Dairy farmers get crash course on OSHA rules to prepare for random inspections

Ronald L. Williams with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration told farmers Tuesday that the agency will begin conducting inspections at random beginning Oct. 1. Ted Booker / Watertown Daily Times

Ronald L. Williams with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration told farmers Tuesday that the agency will begin conducting inspections at random beginning Oct. 1. Ted Booker / Watertown Daily Times

Dairy farms across upstate New York will be held to tougher enforcement of safety rules by the government, starting next fall.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will begin conducting inspections at random when the federal fiscal year starts Oct. 1, Ronald L. Williams told farmers during a presentation Tuesday at the Copenhagen Fire Hall hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson and Lewis counties.

Mr. Williams, a compliance assistance specialist at OSHA’s Syracuse office, said OSHA has decided to launch a “dairy local emphasis program” in New York to curb the increasing number of farm-related accidents and deaths in the state. About 20 farmers attending the workshop learned about a dozen farm hazards that cause most OSHA violations. For example, all tractors manufactured after October 1976 must be equipped with roll-over protective structures; manure lagoons must be protected with barriers to avoid machinery-related accidents; a sink eyewash station must be situated where corrosive chemicals are used, and warning signs must be posted at areas where employees could be physically harmed.

Farmers peppered Mr. Williams with questions throughout the two-hour workshop, which was followed by an afternoon tour of Milk Street Dairy, Woodville, led by James Carrabba, agricultural safety specialist at the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health.

Anxiety about OSHA inspections is pervasive among farmers, and for a reason: In 2012, inspection officers from the agency’s 24-county Central New York region, which includes the north country, handed out 1,346 violation citations to businesses during 592 inspections. Fines totaled $2.6 million, with the average about $2,500 and the highest about $7,000. The inspections included various businesses, including agriculture, manufacturing and construction. It was unclear how many of the violations pertained to farms.

OSHA officers now inspect dairy farms only when they receive a safety or health-related complaint or referral from an employee, resident or other agency, Mr. Williams said. Starting next fall, the agency will begin conducting inspections at random on dairy farms. OSHA started a similar inspection program in Wisconsin in 2012.

“We’ll come up with a listing of all establishments, and then we’ll randomly choose them for inspections,” Mr. Williams said.

A lively discussion during the meeting centered on what rights OSHA inspectors have during farm visits. Inspections are permitted only on farms that have 11 or more employees, and/or have established a temporary labor camp during the past 12 months. Despite what many believe, OSHA does not have the authority to inspect the living arrangements of farmworkers, Mr. Williams said; those inspections are done by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

Dairy farmer William J. Marks, a managing partner at Marks Farms in Lowville, said he is disconcerted that OSHA inspectors sometimes are accompanied by representatives from advocacy groups when they conduct inspections. One such group he referred to is the Workers’ Center of Central New York, a Syracuse-based organization that advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrant farmworkers.

“There are some advocacy people that OSHA is dealing with, and these groups claim they have the same rights as OSHA,” Mr. Marks said. “But you can tell them to get off your site because they don’t have the authority.

But we don’t know how to handle it, because these advocacy groups come on hard. Is it my job to call the police? Because I think OSHA should be responsible to make sure they’re not there, because they’ve created a liability.”

In response, Mr. Williams said farmers have the right to refuse access to advocacy groups that wish to participate in OSHA inspections. He said OSHA would be responsible for advising such a group to leave if a farmer objects. But he did not know whether the agency could force the group to do so.

Mr. Marks continued, “How do we comply with any of these regulations? I’ve dealt with OSHA people throughout the state, and it’s all up for interpretation.”

Farmers learned Tuesday that, on average, it takes OSHA about six months to resolve an investigation.

Michael R. Burger, owner of Deer Run Dairy in Adams, said his farm already has made some changes to comply with OSHA regulations. It has improved its training program, for instance, to ensure employees know about the farm’s health and safety policies. Though the OSHA guidelines have spurred Mr. Burger to make changes, he said, most large dairy operations already provide a safe working environment without government intervention.

“The problem is that farming is not like operating a factory because we’re busy doing different things all the time,” Mr. Burger said. “Accidents are going to happen, and not necessarily because of work safety issues.”

Farmers can view a webinar on OSHA compliance or download the PowerPoint presentation from Tuesday’s workshop at http://wdt.me/o5UVNf.

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

Beef farmers planning commingled cattle pool to do business with big buyers

Farmer Donald H. Holman checks some of his cattle in his pasture on Route 178 in Adams. Norm Johnston / Watertown Daily Times

Farmer Donald H. Holman checks some of his cattle in his pasture on Route 178 in Adams. Norm Johnston / Watertown Daily Times

North country beef farmers are preparing to do business with farms across the Midwest next fall by pooling their calves into a commingled herd.

Livestock educators from six counties across the region have offered training over the past three years with that goal in mind, encouraging farmers to adopt cattle similar calf management practices needed to establish the feeder pool, said Betsy F. Hodge, who leads Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Northern New York Regional Livestock Team. To establish a commingled herd marketed to buyers, she said, beef calves all would have to be similarly bred, weaned and vaccinated. They should be preferably crossbred, weigh in the range of 450 to 650 pounds and be bred with black hides.

