Farmers on Their Future
In issue 85 of The Valley Table, I wrote about a double-fisted threat to the Hudson Valley’s rich agricultural tradition: Aging farmers, whose days in the field are numbered, and high land prices and startup costs that confront younger individuals keen to pick up the mantle. To follow up, I interviewed several established farmers to find out what they believe lies ahead for them and their farms.
The farmers featured here are responsible for keeping close to 2,500 acres of land in agricultural production. They all care deeply about their chosen path; they work long hours and struggle against unpredictable weather and harsh economic realities. Three have protected large portions of their property with conservation easements that preclude future commercial or residential development, but, as currently written, do not guarantee continued agricultural use.
Larger questions remain: Will our cherished rural landscape and agricultural traditions survive constant development pressure and our ever-expanding industrial food system? Or will our working farms continue to slip away, leaving only pockets of agritourism and mini-farms that don’t need much land and cater primarily to niche markets? The answers to these and related questions will surely affect those of us who choose to live in the Hudson Valley, now and in the future.
Bob Stap, 58, is a third-generation dairy farmer in Pine Bush (Orange County). With help from his wife, Stacey, and son, Garrett, he milks 120 cows and looks after an additional 100 young stock on their 150-acre farm (about a third of which extends into Ulster County). It sounds like a lot of land, but it’s not enough to keep all those bovine bellies well fed. The Staps lease additional neighboring land, bringing the total area under their management to 700 acres.
Given the bleak outlook for dairy in the Hudson Valley, the Staps are always looking for opportunities that might help them keep farming for another generation or two. Several years ago, they tried bottling and selling raw (unpasteurized) milk, but have discontinued that.
Today, Garrett is spearheading a slightly different on-farm bottling operation: The milk is pasteurized using an older method and different equipment that heats the milk to 146° F for 30 minutes. (In contrast, the supermarket milk most of us are accustomed to is processed in large plants where it usually is heated to 165°F for just 30 seconds. Garrett explains the higher temperatures kill the milk’s lactase enzyme, which can cause a lactose intolerance reaction in some humans.)
Garrett’s milk also differs from supermarket milk in that it is not homogenized. This means the cream separates and settles on the top—the “creamy top” is regarded as a special treat by some dairy lovers.
At this point, the Staps are selling their bottled milk (both plain and chocolate-flavored) at the farm and at a couple of local delis in Walker Valley (Ulster County). It has met with positive reviews. They are hoping to convince Hannaford Supermarkets to carry their single-source, local product, but there’s a lot of regulations and paperwork yet to go through.
The husband-and-wife team of Will Brown and Barbara Felton purchased an old 200-acre dairy farm in the town of Warwick in 1985. At that time, Will was an economist at a major financial house in New York City and Barbara was on the faculty at New York University’s psychology department. For 10 years, they leased their land to neighboring farmers for hay and pasture, but in 1995, the couple turned to raising beef cattle. Thus was born Lowland Farm. Over nearly 25 years, their business has grown substantially and they have earned an excellent reputation for their high-quality, sustainably produced local meat.
Today, with the help of a farm manager, the couple raises cattle, pigs and sheep on about 900 acres they own (700 acres are protected with conservation easements). They rent an additional 200 acres of neighboring land for pasture or hay. The farm’s cattle spend their entire lives outdoors eating grass and hay.
At age 69, Will estimates he has about another five years of active farming in him. He envisions a future in which he steps back but the farm keeps running, responsibilities divided among three principal partners: one who takes care of the animals; one who operates and maintains the equipment; and one who focuses on marketing and promoting the farm’s label. He knows that pulling this off will be a challenge. What will he do if his plan doesn’t work out? “At this point,” he admits, “there is no plan B.”
Pete Taliaferro’s life in agriculture began at age 13. For a couple of decades he spent most of his time on other people’s farms or helping growers set up irrigation systems. In 1995, he and his wife, Robin, fulfilled a lifelong dream when they purchased 32 acres of rundown apple orchard adjacent to the Wallkill River on the outskirts of New Paltz. Within a few years, they were up and running, and Taliaferro Farms was on its way to becoming one of the most popular and productive organic vegetable operations in Ulster County.
