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Montgomery County farmers keep working, adapt to challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

Montgomery County farmers keep working, adapt to challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

Smaller farms find niche markets as others deal with dumping product, cutting workforce
Montgomery County farmers keep working, adapt to challenges during COVID-19 pandemic
Hu-Hill Farm on Lighthall Road in Fort Plain.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

MONTGOMERY COUNTY — When so much of the rest of the world stopped following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, farms kept going. 

That’s just a fact of life.

“You can’t turn a switch on a cow to keep it from stopping producing milk,” said Todd Heyn, a senior field adviser for the New York Farm Bureau. “The goats and sheep still need to be led out to pasture.”

For farms large and small across Montgomery County, there have been some changes to the way business is conducted and some adaptations that had to be made, but the work has to go on.

“Our daily lives have not changed at all,” said Julia Hudynica, who runs Fort Plain’s Hu-Hill Farm alongside her parents, Rob and Shirley. “We milk in the morning, we milk at 2:45 in the afternoon. A lot of times, we get done in the morning and I look to my parents and am like, ‘The rest of the world is literally shut down, and we still have to do what we do.’”

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“Everybody’s just working hard,” said Ken Fruehstorfer of Free Bird Farm in Palatine Bridge, “trying to figure it out and make it work.”

For some, the pandemic has actually helped open up a new market. Large and mid-size farms have been struck by shutdowns in the restaurant industry, schools and commercial facilities and have been forced to dump product — especially in the dairy sector.

But, at small operations like Hu-Hill Farm — where the Hudyncias milk about 65 registered Holsteins at their organic dairy and sell milk, eggs, grass-fed beef and seasonal produce from their small farm store — opportunity has knocked.

“We’ve seen a lot more people very interested in knowing where their food comes from,” Julia Hudyncia said. “A lot of people have been visiting the store, inquiring about the store, asking for meat. At the beginning, we couldn’t keep meat in our freezers fast enough.”

The time has been ripe for niche farmers who sell directly to consumers, Heyn said.

“The public has looked at the fragility of our food distribution system and they say, ‘Hmm, if it takes six steps to go from the farm to my table, what if I go out and get it directly from the farm, or even remove one or two of those steps?’” he said. “Anybody that’s already been geared up for farm-to-table — farm markets, meat farmers specifically — they’re having the best times of their lives. They can’t keep enough in stock.”

And yet, the Hudyncias know that as much as opportunity has opened for operations like theirs, they don’t speak for everyone.

“I think the people that are suffering the most are those middle-size herds, because they don’t have economies of scale,” Julia Hudyncia said. “There will be people that lose their farms because of this. As a family farm, we’re very concerned of that, because there aren’t a lot of family farms anymore.”

Dairy farms, in particular, have been hit hard going back before the current crisis began.

The price of milk has been falling for at least the last five years, Heyn said, and the current climate has only compounded those problems.

Russ Kelly of Glenvue Farms in Fultonville has seen that problem firsthand. Most of the milk his 500-cow farm produces is sent out of the area, primarily to New York City or New Jersey. Two of the plants in New Jersey that his milk co-op sends product to temporarily shut down due complications brought on by the pandemic.

“There was one week where we probably dumped half our milk,” Kelly said.

The supply chain was hurt, Kelly said, because “45 to 50 percent” of dairy products don’t go straight to the consumer, but to the food service industry. Processors have been forced to scale their operations differently, leading to a slowdown.

However, things have started to move forward once again. Kelly said that his co-op has not had to dump any milk in around a month.

And it’s fortunate, he said, that the spread of the  coronavirus has been relatively limited in Montgomery County and the rest of the Mohawk Valley.

“What if our employees, or we ourselves had gotten sick and we couldn’t work?” Kelly said. “That would’ve been something I’m not sure we would’ve been able to deal with. ... Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

As dairy farms face their own challenges, so too do operations like Free Bird Farm, which grows certified organic vegetables on 50 acres in Palatine Bridge.

Free Bird Farm operates primarily under a CSA (community supported agriculture) model, selling membership to individuals and organizations who each receive a weekly shipment of what the farm produces.

In most cases, Free Bird Farm's Fruehstorfer said, that model would be ideal in the current climate. Unfortunately, Free Bird Farm’s primary members are places like YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers and synagogues, most of which are located in New York City. Their shutdown wiped out “80 to 90 percent” of the farm’s market in an instant, and heavy restrictions on farmers’ markets have taken away another chunk of business.

“The markets,” Frueshstorfer said, “are upside-down.”

Facing a severe payroll crunch, Free Bird Farm opted not to bring in its usual employees from Mexico on H-2A temporary agriculture worker visas this year.

Instead, it’s largely become a one-man operation, with Fruehstorfer frantically keeping up the pace with a little help from his kids.

“I’m furiously planting eggplants right now,” he said, “trying to get the greenhouses emptied and trying to keep up with it.”

With the atmosphere so drastically changed in recent months, it’s forced a change in the way farmers across the county — and beyond — conduct business. 

“Every farm is facing a different, unique challenge, depending on what their marketing strategy is,” Fruehstorfer said. “It all remains to be seen. Everyone is looking for new and different markets, because their current markets are going to be off or non-existent. A lot of people are doing pop-up farmers’ markets. Anybody who has established sales off of their farm, from what I hear, they’re busy. People are wanting to stay out of the grocery store and go to the local farm stand instead. They feel it’s safer.”

“There’s positives and negatives,” Heyn said. “No different than any other crisis. If stocks go down, it’s a buying opportunity — as long as you sold yours before they went down. When something goes down, somebody’s always there and it’s an opportunity for somebody else, unfortunately.”

Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.  

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