Creating the feeder pool would enable buyers to purchase a large number of cattle with the same weight, color and health treatment. Those feeder cattle likely would be marketed and sold at the Canandaigua-based Finger Lakes Livestock Exchange, along with local cattle backgrounders and finishers who raise them to be slaughtered. The Finger Lakes sales barn, which hosts auctions twice monthly from September through December, sells calves to farmers who raise them for slaughter.

Beef cattle producers in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties already have considered joining the pool, Ms. Hodge said. Some 80 beef farmers own farmland in Jefferson and Lewis counties; there are about 80 beef farmers in St. Lawrence County alone. Some farmers have begun to raise their calves using practices recommended by educators, she said, who launched the feeder pool initiative in 2012.

“I think we’ve reached a point where they could get a group together, because we’ve worked on this a long time,” said Ms. Hodge, who recently applied for a $7,000 research grant to kick-start the initiative from the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. That funding will go toward research to determine what management practices farmers are using to raise calves.

“We want to get a handle on how farmers are marketing calves to sell now so that we know where to start,” said Ms. Hodge, a livestock educator at St. Lawrence County’s extension office. “Farmers who haven’t been to our meetings need to get on the same page.”

A few farmers in Jefferson and Lewis counties are interested in contributing cattle to the feeder pool, said Ronald A. Kuck, livestock educator for Jefferson County’s extension.

“We’re trying to recruit a group of like-minded beef farmers to do everything similar,” he said. “That’s going to attract a group of outside buyers that will be willing to make a trip to the north country. They’re willing to pay higher prices for cattle that have been vaccinated, castrated and weaned correctly.”

Those large groups of cattle could net up to 45 cents more per pound on the market than what they’ve garnered individually at auctions, Mr. Kuck said. That difference would equate to sales of about $270 more per head for 600-pound cattle.

The feeder pool initiative is expected to be launched on a small scale, Mr. Kuck said, then grow incrementally in successive years.

“If 10 guys contribute 10 calves, and five guys contribute 20, that would give us a pool of 200 to start out with,” he said.

The biggest buyers at the Canandaigua auction are seeking to buy large quantities of cattle, with 70 to 100 head that are transported in tractor trailers, said Michael J. Baker, beef cattle specialist at Cornell University, Ithaca. Dr. Baker, who helped launch the feeder pool program here, is hopeful enough beef farmers will participate to launch the program in the fall of 2014.

“Even if we don’t get the magic 70-head number to sell that trailer load next fall, we could get three or four farms to put together 50 or 60 calves,” Dr. Baker said. “We could either send them down together to the Finger Lakes sale barn, or we could leave them on the farms and have them described and presented at the sale; maybe even with a video, so that buyers can bid on them without being there at the barn.

“That would remove the stress of shipping them to the sale barn, and then to their ultimate destination. Those loads are going out of state to Kansas, Texas, Missouri and a variety of places, because we just don’t have a large feeding industry in New York.”

Out-of-state buyers are lured to the Canandaigua auction mainly because of the comparatively low prices for preconditioned feeder cattle, Dr. Baker said. Those calves now are sold at a relatively low price at the Finger Lakes Livestock Exchange, according to findings from a three-year study led by Cornell University. Data from the second year of the project, collected on nearly 10,000 cattle head and 3,900 lots, show they were sold at an average of $2.80 per hundredweight; that price is 29 cents per hundredweight less than the national average.

Adams beef farmer Donald H. Holman, who raises Angus cattle to be finished, said he might be interested in selling and buying calves in large numbers by participating in the feeder pool if it’s established. He now buys anywhere from 100 to 150 calves from about eight farmers who live within 50 miles of his farm. Once calves became full-sized adults with a weight of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, he transports them to an auction barn in Paradise, Pa. He sells about 250 to 300 cattle a year.

If enough beef farmers join, “this pool could be phenomenal because you could go to one place, one time, and pick up 50, 100 or 200 head,” Mr. Holman said. “I now buy almost everything I need from private individuals, but if they join the pool then I’m going to still get those cattle, because I know them.”

The most lucrative market for cattle in the pool, however, likely will be among Midwest buyers, Mr. Holman said.

“The whole point of this pool is to get buyers from the Midwest to come up here because they can buy a potload of cattle,” he said. “They’ll keep coming here as long as they can take them in potloads of about 45,000 pounds.”

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

Training for OSHA farm visits set Tuesday

Training for farmers to prepare for unexpected visits from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Copenhagen Fire Hall, 9950 Route 12. The cost is $30 to attend the program, which includes lunch.

The workshop hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County will include an afternoon visit to Milk Street Dairy, Woodville, to put the morning workshop into perspective.

To RSVP, contact Arthur Baderman from Jefferson County’s Extension office at 788-8450 or afb2@cornell.edu, or Peggy Murray from Lewis County’s Extension office at 376-5270 or mlm40@cornell.edu.

