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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