Essex County farm owners get candid about difficulties in growing pains, finding the right scale, maintaining profitability
By Tim Rowland
Adirondack farmers markets are a symphony of bright color and sunny joy, but beyond every beet, every berry, every lamb chop there is a darker struggle.
Owners of three iconic Essex County farms spoke of their difficulties to a packed house at the Whallonsburg Grange last week, laying bare finances and futures in a community that strongly supports local agriculture, but where even community support sometimes isn’t enough.
Small farms enjoyed a bounce during the pandemic, as shortages, health concerns and broken supply chains caused people to give more thought to their food and seek closer connections with the land.
But as the pandemic receded, these bonds have weakened, said Kristin Kimball, who owns Essex Farm with her husband, Mark. More persistent in the era of COVID-19 have been labor shortages, high fuel and feed prices and delivery costs.
“It’s just harder to be an independent farmer than it was 20 years ago.”— Kristin Kimball, Essex Farm
What goes up…
Some farms that scaled up to meet pandemic demand are now faced with scaling back down. Kimball said Essex Farm is ending its weekly CSA runs to New York City, as it focuses more on local markets. This will cut revenues by half and result in a smaller workforce.
A key to independent farming is finding the scale that maximizes profits, and it can take some adjustment to locate the sweet spot.
Racey Henderson, who raises chicken, pork, beef and maple syrup on Reber Rock farm with her husband, Nate, said years of operating in the red has led to a decision to double the number of chickens it produces in the coming year. If the spreadsheets are accurate, Henderson said that would at least allow the farm to pay for its mortgage and taxes.
“The farm has never covered its costs,” Henderson said. “But its social viability has been extremely successful, and we don’t want to be anywhere else.”
‘Go big or quit’
Reber Rock was founded with $200,000 in savings and family loans, and is supported by Henderson’s off-farm work. When they were in their 30s, the exhaustion of their savings seemed like part of the adventure, but in their 40s it is more sobering. “We thought, is this how we want to continue?” she said. That led to the decision to “go big or quit.”
The post-pandemic environment has not been without its casualties. Ian Ater, owner of Fledgling Crow, which has grown produce in Keeseville for the past 15 years, filed for bankruptcy in December, citing debts of $450,000, according to court papers. Ater was to have been a panelist at the Grange event, but was unable to attend due to a death in the family.
David Brunner, who owns Asgaard Farm with his wife Rhonda, said the couple needs to contemplate the future of their dairy and make succession plans. Asgaard produces artisan goat cheeses primarily sold in the region, but whose quality can go toe to toe with any across the country.
Brunner said Essex County is an agricultural success story, and can be considered a “food destination” for its quality products. Its heartbeat is Hub on the Hill, a farm store and distribution network that covers 2,100 miles each week from the Canadian border to New York City.
The community connections
During the pandemic, the Hub stepped up to deliver thousands of emergency food baskets to people in need. Brunner said this farm-community connection is essential to continue sustainable farming, and includes SNAP and a growing farm-to-school program.
“We not only have to produce good food, but it also needs to get into the hands of the community,” he said.
Kimball said community members can help by designating some of their food budget for local farms. That involves a clear-eyed understanding of how the food system works in America, where up to 80% of groceries are produced by four mammoth corporations.
This industrial efficiency masks the gap between what it costs to raise a product on a local farm and what people can afford to pay. “There is no such thing as environmentally friendly, socially just food that is also cheap,” Kimball said.
It also has created “a shift in what people consider to be food,” Kimball said. People recognize processed, pre-packed foodstuffs as good to eat, but not so much a fresh turnip pulled from the soil.
Tuesday’s Grange program was also designed to identify potential solutions. Some included greater cost-sharing collaboration among farms; philanthropic donations to alleviate the disparity between costs and affordability; more easily negotiated SNAP guidelines; and something like nonprofit status awarded to for-profit farms that are working for the community good.
“The cultural roots of agriculture are very community oriented,” Kimball said. “Farmers support the community and support each other. But it’s not guaranteed to last forever.”