-Watertown Daily Times

Overnight stays spotlighted at Country Cousins Farm on Open Farm Sunday

Jack A. Laisdell, 4, Redwood, tours the dairy barn with his grandfather, Bob A. Laisdell, and sister, Lydia M. Laisdell, 2, (not pictured), during Open Farm Sunday at Country Cousins Farm in Evans Mills. Justin Sorensen/ Watertown Daily Times

Jack A. Laisdell, 4, Redwood, tours the dairy barn with his grandfather, Bob A. Laisdell, and sister, Lydia M. Laisdell, 2, (not pictured), during Open Farm Sunday at Country Cousins Farm in Evans Mills. Justin Sorensen/ Watertown Daily Times

Guests from New York City, New Jersey, Syracuse and Toronto got to experience authentic “country living” this summer by staying overnight at a cabin at Country Cousins Farm, a small, 57-cow dairy farm in Evans Mills.

That was one of the reasons Stanley S. Horning’s farm was chosen by Agri-Mark Cooperative as one of 51 dairy farms across the Northeast to host a public open house on Sunday. The third annual “Open Farm Sunday,” held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., featured Cabot and McCadam cheeses because milk from Country Cousins and other Agri-Mark members is used to make it. About 100 people visited the farm, 29415 Fults Road, and ate burgers topped with different Cabot cheeses, macaroni and cheese, and a variety of cheese samples.

Mr. Horning has owned the 270-acre farm with his wife, Sharon E., since 1993, when the couple moved here from Lancaster, Pa. The couple began hosting farm visits in May 2012.

A family of Ecuadorian immigrants from New York City stayed at the farm during the Fourth of July weekend, when they helped with chores and asked a plethora of questions. Mr. Horning said it was about 4 a.m. when the six-member group, including two children, arrived at the farm’s cabin, which has room for up to eight people and is equipped with two double beds, a pair of bunk beds, a futon and appliances including a television and coffee maker.

The guests from the Big Apple were initially amazed by how quiet it was on the farm, Mr. Horning said. The 50-year-old owner laughed when he recalled how the group reacted when the Hornings started morning chores at 4 a.m.

“They were scared because they weren’t used to the silence,” he said. “So when I called the cows from the pasture into the barn, it scared them. They heard me yelling, ‘C’mon, c’mon!’ to the cattle, and they ran outside to see what was happening and peered through the windows of the barn.”

Later during their stay, “the family spent some time to squeeze fresh milk right out of the cow to drink it up,” he said. “They also watched the sun come shimmering up from the horizon outside the cabin, which they don’t see in the city because it’s blocked by buildings.”

Peculiarities are commonly exhibited by guests who hail from big cities, Mr. Horning said. Some of them volunteer to get their hands dirty by helping with farm chores — milking cows, scraping manure and piling hay.

Others are more reclusive, choosing to stay in the cabin for most of their time.

Families are always welcomed to pitch in during morning chores before breakfast. Seven days a week, Mr. Horning and his 17-year-old son, Derek L., wake up early to milk and feed the herd together. But most guests, understandably, elect to help during the afternoon shift instead.

This August, “we had the father of a family from Syracuse who got up with us early once for chores,” Mr. Horning said. “We don’t ask them to do anything they don’t want to do. But if they want to get in there to scrape the manure and milk cows at 4 a.m., they’re welcome to help.”

In early August, the Hornings rented the cabin to a young man in his mid-20s who came from the coast of New Jersey. As a limousine chauffeur habituated to city life, the urbanite had no prior knowledge of farming.

“He liked it here so much that he stayed an extra day,” Mr. Horning said. “We tried to teach him the difference between the cows, but it seemed to all go over his head. He helped bale hay, and we took him for a ride on the tractor. He had family suppers with us during the evenings and played cards.”

The Hornings haven’t yet attracted enough visitors to make a profit on the cabin, Mr. Horning said. He expects it to take three to five years to build a strong client base. But the Christian family — who advertises the farm stays as a ministry — didn’t open the cabin simply to rake in cash.

“At some point, we’ll hopefully make some money to cover our costs, but this cabin thing is more about the ministry for us,” Mr. Horning said.
Jefferson County dairy princess Casey S. Porter, 17, served food and mingled with visitors Sunday. Eight other dairy princesses and ambassadors from Jefferson and Lewis counties also volunteered.

“The farm stays offered here are awesome,” Miss Porter said. “They give people an opportunity to see what goes on at a farm. It tends to be tough for people to understand because publicity (about farms) in the media is sometimes negative.”

Visit www.countrycousinsfarm.com to learn more about the farm.

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

Variety of vendors contributed to busy season at Watertown farmers market

Customers check out the wares Wednesday at the last Watertown Farm & Craft Market of the season on Washington Street.

Aubrey J. Smith, a 9-week-old, napped in her stroller Wednesday morning at the Watertown Farm & Craft Market on Washington Street while Margaret G. Patchen gingerly pulled a purple crocheted hat — made cute by a pink flower — over her head.

