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Charlton farmer keeps farmland going another generation

Outlook

Charlton farmer keeps farmland going another generation

The rewards outweigh the challenges, but there's a lot of work to do
Charlton farmer keeps farmland going another generation
Farmer Jason Arnold of West Charlton with his tractor at his Sacandaga Road farm Tuesday, January 29, 2019.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

CHARLTON — Tinkering with assorted farm equipment in a shed where the snow doesn’t melt after it’s tracked in, Jason Arnold explained why winter is the easiest time of the year for him.

Winter was putting on a show this cold January afternoon, turning the landscape along Sacandaga Road into an impressionistic blur behind falling snow. But Arnold would be able to walk home for dinner that evening, rather than work a 14-hour day.

He is a crop farmer, so he gets a bit of a break in winter, unlike the generations of Arnolds before him, dairy farmers for whom the work is continual.

Arnold is younger than most farmers, turning 30 only last month. He chose his profession fully aware of the financial pressures facing farmers everywhere, and the development pressures in particular in Saratoga County, where so many farm fields have been cut into residential subdivisions. 

The pressure isn’t so great in Charlton, but next door in Ballston it can be intense.

“When it comes to being able to purchase property, to continue to grow crops on? There’s no way we could ever compete,” Arnold said. 

“We pick up acres every year, we lose a little bit every year. We try not to, but it’s inevitable. Sometimes people sell their property for houses, for example, or sometimes they go to another [farmer] because they are able to offer something to them.”

There is cooperation and camaraderie within the local farming community, but there is also competition for the finite amount of land.

Jason Arnold grew up working on Arnold Haven Farm, a Sacandaga Road operation that’s been in the family for more than a century and is now owned by his father, Charles, and uncle Richard. After graduating from Galway High School, he earned an agricultural degree from Cornell University, managed a Cortland County dairy farm for a year, then worked for a Schuylerville-area dairy farm for a few years.

Time and money

He says he likes dairy farming and misses it in some ways, but decided against it as a career. That was due in part to money.

“The milk prices are just terrible, absolutely terrible, and it’s taken a big toll on the little guys like this,” Arnold said of Arnold Haven Farm. “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t get into milking cows, and chose to grow the crops that I sell.”

The other reason he turned away from dairy farming? Time.

“I remember my dad, growing up; he was always busy, wasn’t home a lot,” said Arnold, who’s now a father himself.

When he left the Stillwater farm and came home to go into business, he made it a crop and vegetable operation, so he wouldn’t have the continual task of feeding and milking a dairy herd. This lets him spend more time with his wife, Kelly, and their toddler son, Aiden.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Farmer Jason Arnold of West Charlton drills into a round bale of hay to take a sample at his Sacandaga Road farm Tuesday, january 29, 2019.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Farmer Jason Arnold of West Charlton drills into a round bale of hay to take a sample at his Sacandaga Road farm Tuesday, January 29, 2019.

To mute the impact of market price fluctuations and natural challenges such as plant disease and bad weather, Arnold diversified his crops and customer base. As simple a step as varying the size of hay bales opens up new potential markets.

Arnold drove out to western New York just after Christmas and bought a used grain dryer so he can stabilize grain and potentially wait for commodity prices to rise. He bought a century-old cornstalk bundler in the Utica area to create the ever-popular autumn decoration. He bought an old horse-drawn potato digger so he could grow and harvest spuds.

Another critical step: direct sales to customers.

While Arnold was still working at the Schuylerville dairy, he and Kelly resurrected an idled farm stand up Route 147 as Arnold’s Farm Fresh Produce. Kelly runs it now, and it provides a place to sell vegetables at retail prices instead of wholesale. 

They’ve expanded into value-added products made with their produce, such as pickles and soup, chasing the kind of vertical integration that boosts profits. Sandwiches made with farm vegetables and products from other local producers fill the shelves. Community-supported agriculture shares are available, and agritourism is a possibility in the future.

All of these things make farmers more than simple producers of bulk commodities, and provide them a bigger paycheck that they have more control over.

More from Outlook 2019

Arnold’s workforce fluctuates, peaking at eight in the summer – and that’s counting himself, Kelly and his brother Preston, without whom he couldn’t do all the harvesting.

In 2018, he grew 150 acres of soybeans, 250 acres of corn and 266 acres of hay – more than a square mile of crops spread across Western Saratoga County and easter Fulton and Montgomery counties.

As a small operator on leased land, circumstances dictate what he can do with those crops. The main shortcoming is storage capacity, especially for the space-consuming hay. 

Up-front cost

As he tinkered in his workshop that cold and snowy January afternoon, Arnold was also preparing a sample of silage hay to be analyzed for a potential customer. The sweet smell of fermented silage is universal on dairy farms, but what nutrients it offers the bovine consumer will depend on growing and harvesting conditions.

“I’m marketing some of my hay right now,” he said, “and I need the analysis to be able to say, ‘this is what I’ve got.’

The hay that Arnold can keep dry will command a higher price and be fed to horses rather than cows.

Similarly, top-quality corn and soybeans destined for human consumption rather than livestock feed will bring a better price.

The hitch is the up-front investment needed to be able to produce these commodities.

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Farmer Jason Arnold of West Charlton holds a bag of hay for a sample at his Sacandaga Road farm Tuesday, January 29, 2019.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Farmer Jason Arnold of West Charlton holds a bag of hay for a sample at his Sacandaga Road farm Tuesday, January 29, 2019.

Arnold’s other big investment in all this is time: Six to seven 12-hour workdays a week during the growing season, with no break for recreation.

“If Mother Nature gives me four nice days, hay has to be bailed in the summertime,” Arnold said. “And unless you have a whole bunch of employees that work for you to get it done, it’s really kind of left to you to do.”

With the challenges of the starting out as a young farmer come a few modern advantages his forebears never had, including digital help with production and marketing.

Arnold displays a smartphone gallery of scores of pictures, from the first green shoots poking out of the ground in spring to heads of garlic that fill most of his palm to stacks of green-speckled orange Warty Goblin pumpkins on display for autumn sale at the farm stand.

“That is my year,” he said simply. 

Another step forward has been in safety. His tractor is just a year old, with all the new protective features. If the driver gets out of the seat, the power takeoff shaft – source of so many amputations and deaths during a century of mechanized farming – disengages.

Arnold actually feels at greater risk driving his tractor on the road from one field to the next than he does working in the field itself. He and his father were riding on Route 147 when a distracted driver slammed into the manure spreader they were pulling, for example.

Crowded roads are another symptom of suburbia encroaching on the farms of western Saratoga County.

“I worry about it in the future,” said Arnold, whose goal is to farm a thousand acres in a single year. But he doesn’t worry enough to look for an easier job.

“Why do I do that? Because I enjoy open fields, still. I enjoy farming. You don’t do this for getting rich, you do it because you enjoy it.”

More from Outlook 2019

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