Census of Agriculture: Upstate farming shrinking but evolving

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The newly released federal Census of Agriculture confirms that the dairy industry in both New York state and Oneida County continues to consolidate, but that does not mean there isn’t a good living to be made in the business.

At the Brabant Farm in Vernon, for example, traditional dairy operations are still at work. Founded by Pat Van Lieshout’s parents after they moved from Maryland when their rented land was sold for development, the farm has about 800 milking cows and has a mix of strong soil types on relatively flat Oneida Lake-plain land to help withstand the vagaries of milk prices and rising expenses. Next month, it hosts Oneida County’s annual agricultural open-house, Farm Fest 2019.

“We milk dairy cows for a living,” Van Lieshout said. “We have to grow the crops to feed the cows, so some people would say why not just market the crops. I thnk if we do a good job with dairying, there’s a better chance that we can get a return on our work putting the feed through the cows instead of trying to sell the feed.”

In many ways, Brabant Farm exemplifies the picture of Oneida County agriculture shown in the latest Census of Agriculture, taken every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and serving as a statistical snapshot of farming. In other ways, it’s an exception.

The latest version of the census was released this month, reflecting data gathered in 2017 and early 2018. Like any survey, it isn’t necessarily a complete picture but it shows trends useful to anyone involved in agriculture and the local economy.

Among the top take-aways for Oneida County:

There are fewer farms and less land in production. The number of operations was down about 9 percent from 2012, to 967, and commodity sales were down about 11%.

The value of commodities sold was $100.5 million, down from $113.2 million in 2012.

By far the product that generates the greatest sales is milk, at about $60 million, down slightly from 2012. Livestock, including calves, is next biggest, followed by such commodities as grain, particularly corn, as well as vegetables, horticulture, food grains such as wheat, and specialty items, including Christmas trees, tree fruit, and maple syrup.

There is less land in production. It was reported down from 2012 by 12%, noted Marty Broccoli, agriculture economic development specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County.

“My big question is where the heck did it go,” Broccoli said. “Is it in shopping malls and housing developments? Did manufacturing take it? What happened to it?

“We just know from our own experience that our current farmers that are in business, if good farm land pops up near them, they buy it up.”

The number of the largest farms, of 1,000 acres or more, were up by 14%, to 24, while the number of the smallest, of up to 10 acres, were up nearly 70%.

The county is inline with the state. The New York Farm Bureau noted that the state lost about 2,100 farms from 2012, the largest decline in two decades and triple the national average of a 3% loss.

The declines coincide with a 9 percent increase in labor costs, though some production costs, such as for feed, gasoline and chemicals, declined, the Farm Bureau noted.

“While there is still much more to learn as we evaluate the mountain of data, it is clear that the depressed farm economy has taken a toll on the overall number of farms in New York, as labor costs continue to mount for our family farms,” New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said in a statement.

“At the same time, there are still opportunities across the board. Agriculture remains a leading driver of our rural economy and the data shows we must continue to invest in the farming community while also finding ways to improve the business climate for our more than 33,000 farms in the state.”

As for the dairy sector, traditionally the mainstay of New York agriculture, the 2017 census found milk-cow operations with inventory declined 11% in Oneida County, to 190. It was 415 in 1997.

The number of milk cows increased, from 16,171 to 16,547. That reflects a decades-old trend of fewer farms but the size of the herd remaining more or less steady.

Statewide, the figures were down 20 percent in the number of dairy farms.

Van Lieshout noted dairy farmers may take advantage of at least three main federal programs intended to insure against unstable prices or guarantee revenue depending on how much one wants to pay in premiums. At his farm, Van Lieshout humbly credits geography: Land less hilly than much of the region and thus more conducive to growing cattle feed, and a variety of soil types that helps cope with both drainage issues and dry growing seasons.

“We’ve got some fields that are really good for just leaving in grass production and we’ve got other fields that make great fields that you can put into a normal crop rotation of corn followed by alfalfa,” he said.

“Oneida County has really great soils, no question about it. But the lay of the land is hilly in places and it’s difficult to amass enough acreage to feed a large herd on this type of landscape. It’s maybe more suited for the medium-size herd, let’s say.”

Across Oneida County, farm products showing growth include other livestock.

Beef operations grew in number and the number of animals by about 10%. Poultry operations with laying hens increased 32%, to 218.

Hog farming also grew, with 55 operations reporting sales, up from 41 in 2012.

Broccoli said there may be increased demand for hogs raised outside so-called factory-farm settings, but they also have advantages as livestock.

“They’re an animal that turns over quickly. The gestation period is three months, three weeks three days and then you only have to raise them up to six pounds.”

Vegetable operations have also grown in number, up about 40 percent to 99, though acreage was steady. That probably reflects demand for fresher, locally raised food.

“Fresh vegetables is the thing now and we don’t see that decreasing,” Broccoli said.

Another bright spot is steadiness in agri-tourism, which is defined broadly to include everything from farm tours and u-pick fruit to corn mazes and farm breweries, Broccoli said.

Operations reporting income from ag-tourism or recreation totaled 14, about the same as five years ago but up from four in 2002. They collectively garnered about $707,000 from such operations.

The Census of Agriculture also contains demographic data about farmers. It found 145 operations with farmers under age 35, and 99 where the principal producer is that age or younger. The surveys ask about tenure, and in Oneida County, 254 operations had a principal producer who had been farming less than 10 years.

Broccoli said Cornell Extension staff suspect that reflects more very small part-time farms, not farmers starting large, traditional operations.

Farmers in the county are overwhelmingly white, with just one each African-American and Asian, though 15 reported Latino or Hispanic origins. About a quarter reported hiring workers, and 10 took on migrant workers.

And in a question first asked in the latest version, 126 farms have a principal producer who served in the military or is still serving.

One thing consistent is that farming, generally speaking, isn’t lucrative, at least in New York. Statewide, net per-farm income was $42,875. Median household income in the state in 2017, according to the Census Bureau, was $62,447. In Oneida County, average net income per farm was $30,318, down from $32,233 five years earlier. Median county household income was $51,316. Operations with loss outnumbered those reporting a gain, 540 to 427.

“There are obviously some very, very wealthy, successful farms and family farms and people. But generally, farming is a way of life,” Broccoli said.

“You don’t jump into farming thinking you’re going to find a pot of gold. You gotta love doing it.”

That’s true at Brabant. The equipment includes 1991 herringbone milking parlor and may no longer be state-of-the-art, but replacing it could be costly; roboting milking could be a possibility but would be a major investment, Van Lieshout said.

“Probably as I get older I’ll be slowing down, no question about that. But I can’t see myself ever just all-out quitting, ‘cause I enjoy what I’m doing.”

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