The changing face of farmers continues to have implications across the agricultural industry. With the average age of American farmers now at 57 years old, a new generation of farmers is slowly emerging in order to feed our citizens and steward the land. Interestingly, many of these beginning famers are blazing a different path in their quest for agricultural business solvency. Because of a variety of issues including land access, capital investment, and shifting consumer demand, these greenhorns are both finding creative ways of funding their farms and producing products in nontraditional ways.
In the past, it was common for a family farm to be handed down to the next generation along with all the practical skills associated with a certain type of commodity. Corn farms grew corn, ranches grew cattle, with little enterprise in between. The current trend within new farms in the Hudson Valley is that they are producing more diversified plants and stock. This diversification provides a variety of products for sale from a single property while also allowing for complimentary enterprises to augment each other. Grass and Grit farm in New Paltz exemplifies this new type of startup. A diversified livestock farm, they plan to raise a variable ark of animals this year including broiler chickens, laying hens, goats, pigs, sheep, and turkeys.
The three partners Ben, Maddie, and James met while farming on another property in 2014. They were accepted last year as part of Glynwood’s Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator, which according to the website, “reduces the traditional barriers to success for new farm businesses by providing access to land, housing, shared equipment, infrastructure, low-interest capital, business mentoring and training in advanced practical skills. Launching farm-based businesses in the supportive, low-risk environment of the Incubator greatly increases the likelihood of business viability and success.” This mentorship has allowed Grass and Grit to take their time and develop a business based on both consumer demand and their own personal preferences. This is a process that many traditional farmers would not recognize as the family farm was often handed down as a completed, self-sustaining enterprise.
Expertise in any field requires skills and mentorship and that is the focus of this program. Because most of our young farmers did not grow up on farms, they are lacking some of the basic skills necessary to continue and to grow the area’s successional farming endeavors. On a recent visit to the property I was able to meet with Ben and take a walk around the farm. During my time we spoke at length about the reasons and process of diversification on small farms. Ben’s take on the situation was a simple one. First and foremost, they are working in conjunction with the land and utilizing pressure from multiple species to both augment and to improve the resources in the best way possible. Ben indicated that they plan to rotate all of the animals depending on impact and stocking rate to improve the land that they have, to reduce parasite loads, and to grow out healthy animals. Another reason they chose to implement the diversified model is because it provides different products throughout the season. Grass and Grit is utilizing a CSA model that provides drop offs in several locations in the area. Local consumers are not only looking for high quality products and humane handling of animals, they are also looking to build a relationship with their local farmers. The CSA model allows Grass and Grit to provide a complete package for these engaged consumers.
The production of larger commodity products requires the investment in specialized and often expensive equipment. These new farms tend to favor lighter equipment that can be purposed to fulfill many roles on the property. Many of these farms are investing in modern tractors that have the ability to both plant and harvest a variety of produce, and have the power to move round bales or equipment in the front end loader. The Grass and Grit model, like all of the diversified formats, is unique in its production and scope. We are witnessing a trend towards enterprises that support both vegetable and livestock production. When used in conjunction, the waste or surplus products from each part of the system can be used to supplement other parts of the farm. Examples include feeding dairy whey and surplus vegetables to pigs, composting manure to be used to improve farm soils, and utilizing multiple grazing species to break up parasite cycles.
The diversified farm can be successful in many areas but it is not without its drawbacks. There is a reason that many farms concentrate on one or two types of agricultural products. Each separate system requires different equipment and different expertise. Each animal at Grass and Grit Farm needs specialized housing, feed stuffs, medical care, and general husbandry acumen. There is a steep learning curve when getting to know any farming enterprise whether it be sheep, garlic, or hops, and the mistakes necessary to expand and anticipate problems come at measured pace depending on the season and conditions. This year’s success does not necessarily guarantee a bumper crop the next year. The incubator program allows those mistakes to happen in a supportive and educational environment where the learning curve promotes continuation and success.
As the barns, fields, and farmers in the area age, we must be mindful of the changing face of agriculture. These new farmers are basing their models on consumer demands and personal preference, a luxury that many of our forefathers did not have. As these farmers gain knowledge from season to season they will begin to focus their expertise and produce what fits their model and passion best. It is exciting to drive by a field and see chicken tractors sharing space with vegetables and pick your own strawberries. Diversified farms are one way that farmers are utilizing alternative models to produce the best product possible while improving the overall productivity of the land.