August 21, 2011

Summer reflections on the farm

PETER HAGAR, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — Like every other morning, I get up early and take a walk to check the cows. It was cool and there was heavy dew on the grass along the farm road that winds through our farm back to the pastures.

The later sunrise and cooler temps all point to a rapidly dwindling summer. It was only a couple of months ago that our fields and pastures were soggy and it didn't seem that summer would ever come. Farmers were delayed in planting corn and harvesting the first hay crop.

Fast forward to the middle of July, the heat wave arrived, and the view was very different. Brutally hot, the dry weather curled the corn and stunted the grass. One thing we can count on in the North Country is our contrasting seasons.

While there is a world of difference between this morning, the rainy days of spring and the hot dry mornings of July, I can still see the beauty and sameness of the world. The mountains still cradle the horizon, the trees still frame the picture and the cows still beller in the distance as I approach. For them, nothing seems to change.

The challenge of farming is adapting to change. Farmers till the soil and plant crops with the hope that this year's harvest will be the one that overflows the silo with feed, breeding a cow and raising its calf with the anticipation that it will out perform its mother.

But there are no guarantees. The crop can get flooded and yellow or the calf could be a disappointment. Whether or not a farmer succeeds depends in large part on how they adapt to the challenges that Mother Nature presents. This year has been one of those years.

While we can't control the weather, the study and science of agriculture during the past 100 years has helped farmers to increase yields, improve the marketing of their products and improve their management skills. As farm numbers have dropped 65 percent since 1950, individual farm production has increased to where one farmer today supports the food needs of 140 people. This ability to adapt and increase production has been a direct result of the scientific advances in plant and animal genetics, increased mechanization and new technologies such as computerization, global position navigation and genetically modified crops.

Many of these changes are driven by economics. Already slim and still shrinking profit margins encourage farmers to adopt new measures and technologies that make their operation more efficient. Mechanization of milking facilities means more cows can be milked with less labor. Genetically modified, insect-resistant crops require less pesticide. Newer and larger tractors practically drive themselves around a field using precision GPS guidance.

All these technologies have one thing in common … they require larger farms and more intensive management to reap maximum advantage of their benefits and to pay for their sometimes considerable expense.

And as farms get larger and farmers adopt these new technologies, the general public becomes less and less familiar with what farmers have invested in their farm operation. From tractors that can cost more than $100,000 and large computerized milking facilities that might cost more than $1 million, local dairy farmers still have to pay the bills with prices that, while recently improved, are still close to their cost of production.

When people wonder why our local farms have been shrinking in number and increasing in size, technology and economics are probably at the top of the list. Both require better management skills in addition to the traditional qualities of farmers from the good old days.

Our local farms are still predominantly medium-sized family farms and yet many are still investing in new technology.

As agriculture continues to change, our local farmers will continue to adapt and use the tools available to them to succeed.

Anyone interested in learning more about the agriculture, the local dairy industry, raising livestock or starting a small farm in Clinton County is encouraged to contact the Clinton County Extension office at 561-7450 or email me at

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450.