The baby continued to sleep undisturbed as the $8 hat was removed and paid for by her mother, Marlana J. Smith, during the last day of the market hosted by the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce.

Mrs. Patchen said her sales were up from last year at the market, where a total of 57 vendors participated this season. She attributed that success to an expanded offering of handmade items, including tutu dresses made for young girls and priced from $15 to $40. She also sold turtleneck sweaters for short-haired dogs, designed to keep them warm during the winter.

“I’ve heard many times from customers that I should sell more than just hats during the summer, and the tutus have been very popular this season,” she said. “You have to keep changing things up to have people come back every year to buy things.”

The variety of vendors at the farmers market this year impressed Mrs. Smith, who visited the market for the first time Wednesday with her husband, Jacob W. Smith, a 24-year-old Fort Drum soldier who returned from Afghanistan two weeks ago. The young couple from Fort Smith, Ark., said the farmers market is a notch above others they’ve visited.

In Arkansas, “markets are usually out of town so you have to drive a half-hour, and they only sell fruits and vegetables,” Mrs. Smith said. “I like having the variety here, and it’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I’ll be back next summer.”

A line of people waited Wednesday at the fruit and vegetable stand run by Simmons Farm of Copenhagen. Purchasing a handful of cucumbers grown at the farm was Kimberlin S. Ponciano. The Watertown resident, who is employed as a nurse at Samaritan Medical Center, has been a loyal customer at the market.

“I usually buy cucumbers and squash to make salads,” the 31-year-old said. “I also like to buy bottles of wine from Coyote Moon.”

Ms. Ponciano is among a group of regular customers who buy fresh produce from Simmons Farm. Vendor Shari L. Simmons often sells out of fruits and vegetables, which fill baskets to the brim when the market opens at 6:30 a.m. Wednesdays. One new trend is that customers now are sending her text messages with their shopping lists to reserve their purchases in advance, she said.

On Wednesday, customers made large orders to stock their freezers with fresh produce for the winter.

“A lot of my customers would be happy if they could spend the entire year at the farmers market without having to go to the grocery store,” said Mrs. Simmons, 54. “They like it here because they know where their stuff comes from.”

Patrons who are natives of Southern states often have a penchant for sweet-tasting wines offered by Coyote Moon Vineyards, said Lori S. Randazzo, co-owner of the Clayton-based winery. Its wine called Fire Boat Red, made with Concord grapes, is especially popular at Coyote Moon, which has been a vendor at the market for four years.

“We call it ‘sweet nectar from the north country,’ because a lot of people from the South like the sweet wines and come here just to buy them,” Mrs. Randazzo said.

Thanks to a grant of about $10,000 from the state FreshConnect program secured this year by the Watertown chamber, special discounts for low-income families were offered this season. For every $5 purchase made with EBT cards, customers received a $2 discount coupon, said Georgia F. Gagnon, assistant market manager. Ms. Gagnon, who was hired by the chamber thanks to the FreshConnect grant, said the program aims to make fresh produce affordable for low-income families.

“We’ve gotten quite a few new customers who have asked about how this works,” she said. “We usually get large crowds here at the beginning of the month when people get their food stamps. Saving $8 in coupons when you spend $40” is a good incentive.

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

Lucrative land: increased demand for farmland drives up prices in Jefferson County

Howard D. Barney, left, and sons Jesse A. and John A. have been buying up as much cropland as possible for Butterville Farms, Henderson, which they jointly own. Ted Booker/ Watertown Daily Times

A decade ago, dairy farmers described fertile farmland south of the Black River in Jefferson County as “a best-kept secret.”

But as the price of commodity crops has climbed steeply, so has the demand for tillable farmland here. Land prices have doubled over the past five years as the area has evolved into a mecca for out-of-state farmers.

Amish farmers have moved from Ohio and Pennsylvania to start farms here, while farmers from states across the Northeast and Midwest have scooped up the once inexpensive farmland to grow cash crops.

Seasoned dairy farmers have watched cash-crop farmers from outside the region move here to plant grain corn and soybeans on farmland previously tilled only for hay and silage.

Tillable farmland in the southern half of the county sold for $1,000 to $1,500 per acre five years ago, farmers say, but now goes for $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. In the county’s northern half, farmland that sold for less than $500 per acre is now priced at more than $1,000.

But dairy farms that rely on tillable land to feed their cattle haven’t sat on the sidelines to be outcompeted by cash-crop farmers on land sales. Instead, they have scooped up large swaths of farmland to lock in sales before prices climb higher, said Howard D. Barney, 70. He co-owns Butterville Farms off Route 75 in Henderson with his two grown sons, Jesse A. and John A.

Thanks to recent land purchases, the 950-cow dairy farm now owns about two-thirds of its 2,900 acres of tillable farmland; it leases the rest. About 1,600 acres of corn silage and 1,300 acres of hay will be harvested this fall.

“We used to pay much less than $100 an acre per month to rent land until the price of soybeans and grain went up, and then all hell went loose,” Mr. Barney said. “Now we’re competing with grain and soybean farmers. A few years ago, some of our neighbors were only getting $2 a bushel for grain corn. But last fall, they were getting $7 to $8 a bushel. It’s made buying land more competitive.”