You’ve got to love farming in order to stay with it. Either that, or be a little crazy.
The Taliaferros’ approach to marketing was broad. It included a 215-member CSA, four farmers’ markets, restaurant sales, wholesale distribution (including to the Culinary Institute of America) and on-farm sales. Gross sales reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but real profit has been modest, erratic and sometimes non-existent.
Now, at 62 years old, Pete is beginning to feel his age. The physical demands and the financial challenges of farming have taken their toll. He had hoped that either or both of his sons would take over the operation—both put in their time on the farm [see Valley Table 42, Aug–Sept 2008]—but they chose not to. In 2011, Hurricane Irene hit, followed by Tropical Storm Lee, and the farm was devastated. “We’re still recovering from that washout,” Pete says, adding, “You’ve got to love farming in order to stay with it. Either that, or be a little crazy.”
Robin’s off-farm teaching job has been critical to the couple’s financial solvency while they scale back operations and search for a farm manager. The farm has been listed on Hudson Valley Farmland Finder for four years with no luck. (Farmland Finder is one of several Farmlink programs in the Northeast that attempts to match would-be farmers with retiring farmers or landowners wishing to sell or lease their property.)
In April 2018, the Taliaferros signed a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) contract with Scenic Hudson and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, with additional help from the town of New Paltz and Ulster County, that enabled them to pay off their mortgage and ensure their land will never be developed (though its resale value is much diminished). Pete and Robin now rest easier, knowing that another farmer may yet make Taliaferro Farms a home.
Russ Smiley, 56, has been a dairy farmer all his working life. He purchased his 240-acre farm in the town of Wallkill (Orange County) from his father in 2009 after most of the land was protected by a PDR agreement. Smiley admits he’d like to keep milking cows but doesn’t see much future in it—he says he might last another two or three years. He hopes to transition to raising beef cows until retirement—and he already has a starter herd of eight Black Angus.
The last decent year for dairymen in the Hudson Valley was 2014. Since then, the cost of feed, equipment, maintenance and trucking have continued to rise, while the price of milk locally has stayed flat or gone down. Smiley openly wonders when the distant processing plant he works with will notify him that they won’t make the trip to pick up his milk anymore. He believes the days of mom-and-pop dairy farms in the Hudson Valley are over—the 10,000- and even 30,000-cow operations (factories, actually) in other parts of the country eventually will produce all the milk we drink.
Gary Johnson, 62, a fourth-generation dairyman, currently milks 180 cows on a 350-acre farm in the town of Chester (Orange County). Johnson has farmed all his life, mostly in partnership with his father and brother, but because of chronically low milk prices, he says this year will probably be his last, and the future of the farm may be in limbo. Johnson prefers not to sell; if he does, he says the land’s last crop would probably be houses. Trading the dairy herd for beef cattle is an alternative, but he says the economic viability of such a move is shaky.
Johnson has farmed all his life, but because of chronically low milk prices, he says this year will probably be his last.
A couple of small but promising ventures are underway that truly define the term “family” farm. Johnson’s son, Curtis, is growing hops and built a nano-brewery on the property. His on-farm tasting room, already a hit with local residents, offers 10 different beers sold under the Long Lot Farm Brewery label. Curtis says he hopes to keep growing the business and eventually place his products in local retail outlets.
Seven years ago, Johnson’s niece, Laura Nywening, who worked on our farm in 2011, started Peace and Carrots Farm on the family land. Nywening grows certified naturally grown vegetables on five acres; she markets her crops through a CSA, a farm stand and a farmers’ market in Tarrytown. Her Peace and Carrots CSA currently has 80 members, a number she says she’d like to double, though she admits she’s skeptical about investing in a business that depends so heavily on land with an uncertain future.
With a cautious laugh, she says she’s proud to have beat the statistics so far, knowing full well that, these days, the odds are not good for young start-up farmers.