Agriculture Through the Ages: The changing, youthful face of north country agriculture

The Porter family still owns an operates Porterdale Farms in Jefferson County, from left, Stephen, and wife, Angela, with children Landon, 11, Collin, 8, Kennedy, 6, and Katelyn, 5, David Porter, and Lisa, and husband Greg.

By: Nicole Caldwell

Casey Porter is a 21-year-old woman from Adams Center about to enter her senior year at Cornell University. Except that unlike other college-aged students, Casey isn’t trying to figure out what she wants to do after graduation.

    That’s because this soon-to-be Cornell alum already knows. After college—and a few years gaining real-world experience and skills—she’s headed home to Porterdale Farms, which has been in her family for three generations before her.

Farmers keep getting older

    The average age of a farmer in the United States is 58.3 years old. That number has steadily gone up in the last 30 years, with only 6 percent of principal farm operators today younger than 35, according to the USDA’s 2012 census data.

    On average, fewer and fewer young people are opting for the life of a farmer. You see this fact highlighted in north country communities that were once farming hotbeds, where the U.S. Census Bureau noted in its 2016 report that more than 3,000 residents left Jefferson County between June of 2015 and 2016; its steepest decline in recent years. Lewis County lost almost 1,800 people in the same year and St. Lawrence County lost almost 1,000.

    Much of this decline has to do with decreasing employment opportunities, with more people leaving to pursue careers than coming here for them. In no sector is this truer than farming, an industry that has slumped for many of its workers and owners in recent generations. One farm in the United States feeds around 168 people every year. With the global population expected to hit nine billion by 2050, that means farmers around the world will have to figure out some way to grow 60 percent more food to support all these additional mouths.

    To do so, we need more farmers. And it looks like the north country is shaping up to do just that.

    Farms in the north country are diversifying, with new businesses opening up each year for wine, distilling, beer and honey—and farms to go along with them. To meet the demands of a changing industry that requires new ideas and more technological know-how, there’s a handful of farms right here in the tri-county region where the new face of local farmers is significantly younger.

    With new equipment, new marketing concepts and fresh ideas for a successful farming future in the north country, members of this younger generation are charging back to their families’ lands to breathe new life into one of the oldest occupations.

A dairy farm that decided to expand, not shrink

    Homestead Fields is a certified organic farm in Lafargeville run by the Walldroff family for five generations. The land is comprised of 700 acres and 130 cows that are managed by an intergenerational group connected by blood and marriage.

Jason Schnauber checks on pregnant cows in the fields at Homestead Fields Organic Farm in LaFargeville.

    Jason Schnauber, the farm’s 29-year-old co-owner, grew up on a farm but was working as a construction worker when he fell in love with Monica Walldroff, whose family owns and operates Homestead Fields.

    “Monica’s dad asked me if I wanted to work for him,” Mr. Schnauber recalls. “It was one of those jobs that didn’t have people who wanted to be involved—people didn’t show interest in it. But my family had a farming background. I always enjoyed heavy equipment; I was always in my backyard as a kid, climbing around in the tractors.

    “My family sold their farm in 1987 because of hard times,” Mr. Schnauber says, “and they ended up starting a construction company. I did that right out of high school with one of my cousins for probably seven or eight years. And then I met Monica.”

    Miss Walldroff and Mr. Schnauber will be married this August.

    Two years ago, Homestead Fields expanded to offer Homestead Heritage Cheese, a new arm of the organic dairy offering cheese curds from the farm’s own, newly built creamery. That part of the farm is run by Monica’s father, Edward Walldroff, and sister’s husband, David Van Pelt—with help from other family members and staff to keep everything running smoothly. The creamery will soon have an aging room, allowing the business to also offer hard cheeses. That will expand the business’ season to year-round.

    Marketing to an area as challenging as the north country is what Mr. Schnauber considers the hardest part of farming—but also the greatest opportunity for farmers open to change.

To grow, you need to change

    “This is a seven-day job, 365 days a year,” he says. “But we’re in a seasonal, rural location. The summer months are great when business is booming, but then in the wintertime you cut back almost to nothing. Once we get some hard cheeses, that will change.” The creamery hopes to expand its market statewide, including to sale points in New York City.

    This kind of ingenuity and ability to pivot on one’s feet doesn’t intimidate this new generation of farmers. “I think people in the older generation have a harder time changing their ways,” Mr. Schnauber says. “You know, like it worked for 40 years—why can’t it work that way now?

Jason Schnauber loads grain onto a feed conveyor at Homestead Fields Organic Farm in LaFargeville.