Gobbling up land

In February, Butterville Farms joined Robbins Family Grain, Sackets Harbor, and Hillcrest Farms, Ellisburg, to buy 2,600 acres of prime farmland in the towns of Watertown and Hounsfield for $4 million from a Connecticut landowner. In that deal, Butterville acquired 400 acres of tillable farmland off Route 3 in the town of Watertown.

Mr. Barney, who has witnessed his fifth-generation dairy farm evolve for decades, said other farmers were surprised when Butterville bought 1,600 acres of land near its property about five years ago at a price of $1,400 per acre.

That price was considered expensive at the time, Mr. Barney said, but the land “has now at least doubled in value. We’d now get $4,000 per acre for that land.”

The Barneys, looking to the future, have aggressively bought land when opportunities have arisen in recent years, said Jesse, 46. Though prices are relatively high now compared with five years ago, he said, large dairy farms still are gobbling up as much land as possible.

“Here, everything we harvest goes through our cows,” he said. “As far as corn goes, it’s better that we harvest from our own land, because it’s now cheaper to grow than it is to buy. And if you wait to buy land, you can’t get any. We’d like prices to go back down to where they were, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Economies of scale

The increasing value of commodity crops has spurred farmers to repurpose land, growing grain and soybeans to cash in on prices, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops expert for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Seven years ago, for example, grain was sold at about $3.50 per bushel and soybeans for about $6.50 per bushel. Today, soybeans are being sold in advance at $13.82 per bushel for November, while grain is priced at $4.59 per bushel for December, according to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Because of that trend, cash-crop farmers have purchased marginal farmland with heavier clay in the northern half of the county during the past five years for low prices, Mr. Hunter said. Soil on farms north of the Black River tends to drain water less efficiently, which results in lower harvest yields. While buying marginal farmland for cash crops is unusual, he said, farmers are raking in profits by doing so.

“Before, the economics weren’t there to produce crops on that heavier soil because you couldn’t make up your expenses,” he said. But because of higher commodity prices, “now farmers can get lower yields on those fields and still make money. People who are now growing corn and soybeans out there weren’t cropping five years ago, but it’s really getting pushed the last couple of years. It’s all being driven by corn and soybean prices. That’s why people are willing to pay more.”

As a result, Mr. Hunter said, farms that were leasing land at low prices have sometimes been bought out by cash-crop farmers who are willing to pay more. That is also a recent trend.

“Some people couldn’t afford land when rent values went up,” he said. “People sometimes have open-ended lease agreements, and someone else will offer to rent land for $10 to $15 more per acre.”

Out-of-state transplants

Despite climbing prices, tillable farmland here still is much less expensive than in other states, Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald C. Robbins said. Ten years ago, he said, Jefferson County launched marketing initiatives to lure farmers from outside the region to take over farmland here. But those efforts have been scaled back, he said, because the influx of farmers from outside the region is competing with local dairy farms to buy land, driving up prices. He said cash-crop farmers have relocated operations to the north country from Kentucky, Nebraska, Iowa and Canada. Amish farmers have relocated here from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“Ten years ago, there were all of these small dairies going out of business, and no one was there to take them over. But now that trend has totally reversed itself. Out-of-state people come in here and think land is cheap compared to their area of the country and, at $2,000 per acre, it is. But farmers here become a little protective when we see an outsider coming in who doesn’t necessarily see the way we like to see things done. If they’re here to contribute to the community and make money, that’s a different story, but not if they’re here to make money off the government with crop insurance.”

Tight competition for farmland has spurred large dairy farms such as Robbins Family Grain, which has 950 cows, to acquire farmland while they still can, Mr. Robbins said. After acquiring 950 acres of tillable farmland in the $4 million, three-partner sale in February, the farm plans to harvest 2,600 acres of corn for grain and silage, 2,200 acres of hay and 900 acres of soybeans this fall. A 280-stall dairy barn was built recently at the Sackets Harbor farm off County Road 145, which will enable it to expand its herd to more than 1,100 head of cattle over the next two years.

“Bigger dairies like ours want to have enough cropland now so we can manage our land during poor crop seasons,” he said. “It’s a management risk for a lot of farms, and all of us need land.”

Some small- to medium-size dairy farms, though, find it challenging to expand because of the farmland’s high prices, said Arthur F. Baderman, agricultural educator at Jefferson County’s extension office. “Some of these small farms don’t have anyone in the family to take over and are tired of milking cows,” he said. “They’re looking to either rent or sell land at high prices to larger farms so they can keep living in houses they’ve always lived in. They want to wipe the slate clean and have money for retirement.”

Will prices continue to climb?

Seasoned dairy farmers realize that land values sometimes increase rapidly for years, then suddenly level off or decrease when the economy shifts, Mr. Robbins said. Agricultural land values have increased about 4.5 percent each year over the last 200 years, he said, but not at a steady rate.

