July 2016 Cover Story: Family Farms

Investing in the family farm’s future

From left, Michael, Christopher, Andrew, and Carrie Higby at their family farm in the town of Leyden in Lewis County. The Higbys started their dairy operation nine years ago on 120 acres off Route 12D.

From left, Michael, Christopher, Andrew, and Carrie Higby at their family farm in the town of Leyden in Lewis County. The Higbys started their dairy operation nine years ago on 120 acres off Route 12D.

State’s new farmer’s grant fund supports early stage agricultural businesses in Jefferson, Lewis counties

By Norah Machia, NNY Business

Photos by AFM Photography

Nine years ago, Michael and Carrie Higby decided to quit their day jobs and start operating a dairy farm in the town of Leyden.
Both had been raised on dairy farms, but neither stayed in their respective family businesses. Instead, Mr. Higby worked as a mason and Mrs. Higby provided child care while they raised their two sons, Christopher, 13, and Andrew, 11.
After the birth of their youngest child the couple started talking about returning to their farming roots.

“We wanted to teach our boys something” Mr. Higby said.

The couple, with support from their families and friends, bought 120 acres off Route 12D in Lewis County, and have since expanded their operation to 100 milking cows and 120 young stock. In 2014, they built a free-standing barn next to their home.

Recently, they were notified their farm would receive some additional support through a New York State program designed to help certain farmers increase efficiency and boost production of their agricultural products.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced last month the New Farmers Grant Fund would provide more than $743,000 in grants to support 25 early stage agricultural businesses across the state.

The purpose of the fund, now in its second round, is to help farmers in business less than 10 years. The goal is to improve their farm’s profitability and, as a result, add to the diversification and growth of New York’s agricultural sector, according to a release from the governor’s office.

“Agriculture remains a critical component of the New York’s economy and these grants will help ensure this industry’s continued strength,” Gov. Cuomo had stated. “This funding will support new and emerging agribusinesses as they expand their operations, develop and market high-quality products and generate new growth in their communities.”

Christopher, 13 and Andrew Higby, 11, feed cows on the family farm.

Christopher, 13 and Andrew Higby, 11, feed cows on the family farm.

Empire State Development, in consultation with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, administers the New Farmers Grant Fund. New York State has allocated $1 million in the 2016-17 state budget for the New Farmers Grant Fund to provide grants for up to $50,000 to pay for 50 percent of eligible project costs.

The goal of the program is to help farmers improve profitability through costs associated with expansion of production, farm building construction, equipment purchases and other upgrades that help bolster production.

All owners of the farm operation must be in the first 10 years of having an ownership interest in any farm operation, and the farm operation must have a minimum of $10,000 in sales of products grown or raised on the farm, according to Empire State Development.

There were 55 applicants statewide during the most recent funding round, with two north country farms receiving grants.

The Higbys will receive an $18,000 grant, while Jay J. Canzonier, owner of North Branch Farms, Belleville, will receive a $45,000 grant through the program. The awards are matching grants, meaning the state monies will cover 50 percent of the expense, while the farmers must match the other 50 percent with their own money.

The Higbys applied for matching funds to purchase a new mixer. The couple has been using an older model mixer “being held together with a welding rod and bailing twine,” Mr. Higby said.

A mixer is used to combine various types of feed, such as corn, grain and hay, and then distribute the mixture in equal parts to the cows, so “they are all eating the same thing,” Mrs. Higby explained.

It makes the feeding process more efficient, saving time and allowing the farmers the opportunity to work toward increasing milk production, she said. The Higbys received assistance from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County to complete their successful application, she said.

Jay Canzonier with his children, Margo, 7, Joeseph, 9, and Daniel, 6, at North Branch Farms, Belleville.

Jay Canzonier with his children, Margo, 7, Joseph, 9, and Daniel, 6, at North Branch Farms, Belleville.

It was Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, along with the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, that helped Mr. Canzonier apply for the grant money, he said.

Mr. Canzonier and his wife, Kathryn, have three children, Joseph, 9, Margo, 7 and Daniel 6. They had been living in New Jersey and decided to purchase their home in Belleville to be closer to Mrs. Canzonier’s family, and to have the opportunity to raise their children in the country.

His vegetable farm was started in 2008, “when the milk prices crashed,” Mr. Canzonier said. At that time, he had been working as a crop consultant, but the demand for those types of services dropped.

His wife had continued her employment with Farm Credit East, transferring from New Jersey to the Watertown office. Mr. Canzonier decided to start his own vegetable growing operation, and initially focused on sweet corn.

Starting in mid-July, the Canzonier family will open its stand once again at 7781 Lake Road, just outside the village of Belleville, offering items such as sweet corn, cucumbers and tomatoes. Their daughter Margo also grows and sells her own flowers at the stand.

In the fall, they operate a U-Pick Pumpkin field, offering not only a range of pumpkins, but winter squash and gourds as well.

Mr. Canzonier has approximately 35 acres of land to grow his vegetables, and has constructed several buildings, including a greenhouse and a pump house.

Jay Canzonier, owner of North Branch Farms,  Belleville, with some of his tomato plants.

Jay Canzonier, owner of North Branch Farms, Belleville, with some of his tomato plants.

But in order to take the farm to the next level and start selling to larger suppliers, such as food distribution services and
additional chain supermarkets, Mr. Canzonier decided he needed to invest in a packing house.

His state grant will go toward the construction of a 1,500 square foot packing house, complete with wash lines and coolers. He also plans to apply for GAP certification (Good Agricultural Practices) as part of the packing house project.

This certification would enable him to increase production and service more markets, including large chain grocery stores and food distribution operations, he said.

“It’s hard for small farmers to sell wholesale” without that certification, and the use of a facility such as a packing house, he said.

North Branch Farms is not a certified organic farming operation, but it employs many “organic production methods,” Mr. Canzonier said.

“We use integrated safe pest management control and only spray when needed,” he said. “We don’t do a broad spectrum application of pesticides.”

For more information on the grant program, check out esd.ny.gov/Business Programs/NewFarmersGrantFund.

Norah Machia is a freelance writer who lives in Watertown. She is a 20-year veteran journalist and former Watertown Daily Times reporter. Contact her at norahmachia@gmail.com.