    “The younger generation sees the medium-sized farms, like the 100-cow dairy, with the kids who were involved with it and their parents who were open to change,” he said. “They’re the ones who progress. They started doing things differently. A lot of the newer equipment that’s out there pays for itself quickly because of how much more efficiently you can get things done. Even just a tractor with a cab pays for itself because of the time you save using it. My father-in-law and I kind of butt heads here and there, but at the end of the day we’re open to trying each other’s ways and that’s been very good for business.”

    Staying open to new ideas, trying different things, and enjoying a life spent outdoors with the people you love most in this world? That’s a career the younger generations just might get behind.

Today’s fourth-generation farmers are scientists

    “My family is really what got me interested in pursuing dairy science,” Casey Porter says of growing along with her brothers and cousins as the fourth generation of Porterdale Farms. “4-H was something we always did together, whether it was getting calves ready for the county fair or studying for a dairy quiz bowl contest. That’s where I really had a chance to see my parents’ passion for the dairy industry. As you can see through the generations in my family, that passion is contagious.”

    After high school, Casey got into Cornell’s prestigious animal science program, where she decided to focus on dairy science.

    “One thing that has just changed the scope of farming immensely is the technology and the potential for the application of this technology to advance the science of farming,” says Lisa Porter, Casey’s 54-year-old mother and co-owner of Porterdale Farms.

A family tradition

    Ruth and Glen Porter founded Porterdale Farms in Adams Center in 1938. Today, the farm is co-owned by Ruth and Glen’s son, David, their grandchildren, Greg and Steve and Greg’s wife, Lisa.

    The dairy operation includes 1,950 mature cows and around 1,800 head of young stock. For years, Porterdale Farms expanded; but for the last few years, the family has reaped the benefits of holding at its current size.
    Greg and Lisa have three children, the youngest of whom, Casey, is looking to eventually return to Porterdale Farms full-time. The couple’s other children include a son who works as a certified public accountant, and another son who is a local elementary school teacher and part-time Porterdale Farms worker.

    Steve Porter and his wife Angela live on the farm along with Greg and Lisa, and are raising four young children on the property. “The children are 11, 8, 6 and 5,” Lisa says. “It is so refreshing to have four young children here at the farm and part of the daily landscape. It is just such a joy.”

    The Porter family is certainly an anomaly in today’s landscape, where most people are at least a generation or two away from their own family farms. “People in agricultural production comprise less than 2 percent of the American population,” Lisa says. “So much has changed.”

    Lisa herself grew up on a dairy farm in Western New York, before meeting Greg while they were both students at Cornell. Married in 1987, the couple moved to Porterdale Farms soon after. Lisa began working for the family-run company in 1996.

To ride the wave, adjust your sails

    “Our community is very different than it was when Greg was growing up here,” Lisa says. “Due to the expansion of Fort Drum, there is a higher urban and suburban population. Some of what used to be farmland is now residential. There is competition with Fort Drum and an expanded business community for qualified labor, fewer farms and fewer people raised on farms who are experienced working with cattle and farm equipment.  We do a lot of training of our employees!”

    But it’s not just skills that are being lost. Some of the biggest changes to the farming industry are in the technology in support of and science behind farming operations, from growing produce to raising livestock.

    “The progress in understanding of nutritional science in dairy cattle, and the advances in crop production, are incredible,” Lisa says. “It is just amazing the difference between the equipment that was used when Greg and I were growing up and what is used today. And really it’s just amazing the scientific advances and the complexity of what we’re doing compared to when we were children growing up on the farm.”

Farmers today are much more than laborers

    In addition to being a scientist, engineer and manual laborer, today’s farmers have to keep abreast of major spikes in regulations. “There is so much more regulatory information that we need to process and submit,” Lisa says. “I read a few years ago, in the Farm Bureau publication Grassroots, that dairy farmers are beholden to 27 regulatory agencies.”

    To keep up with regulations, changing technologies and science, you need more than strong muscles and experience growing food or milking cows. And that means a diversified workforce of skilled laborers, scientists, computer whizzes, and, yes, certainly people who can get out there in the sun all day to do the physical work.

    The changing face of agriculture might just be the ticket to draw millennials back to farms. Instead of working in cubicles in cities, today’s young adults might aspire to mix computer work into time spent out in the dairy barn, or in a classroom learning about nutritional sciences.

    With variety being the trick to keeping a career interesting—and a marked increase in people’s desire to connect more with what they consume, the new face of the farming industry is likely to be enough to entice a younger generation to again alter the landscape of north country farms. This time, by offering superior, healthier products for the public, business growth that is better for owners and workers and land that is healthier than it’s ever been.