Over that period, “there have been about six boom times where land values have increased at a rapid rate. But then we’ve hit times where land prices have gone from a positive to negative trend,” he said. “These cycles happen, and you can’t expect what’s going on in the last five years to be the trend in the next five, or further on out. Steep money and high commodity prices encourage people to buy land and expand, but that will change if we go back to low commodity prices in a year and interest rates go up.”

But dairyman Lyle J. Wood, who co-owns a 900-cow dairy farm in Cape Vincent with Scott F. Bourcy, predicted that land prices will continue to climb steadily because of sustained demand for farmland across the county.

“We were generally buying land here for 500 to 600 bucks a year ago, but now it’s over $1,000,” he said. “I think prices are going to go up 10 percent a year for a long time, because everybody is driving up the prices, and you have guys who are doing strictly crop farming.”

The farm, which bought 650 acres of land over the past three years, now owns about 2,000 acres and leases about 2,000, Mr. Wood said.

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

JCC purchases plot to grow grapes

Jefferson Community College students will get hands-on experience planting and nurturing grapes next semester.

The college is renting a half-acre plot on Ridge Road to allow winery marketing and management students better to work with the sweet, cold-hardy grapes that flourish in the north country.

The Ridge Road plot near the Black River Trail was approved by the college board of trustees at its Sept. 4. meeting.

“Students will actually be planting these cold-hardy grapes,” winery management and marketing Program Coordinator and instructor Julie Purpura Hosbach said. “The first year, we’ll plant half an acre, about 200 vines.”

The winery management and marketing associate degree and certificate were developed last year to fill local vineyards’ needs for trained employees. The degree is supplemented with an oenology, or wine appreciation and selection, class and an introductory winery marketing and management class.

Until the college’s own vines are planted around May, however, viticulture students will get their hands-on experience tending to vines at local wineries, Mrs. Hosbach said.

“The plot can also serve to research,” she said. “All the local vineyards are experimenting themselves.”

The grapes that will be planted are Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc. These were developed by the University of Minnesota to withstand temperatures as cold as minus 30 degrees — a temperature with which the north country is familiar. More grapes may be added as they are developed.

For more information about the class or the degree, call Mrs. Hosbach at 786-2348.

-Reena Singh, Watertown Daily Times

Craft breweries becoming cash cow for hops growers

John K. Bartow holds bags of the harvested dried hops from his garden in Adams Center. Norm Johnston/ Watertown Daily Times

Hops — small flowers that provide the tangy flavor in beer — are becoming an attractive specialty crop in the north country, where the burgeoning craft beer industry has planted roots.

By partnering hops and grain growers with craft breweries in the state, farm brewery legislation passed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last summer could provide a catalyst to expand the industry here over the next decade, said John K. Bartow Jr., executive director of the Tug Hill Commission.

After starting a hops yard three years ago behind their Adams Center home on Route 11, Mr. Bartow and his wife, Janet L., had their first successful harvest this August. But while the Bartows started the small plot as a hobby, they now plan to sell a portion of their harvest to craft breweries in the area seeking to buy locally grown hops.

“We mostly started growing them as an experiment for relatives who are home brewers, but we had extra this year,” Mr. Bartow said, explaining it takes about three years for hops to mature. Hops are planted in the spring as underground stems called rhizomes; they emerge during the summer as bines that grow over 20 feet tall and are harvested in August.

The Bartows’ plot, which has 24 bines of five varieties of hops, yielded a harvest of about 40 ounces this year. That supply is enough to brew about 40 gallons of craft beer. Varieties include Cascade, Centennial, Brewers Malt, Mt. Hood and Sterling.

Because plants will be more mature next year, Mr. Bartow said, the field should produce about 60 ounces. He plans to sell a portion of those hops to a craft brewery planned in Lowville by co-owners Gerald J. Haenlin and Dean T. Richards. To be called BarkEater Craft Brewery, the business will open in early 2014 at 5411 Shady Ave., Lowville.

BarkEater is applying to become a licensed farm brewery, which requires a portion of its hops and grains to be grown in New York state under the legislation approved last summer by Gov. Cuomo. Through 2018, at least 20 percent of ingredients must be produced in New York State to keep the farm brewery license. That figure gradually will climb to 90 percent by 2024 under the law.

Mr. Bartow believes the legislation will spur more breweries, like BarkEater, to purchase their ingredients from local farms, providing a niche market for the production of hops and grains.

“The microbrewery industry in New York and across the country is growing pretty big, but how profitable remains to be seen,” he said. State legislation “will create a demand for hops and grain that go into the beer. And as the percentage of local ingredients required (by state law) goes up, that will put demand on farmers or hops growers to generate products in New York state.”

BarkEater will obtain most of its hops from White River Farm CSA in Turin, where it has established an agreement to grow hops on five acres of land. It now has 75 bines that were planted two years ago on one acre, Mr. Richards said. It eventually could grow over 125 bines on the land for employees to harvest by hand, he said.

To expand beyond than that, the brewery would need to acquire harvesting equipment because of the labor-intensive work involved.

