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Betting on the farm

Cornell Small Farms Program supports diversity in agriculture

periodiCALS, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2018

Farm workers harvest kale at Main Street Farms in Cortland, New York. Photo: Zack Bolton

As Dani Baker looked forward to retirement in 2006, she and her partner David Belding purchased 102 acres on Wellesley Island in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. They were intrigued by the idea of resuscitating a former dairy farm, but they weren’t convinced that farming was in their future. Then Baker remembered Belding’s childhood dream of being an organic farmer, and a newspaper advertisement for a workshop caught her eye: Building Your Small Farm Dream. 

“The course was extremely inspiring,” Baker said of the educational opportunity offered by the Cornell Small Farms Program (CSFP). “It propelled us to take the leap.”

'Today, with the ongoing support of CSFP, Baker and Belding operate Cross Island Farms, producing a range of certified organic meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and powering their efforts with sustainable energy.

Since 2001, CSFP has been providing New York farmers with education and training programs, addressing needs ranging from preparation to enter new markets to support for military veterans looking to enter the industry. Through efforts like on-the-ground teaching, online courses and an e-newsletter that reaches 11,000 people, program staff, together with community educators of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), have been empowering farmers through every stage of small farm business development.

Yet small is relative, according to CSFP director Anu Rangarajan. “It comes down to the community a farmer aligns with and how they perceive their operation,” she said. “Many people who take advantage of our programs would be considered mid-size to large. The bottom line is we want to see a vibrant, evolving and growing agriculture.”

The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture highlights a crucial need for this type of growth: the average age of farmers has risen to 58.3.

“At our core, we are an educational organization, but I think it’s just as important we provide voices saying that farming is rewarding and doable,” said Violet Stone, small farms program coordinator and New York coordinator for the Northeast chapter of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). With support from state and federal organizations, such as the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), CSFP is well positioned to do just that.

About ten years ago, CSFP discovered there was a surge of people looking to start farms. With CCE educator colleagues and NIFA’s support, they developed the Beginning Farmers Project to offer networking opportunities, courses and trainings. As part of that effort, they produced the “Guide to Farming in New York,” a printed guide of practical information such as zoning and labor laws, tax regulations and ways to access land and equipment.

Farmers like Baker and Belding have benefited directly from the program. Not only are CSFP courses designed to help farmers assess their resources and interests at the outset, but the courses help them develop their businesses 
over time.

David Belding and Dani Baker started Cross Island Farms after taking a course from Cornell Small Farms Program. Photo: Matt Weiss

Baker and Belding also participated in CSFP’s Profit Team Program to set realistic financial goals. For Baker, the most exciting outcome has been an edible forest garden they created in 2012 after taking a two-hour course on permaculture. 

“I’m hopeful the forest will bring in new income streams through U-Pick, weddings and workshops—and even an associated nursery,” Baker said.

The main way in which CSFP has been taking the pulse of New York farmers and agricultural educators is by means of their Small Farms Summit. Every two years they bring together farmers and educators to ask about their concerns and what opportunities they see.

“From our statewide position,” Stone said, “we can see trends and concerns emerge in a broader way than local educators who have one-on-one relationships with farmers.”

At a 2014 summit, farmers expressed apprehension about declining direct-market sales. For some, intense competition at farmers’ markets was keeping them out, and community supported agriculture (CSA) was losing customers. Farmers’ interest in new marketing opportunities led CSFP to create the Baskets to Pallets Project, which teaches farmers how to expand their marketing to scale-appropriate wholesale buyers such as natural food stores, farm cooperatives and food hubs. 

“The summits drive our programming, but we also share farmers’ comments with legislators, community members and others to make the needs of a dispersed and diverse group of farmers visible,” Rangarajan said. “The conferences also help build connections among Cornell, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the community.”

In addition to the summits, where farmers and agricultural educators enjoy the opportunity to meet face-to-face, CSFP has created virtual networks to inspire innovation. Currently, 100 organizations participate in their Northeast Beginning Farmer Learning Network—groups who are all committed to supporting the next generation of farmers.

 

FOSTERING DIVERSITY

 

CSFP recognizes that nurturing the next generation depends on supporting diversity among the farming community. 

“Farmers of color and other underserved populations are an audience we want to better serve,” Stone said. “We are committed to building these relationships.”

With a recent grant from NIFA, they are currently addressing the training needs of Hispanic farmworkers wanting to climb the ladder from labor to management to ownership.

Another traditionally underserved group that came to the program’s attention in recent years is military veterans. Veterans often encounter obstacles when considering entry into farming, such as lack of access to specialized resources and lack of funds for farm-related education and training. 

Nina Saeli of Centurion Farm, 58 acres of pastures, hardwood forest, riparian forests and wetlands, spent 17 years as a medical service core officer in the U.S. Army and had two spinal surgeries prior to retiring. 

“The most difficult struggle I faced during my transition was feeling like I had lost my sense of purpose,” she said. “It wasn’t until we made the decision two years ago to start farming that I feel I’m starting to regain it. I became a soldier to serve my country, and now I’ve become a farmer to serve my community.”

After receiving an increasing number of requests for assistance from veterans like Saeli over the last few years, CSFP created the Farm Ops Program. Forging bridges with organizations like the Division of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor, they support agriculture training for veterans and have implemented multiple education strategies to engage and train those who want to farm.

“One of the most valuable resources has been going to the workshops sponsored by the local Cornell extension offices,” Saeli said. “They haven’t just been informative, but also provided many opportunities to network with local farmers.” 

 

LOOKING AHEAD

 

One of the biggest challenges CSFP faces is helping new farmers scale up because each farm is so different. “If we can elevate other people’s work to help make connections, that can really move us forward,” Rangarajan said. “The grand goal is to highlight the many ways in which New York is an attractive place to land—and stay—for farming.” 

Looking to the future, she hopes to work with small farm specialists to discover where digital agriculture fits into a small farm context. What technological tools and advances might best support small farms to help them achieve their goals?

For both Rangarajan and Stone, farming is much more than just growing and producing things. It’s personal.

Stone grew up in a rural Pennsylvania dairy community. Rangarajan, born in India and raised in Detroit, found her home in agriculture. Both have come to believe that farming plays a crucial role in land stewardship and boosting the ecological health of communities.  

“I love my work,” said Rangarajan. “My aspiration is to pave the way for anyone who’s interested in supporting agriculture. Frankly, I think that the more people who count themselves as farmers, the better.”