Farming Magazine - August, 2014

COLUMNS

New York Farm Bureau: Conflict or Cooperation

By Carol Doolittle

Two different-size farms were on display at a Seneca County Farm Bureau event in Waterloo, New York, demonstrating that size doesn't create conflict when the farms have the same goals.

More than 90 people gathered at the 44th annual Rural Urban Dinner to celebrate agriculture in New York's Seneca County. Two farmers from Interlaken presented their philosophies and goals: Melissa Madden, co-owner of Good Life Farm, an organic operation, and Bruce Austic, owner of Austic Farms, which grows crops such as corn and soybeans.

One key point that came through in the presentations is that both farmers want to reduce energy inputs and leave their soil better than when they started.

To improve soil health, Austic spreads lime to increase the pH from 4.8 to 7. To reduce fuel and other inputs, he uses larger planters, combines and tractors than he did when he started farming.

Good Life has made permanent plantings, such as 2 acres of asparagus, 10 acres of semidwarf "pasture orchard" and 20 aces of diverse pasture, that require less energy input every year. To improve soil health, deep-rooted cover crops are used to alleviate subsurface compaction, and legume covers are mowed to release root zone nitrogen. In addition, they calculate how much turkey "fertilizer" should be deposited in an area and move the turkeys accordingly. Beef cows and horses graze in a mixed herd. The horses provide the horsepower on this farm.

While Madden and Austic use different methods, their goals of improving the soil and using fewer inputs are the same. They are, as Madden said, "both farmers and a minority nationally."

Madden explained to the audience of farmers and urban consumers that Good Life focuses on direct-to-family relationships through its CSA initiative, located in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. Good Life currently serves families in Interlaken, Trumansburg and Ithaca, with plans to expand to Seneca Falls, Auburn and Syracuse.

Madden and her husband, Garrett Miller, pair perennial vegetable production with organic orchard management; high-quality forages for beef, poultry and draft horses; using season extension for vegetables; and low-energy-input systems. They represent a national wave of farming enthusiasm, with young and second-career people wanting to get into farming for a variety of reasons, including lifestyle, awareness of the need to work with nature, desire to live and raise families in a rural community, and concern about their health and that of the planet.

"As young farmers, we benefit from the guidance of local farming mentors and ecological design based on permaculture principles," Madden said. "As we grow, our farm becomes more self-reliant and robust." Of their 69 acres, they routinely cultivate 3 acres for annual vegetables, relying on their perennial systems to reduce impact on the environment and produce nutritionally dense food. Their direct sales provide an on-farm experience, bringing urban consumers into closer contact with the daily work and helping them understand the value of farmers.

Austic also has a family farm. His parents began with a small crop farm of about 100 acres and laying chickens. His mother carried baskets of eggs to the house cellar, where they candled and packed them. His father drove a school bus, sold farm equipment and had a small repair shop. Austic said, "He worked hard at other occupations to be able to do what he and I loved to do - farming."

That was how they started. Now, Austic has moved into the global market, with some of the farm's 7 million pounds of soybeans going to Indonesia, where they help feed 14 million people. Other products from his 8,000-acre farm are exported to China and Taiwan and sent to food companies in the U.S.

No-till practices curb soil erosion. Austic uses crop rotation and targeted fertilization, and he knows the soil in each block of land. Fuel consumption is reduced with the use of efficient equipment. These practices allow the farm to produce 43,000 quarts of quality milk and enough wheat to make almost 4 million pounds of flour that goes into pastry flour used to make pretzels and other products. The farm also produces more than 40 million pounds of dry corn for high-protein feed and ethanol.

Austic provides high-quality, nutritious components that go into making food to feed millions of people in the U.S. and beyond. Madden provides the finished product right at the farm to fewer people, and the demand for it is very high.

"The differences between these two types of farming are amazing. Each has a place and value in the diversity of food production in Seneca County," said Ann Heizmann, owner of Meadeville Farm in Seneca Falls and vice president of the Seneca County Farm Bureau. "We are a microcosm of farming in the Northeast and even other areas of the U.S.," she added.

There is the potential for conflict and philosophical disagreements, but there's no question that there's a need for both large-scale family farms and small ones, as long as both are stewards of the environment and community. Since relatively few people want to farm, or can farm successfully, there is a great need for the few to feed the many. There is also a need for farms to provide local food to local consumers.

Austic said, "All farmers like the challenge and working with soil and animals. Isn't it foolish to criticize? How do you relate one farm type to another? What is a big farm? An 8,000-acre farm or a 30,000-acre one? A 50-acre CSA is not small compared to a 5-acre CSA."

Carol Doolittle is co-owner of Frontenac Point Vineyard & Estate Winery on Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region and chair of the Promotion-Education Committee for the Seneca County Farm Bureau.