“It’s very labor-intensive, and that’s going to be the challenge for farmers in New York state,” Mr. Richards said. “Research shows it takes a man 12 hours to harvest one plant — that’s how many hops grow on a mature bine. As the state tries to grow hops farms, they need to provide more support for farms to harvest them. A commercial harvester is over $100,000, so we have to find ways to do it collectively.”

The Northeast Hops Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the specialty crop, allows farmers to rent portable harvest machines during harvest season.

BarkEater — an English translation of the Mohican word Adirondack — will qualify as a nanobrewery according to state law, Mr. Richards said, because it will use a small half-barrel production system. The 1,500-square-foot brewery, which is now being renovated, will be allowed to sell an array of beers on tap as a certified farm brewery. The beer will be produced at a production area in the back of the building.

The business’s long-term plan includes building a large production facility and opening three more tap rooms across the north country, Mr. Richards said. Sales in the craft brewery industry in New York have climbed by about 15 percent over the past five years, he said, and that trend is expected to continue. In turn, he believes farmers who start hops production will also reap the benefit.

“The attractive thing is it doesn’t take much land to grow a tremendous amount of hops,” he said. “A one-acre footprint will produce 2,000 gallons of beer. It’s a big expense to get started and takes three years for plants to mature, but I think farmers who commit to it are going to be hard-pressed to keep up with the demand” in the future.

BarkEater plans to purchase its grain from Farmhouse Malt, an artisanal malthouse based in Newark Valley. That company buys its barley grain from farmland in Madison County, east of Syracuse.

“The whole purpose of the farm brewery legislation is to increase farm-to-table products — the hops and grains.” Mr. Haenlin said. “There’s very little grown barley and few malthouses in the state, and there’s a huge need in this industry. The brewery industry should kickstart farming, because they need a market for the product.”

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

Primed for Production: Jefferson County farmers expect outstanding harvest

Eric C. Gehrke expects a good harvest out of the 11-foot-tall stalks of corn in his field in Ellisburg. Amanda Morrison/ Watertown Daily Times

Farmers say the wealth of rain and sunshine this summer has corn, hay and soybean fields across Jefferson County primed for an outstanding harvest.

Some cornstalks, for example, stand 12 feet tall at Fairlawn Farms on Route 289 in Ellisburg. Similar lush farmland is a common sight across the southern half of the county, said Albert M. Gehrke, who co-owns the farm with his son, Eric C. The cash-crop farmer expects to harvest higher-than-average yields from 650 acres of grain corn planted in May and 250 acres of soybeans planted in early June.

“If you drive down through here, the farmland is as good as you’re going to find anywhere,” said the 69-year-old, who plans to harvest crops in early October. “We have some seriously good-looking corn. If we don’t get any monsoonal moisture, the harvest is going to be as good as it ever has — maybe better.”

By planting corn in early May, Mr. Gehrke avoided the long stretch of June rainfall that delayed planting and the first hay cutting at many farms. The farm’s light-textured loamy soil, which has drainage tiles, helped prevent flooding on farmland. Flooding in June was more pervasive on farmland in northern Jefferson County, which tends to have heavier clay soil.

Cornfields at the Ellisburg farm, about 5 miles east of Lake Ontario, normally yield an average of 175 to 180 grain bushels per acre, Mr. Gehrke said. This season’s crop, though, likely will top that mark.

“We’ve done some testing and know some areas are going to exceed 200 bushels per acre,” he said.

Cornfields planted in May are expected to produce higher-than-average yields, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops expert for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Helping that cause were above-average temperatures in April, May, June and July recorded by the National Weather Service at Watertown International Airport near Dexter. Rainfall measured at the airport from May 1 through Sept. 5 was 13.09 inches, up from the 12.24-inch average for the same period, according to data collected since 1949.

Above-average yields for corn silage and hay this season should help some dairy farms rebuild their stocks after a poor hay harvest last summer, Mr. Hunter said, when a monthlong drought significantly reduced yields.

“Farms may hit over 25 tons of corn silage per acre, and I know some fields that will exceed 30,” he said. “Hay yields are going to be above average at most farms, and some of them even had a surplus to sell.”

Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald C. Robbins said cornfields in Jefferson County are “probably better than anywhere in the state.” The maturity of cornfields planted in May at Old McDonald’s Farm off County Road 145 is about two weeks behind schedule, he said, because of June rainfall that slowed growth. But unless an early frost arrives this month to kill plants, the harvest is expected to be excellent. The 950-cow farm planted about 2,600 acres of corn, 2,200 acres of hay and 900 acres of soybeans this season.

“We could potentially have some of the best yields we’ve ever had,” Mr. Robbins said. “We had rain when corn was pollinating, and then we’ve had this August rain to fill the corn ears out. Other than June, it’s hard to believe things could be better than this. Our soybeans are loving the August rain and sunshine, which is critical.”

From June 1 through July 11, 7.48 inches of rain were tallied at the Watertown airport. That’s the second-wettest six-week stretch — behind the summer of 1999 — ever recorded over that period. Lingering June rainfall waterlogged many farms in the county’s northern region because heavy clay soil couldn’t absorb moisture fast enough, said Philadelphia dairyman Michael B. Kiechle, who has 115 acres of corn and 175 acres of hay. Though he managed to plant corn in early May, other farms weren’t as fortunate.

