of the panelists. The few that remain are often large and most of them have found a formula for success that has kept them in the same family for generations.
Two of the statistics Vanags cited Wednesday bear this out: Saratoga County was 30th among New York counties for number of cows but sixth for value of milk produced per farm annually.
Along with its statistical research, the Prosperity Partnership surveyed farmers about their operations and opinions. Not surprisingly, the survey found heavy support for preserving an agricultural presence in Saratoga County. And 71 percent of respondents were “optimistic” about the future of farming in the county. Some 24 percent were “pessimistic” and 6 percent were neutral. None were “very optimistic,” but none were “very pessimistic,” either.
Surveys and research are great but the opinions of those in the field matter more, Vanags said, turning the program over to the panelists: Jennifer Koval of Koval Bros. Dairy Farm; Rachel McDermott of Whole Feeds of the Hudson Valley and ZHub; Willard Peck, town supervisor of Northumberland and co-owner of Welcome Stock Farm; and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake.
The problem keeps coming back to money — not just making it but keeping it, said Peck, a sixth-generation farmer.
“If a farmer’s going to stay in business, they have to continually reinvest,” he said. “So any time it’s a good year, farmers don’t hold on to their money.”
Koval said this is part of why agriculture is an important part of the local economy.
“Farms are local businesses, their money is generally spent locally,” she said. “That money goes out in the community and creates more jobs and supports better local businesses.”
Woerner said farms need to be able to do more than grow food.
“When you have a farm where the cost of production is higher than the revenue you get, there’s only so much you can do,” she said.
“I think the next challenge is to say, how do we diversify the crops that are available to be grown, how do we encourage the next generation to come in?
“What is it that we can do to create value-added products, so that our farmers are not price-takers, they’re price makers?” Woerner added. “That’s really where our problem is now, we don’t have a commodity price that can support the price of production.”
McDermott saw the same issues when she decided to leave the corporate world and return to farm life.
Her operation pursued the booming craft beverage market, producing grains for malt makers, brewers and distillers. Critically, it was able to avoid a large startup investment in new equipment, as this was an adaptation of its existing feed grain business.
“It had a really big impact in our first year, generated about 10 percent of our overall gross income, with margins that were triple, quadruple what our feed business would have generated,” McDermott said.
“But that being said, you get to the point where you have to invest in that business too.”
She said she’d be relying on the help of agencies like the Prosperity Partnership as she seeks to grow the business.
After the presentation, Vanags told The Daily Gazette some were surprised that so much of the audience was from the business community, rather than from farms. That was done with the intent to spread knowledge and appreciation of agriculture beyond the farming community, he said.
Two specific initiatives the Prosperity Partnership will be pursuing now are controlling energy costs and increasing marketing.
Energy is one of the damaging cost variables that Peck cited and marketing is a critical step to a value-added business model.
One idea for marketing, Vanags said: “Can we put a ‘Made In Saratoga County’ label on it?”
Others have looked at the concept before, he said, and not run with it. Now the Prosperity Partnership will take a fresh look at it.