March 4, 2012

The small-farm dream

PETER HAGAR, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — In today's world, full-time farmers make up a very small percentage of our population and yet are a vital part of our national and local economy.

We take for granted that a large variety of food will be affordable and available. While a great deal of today's agricultural products are grown on large-scale farms all over the country, consumers today are beginning to see the value of purchasing some of their food from local producers.

Not too long ago, perhaps within the last two generations, most of our local ancestors were small farmers. Much of our food was produced and sold locally. While the economic landscape has changed, the farmland still exists and the dream of living on a farm in the country still infects a lot of people.

In my case, while I did not grow up on a farm, both my parents grew up on New York dairy farms and I always felt that farming was in my blood. From an early age I owned and raised a multitude of farm animals — goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens and horses — all in a suburban back yard.

Through my experiences in a local 4-H Club, I gained an even greater interest in all aspects of farming and animal husbandry. This led me to pursue a degree in agriculture at Cornell University.

Since I did not have an existing family farm to come back to after college, I went to work for a local farmer and then for an agricultural cooperative. All this time I kept my small-farm dream alive.

My family had purchased an old farm in Schuyler Falls where I began raising dairy heifers and slowly but surely I worked to bring an abandoned farm back into productive use. With many hours of hard work building fences, fixing old machinery and scouting farm auctions for good deals, I pieced together the farming dream that I had always sought.

Over the years, we purchased adjoining land and, as my farm grew, I diversified and have switched to raising beef cattle on managed intensive grazing. Why I do this is not strictly to make money, but also because I love being outside, enjoy growing things and can't imagine not living in the country.

I am not alone. Living in the country, owning a few acres and raising some sort of agricultural crop or livestock is a way of life for many area residents with "regular" jobs. Small farmers may not make their primary income from their efforts, but that does not make them any less of a farmer.

Small farmers are a source of locally produced foods and also purchase from local farm suppliers. Small farms and local producers of crops and livestock are an important part of the big picture in our local agricultural economy.

So much so that Cornell Cooperative Extension has developed several new online resources for new and small farmers. The Beginning Farmers Resource Center provides support for beginning and diversifying farmers at

Another valuable resource is the Small Farms Program at Cornell University located at

Both of these websites are designed and intended for the aspiring small farmer and should provide you with guidance and information on a wide variety of small-farming topics.

As always, your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Plattsburgh is also here to help you navigate your small-farm dream.

As an Agriculture Educator, my main focus is assisting livestock producers and small farms with big dreams. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

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