“It depended on your natural resources, your labor and what equipment you have,” he said. “For some farmers in the area, this has been a frustrating year. For others that have the labor and soil to get the job done, it’s been a challenging but good year. The rain made it challenging to get crops dry enough to harvest and to plant corn. You can’t do everything all in one day.”

Because of the unpredictable weather, Mr. Kiechle said, the quality of cornfields in the surrounding area has varied widely this season. Farmers who planted corn in early May have been successful, he said. But those who waited until the rain cleared in late June paid the price.

“It’s all over the board here,” he said. “On the same road, I can show you corn that looks pathetic and absolutely super. There’s more variability in the corn this year than I’ve ever seen. Corn that was planted the first half of May looks good, but if it was planted past Memorial Day or at the end of June, it doesn’t look good. If you put the seed in and then got heavy rains, the seeds didn’t germinate as well.”

Farmers now are waiting for cornfields to dry enough for harvesting, Mr. Hunter said, which usually starts the last week of September. The first frost usually doesn’t occur until October, he said, but Mother Nature could play a spoiler role if freezing temperatures arrive this month before farmers have a chance to harvest fields.

Over the past decade, the earliest frost in which the temperature fell below 32 degrees at the Watertown airport was Sept. 19, 2008. The latest frost was Oct. 20, 2005.

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times

Young agriculture professionals discuss industry’s opportunities, barriers

Young people meet Wednesday at Old McDonald’s Farm in the town of Hounsfield to discuss the future of the agriculture industry and expanding opportunities for youths on north country farms. Photo by Justin Sorensen/ Watertown Daily Times

With the average dairy farmer now in his late 50s or early 60s, opportunities exist for young farmers and professionals to start careers in agriculture. Finding them, though, is the catch.

To brainstorm about opportunities and barriers in today’s industry, a group of young agriculture professionals — ages 40 and under — gathered Wednesday at Old McDonald’s Farm in the Town of Hounsfield for a discussion led by Jefferson County Agricultural Coordinator Jay M. Matteson. Launching an internship program to connect young people with opportunities at dairy farms emerged as a takeaway from the discussion. Also discussed were opportunities for farms to add vineyards and grow hops as wineries and craft breweries continue to crop up.

Stephen D. Porter and his wife, Angela M., moved from Rochester to return to their hometown, Adams Center, this past fall. Mr. Porter now co-owns Porterdale Farms with his uncle, David G., and cousin, Gregory G.
Returning to raise their four children at the family farm was attractive to the couple, Mrs. Porter said.

“We wanted our kids to have the skills to be able to do things on their own,” the 32-year-old said. “And we were lucky to have our core family here to come back to.”

Mr. Porter, 33, often works 16 hours a day on the farm. He said young people raised on farms, like himself, often spend a period of their lives away from home before committing to becoming full-time farmers. They often take years soul-searching and exploring other career options.

Mr. Porter said he is friends with a man who spent eight years in the military, for example, before he decided to continue operations at his family farm in the Orleans County town of Kendall.

“He only worked there as a kid, but he ended up becoming one of the owners,” Mr. Porter said. “But young people today have a hard time with patience. They have to be willing to wait for the right opportunities.”

Young people also perceive the rising cost of farmland, along with regulations faced by today’s farmers, as barriers in the industry, said E. Hartley Bonisteel, a 26-year-old community development coordinator for the Jefferson County Planning Department. Ms. Bonisteel, who visits farms when the county is assessing land, said that finding affordable farmland can be a challenge.

Ms. Bonisteel said that niche crops, like hops and wine grapes, might provide farmers with opportunities to diversify their operations.

“By 2020, 80 percent of hops used by breweries will have to be grown in New York state,” she said. “And hops can be an easier crop to grow than grapes. The winery industry has blossomed here in the region, but it’s still a tough industry to break into. I think now is the time for farmers to be ahead of the game and get invested in hops for the future.”

Young high school and college students who are seeking experience on dairy farms need more opportunities, contended Julia C. Robbins, executive director of the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association.

“One of the things the Jefferson County IDA could do is help farmers pay for interns,” she said. “Because students can’t live here and pay $1,000 a month for an apartment. The only reason my family’s farm doesn’t have interns is because we don’t have a place for them to stay.”

In response, Mr. Matteson said the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County could team up to launch an internship program. The program could match farms with interns who are seeking experience.

“We could find out what their needs are and where the interns are,” he said.

Mr. Porter agreed that farmers would be receptive to hiring smart young people seeking agriculture experience.

“It wouldn’t be a hard sell,” he said.

Along with exploring that internship program, Mr. Porter said, the JCIDA could expand its marketing efforts to promote agriculture here across the state.

“Branding is something everyone needs to be aware of here,” he said. “Anything that we can do to promote the region and put a good spin on agriculture helps. We need to sell this area so that people think about all of the good farmland here.”

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times