Small farmers, about the only kind starting new farms in New York state these days, are better at growing stuff than selling it. Where they need help is on the business side, with such things as distributing, marketing and selling their products, whether those are raw commodities or new products made from them. A new bachelor’s degree program being developed at SUNY-Cobleskill, to start in 2015, will train students to provide that help. It’s welcome recognition of the local food movement’s importance, and a way to keep advancing it.
Local food is very popular these days. People realize it’s not only fresher and often better-tasting, but easier on the environment: Little diesel fuel is needed to transport it, and, if it’s organic, it doesn’t use fertilizers or pesticides. The money also stays in the community, and precious, scenic farmland stays protected.
For these reasons, consumers are increasingly willing to pay higher prices to support local food — shopping at farmers’ markets and retail stores that carry local produce, buying shares in CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farms, etc. Other factors potentially working in small farms’ favor are a growing shortage of cheap migrant labor, which could take away some of the price advantage large farms enjoy; and the new farm bill, which will provide more support for farmers’ markets and make crop insurance cheaper and more available for small farmers.
All of this makes for a more reliable, predictable revenue stream — and a new profit model for small farmers, especially young ones, who couldn’t afford to buy a big farm anyway.
These are the people the new Cobleskill program will focus on, training students — those studying agricultural business and food systems as well as culinary arts — to work with them, to help them decide what products to sell and where, to help them create new ones.
The program will prepare students for jobs in the agriculture-based industries the state is now promoting, and perhaps even encourage them to start farms themselves. It’s something the region and New York needs, and an additional avenue for Schenectady County Community College culinary students who, after graduating with an associate’s degree, may want to expand their horizons beyond the kitchen.