Farmers strive for sustainability - Press-Republican: Columns

Farmers strive for sustainability

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Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2014 3:24 am

Is your farm sustainable?

As data finally starts to trickle forth from the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, it appears that New York farmers’ average age has increased and total farm numbers have decreased in the past five years. This report states that New York farms now total 35,538, down 2 percent from 2007.

And while the preliminary report does not yet release county-level statistics, it does show that the largest farms are getting bigger and that New York farms continue to increase production and sales of both crops and livestock. While Clinton County has lost a number of farms in the past year, cropland values have risen considerably and much of the cropland continues to be utilized by other farmers.

Expansion and consolidation continues to be a statewide trend that is true locally as well. As farms grow, their goal is to succeed and keep the farm sustainable.

“Sustainability” is a term that has recently been tacked onto a variety of activities. It is often used in the same sentence as “holistic.” Both terms are often difficult to define and hard to understand.

“Sustainable agriculture” has been defined by Congress as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy our food and fiber needs, improve the quality of our natural resources, make efficient use of nonrenewable and on-farm resources, sustain farm operations and enhance the quality of life of farmers and society.

One key point is that sustainable farming is economically viable. If farmers can’t make a profit, farming is not sustainable. The whole point of the sustainable farming is to maintain a long-term enterprise beneficial to the farm, the farm family and the community at large.

Farms that can successfully adapt to changing economic times, adopt new management practices to better care for the land and the environment, and continue to make efficient use of their resources will benefit the community as a whole with wholesome food, beautiful open spaces and preservation of our natural resources.

Another key point is that it is site-specific. What works for one farmer may not work for his neighbor. Adopting new agricultural practices are not always an easy. Farms have a wide range of soils, environmental conditions and available markets. Not every farm can grow corn and not every farmer wants to milk cows two or three times a day.

Developing a sustainable farm plan involves consideration of many factors; developing a long-term goal, a detailed financial plan, best practices for enhancing the environment and planning for prosperity. Often this is described as “holistic management,” considering the whole farm when planning rather than its individual parts. While holistic and sustainable agriculture is often associated with small farms and organic-farming practices, conventional farmers are also making progress in this arena.

We have a number of local dairy farmers who manage pasture and grazing to feed their herds during the summer. Even larger farmers are growing more and more of their own crops to avoid purchasing expensive grains from out of the region. Reduced tillage, improved crop genetics and careful manure applications have lowered inputs of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides while continuing to yield bountiful harvests. Agricultural research and education continues to look for new methods that will enhance the sustainability of our local farms.

One practice that has seen a lot of interest and a modest amount of farmer adoption is the use of small-grains cover crops for soil health and double cropping of small grains for forage production. Encouraged by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the local Soil and Water Conservation District, more than 1,600 acres of crop land was seeded last fall to a winter cover crop to improve soil health, reduce nutrient losses and reduce erosion.

With support and input from specialists at Cornell University, Miner Institute, the Lake Champlain Basin Program and Cooperative Extension, more and more farmers are warming up to the idea of cover crops.

Double cropping involves planting a small grain immediately following corn harvest and harvesting it for forage in the spring right before planting another crop. With uncertain weather and a constant need for feed, dairy farms are finding this bonus crop to be very useful.

Locally, winter rye has been the grain of choice for both cover crop and double crop options. Its ability to sprout quickly in the fall in cold temperatures, survive the harsh winter and quickly start growing in the spring makes it the ideal choice.

Both of these practices are beneficial for the soil, the farmer and the environment. By growing more feed locally, feeding and improving the soil and protecting the environment, local farms both big and small can become more sustainable and successful as farming continues to become more and more challenging.

For more information about cover crops or double-cropping options, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450 or email 



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