August 19, 2012

Farms focus on diversity

Peter Hagar, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — Throughout our history, farmers have been an independent and somewhat self-sufficient group of men and women who produced the food, fiber and other farm products that fueled our economy and fed our population. As our country has grown, farms have become more and more efficient and specialized. Every region has a special combination of weather conditions, soil fertility and climate that lends itself to certain crops or livestock production.

In the 1800s, New York was actually a major producer of such crops as hops, wheat and other grain crops. As the West was settled, new areas were opened up that had advantages to these crops, leaving farmers in New York at a disadvantage. This was the beginning of the regionalization of agriculture. Gradually, each region of the country became more and more focused on growing the crops that were most profitable in their region.

Although New York is a large state with a wide variety of regions, it has become primarily a producer of dairy products, tree fruits, vegetables and greenhouse/nursery products. While the dairy industry is by far the largest portion of our agricultural economy and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, there is a recent trend towards more diversification in farm enterprises. Maximizing the use of unused farm assets is key to generating the cash flow to support the farm enterprise during the tougher times.

Traditionally, local farmers would raise a few beef cows, tap some maple trees in the spring and plant some sweet corn in the summer. Ever resourceful, some farmers are once again looking at opportunities to bring in additional income. By adding or resuming farm enterprises discontinued in the past, farmers can generate additional income to help bridge the gap during these difficult economic times. Because existing farmers already have land, machinery and lots of farming knowledge, it is logical that they would consider alternative farming enterprises. Which alternative is appropriate depends on many factors. In many cases, farms have resources that are not being fully utilized by the current farm enterprise.

Recently, Agritourism seems to be on the rise here in the North Country. More than a few farmers have added a roadside vegetable stand or have planted some sweet corn along with the field corn. Some have completely transitioned to activities that attract visitors and tourists seasonally and year-round. The local Chamber of Commerce has teamed up with a group of local farm members to actively promote our local farms and wineries. And with the coming of the harvest season, these farms are looking forward to welcoming visitors to the farm.

Agritourists can choose from a wide range of activities that include picking fruits and vegetables, horse-drawn wagon rides, tasting maple syrup, learning about wine and cheese making, or shopping in farm gift shops and farm stands for local and regional produce or hand-crafted gifts. For local farms, Agritourisim is an opportunity to give non-farm visitors a glimpse at what is involved in agricultural production and enhance their income via direct sales of produce, maple products, honey and local crafts. Just this weekend, the county Farm Bureau held an open house event at a local dairy farm to give just such a glimpse.

Farm wineries have also been working very hard to establish themselves in the region. In 2005, at the Baker Research Farm in Willsboro, Cornell researchers planted a trial of 25 grape varieties to evaluate for cold hardiness. These vines were used to offer hands-on training to interested grape growers in trellising and pruning as well as many of the horticulture skills and crop-management practices needed for vineyard operation. Research continued in subsequent years and yielded much valuable information for the regions budding grape growers. Current research focuses on cold-hardy hybrids, vine management and varietal blending for winemaking. With many new small vineyards in production, our region now has six licensed farm wineries open for business.

If you are interested in visiting a local farm winery, the Lake Champlain Grape Growers Association has a website with locations, grape information and a calendar of events. Visit

For more information about local farms and other interesting activities they may offer, contact Peter Hagar at 561-7450 or

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite No. 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email