Throughout 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 fed our population and fueled our economy.
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. On a recent tour around Clinton County, we learned that although farms may have become more specialized, there is still a very diverse farming community.
In the 1800s, New York was actually a major producer of such crops as hops, potatoes, 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 current dairy milk price crisis.
Traditionally, local dairy farmers would raise a few beef cows, tap some maple trees in the spring and plant some sweet corn in the summer. To avoid having all their eggs in one basket, some farmers are once again looking at opportunities to diversify.
By adding or resuming farm enterprises discontinued in the past, farmers can generate additional income to help bridge the gap during difficult economic times. Because existing farmers already have land, machinery and lots of farming know-how, 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. Unused land, buildings, machinery or labor could be put to use generating additional income.
One area of the farm that is often underutilized is the farm woodlot. Timber sales, firewood, Christmas trees, fence posts and maple-syrup production are all potential income generators that many farmers may not have been actively managing in recent years. Like any other crop, a forest can be managed for optimal growth and long-term sustainability. Cornell’s Forest Connect program has a wide variety of resources for landowners who want to learn about responsible forest management.
Leasing the farm woodlot or fields for recreational or hunting purposes can also bring in much needed income. While dairy farming is less seasonal than it used to be, many of these supplemental activities can be performed in the fall and winter when the busy planting, growing and harvesting times have concluded.
Utilizing the farm wood lot for maple production has gained a lot of attention in the past couple of years with Clinton County being in the maple sweet spot. With maple prices high, the percentage of maples tapped in our county is on par with Vermont at about 3 percent. That means the potential for growth is still significant.
Closer to the homestead, unused barns or storage sheds could be rented to neighbors for livestock housing, machinery storage or winter camper and boat storage. More than a few farmers have added a roadside vegetable stand or have planted some sweet corn along with the field corn. With abundant home grown corn silage and hay, raising a few beef cows is also a way to utilize extra feed to produce local beef for sale or home consumption.
Farmers are resilient, innovative and unwilling to give in to poor economic conditions without a fight. During the good times, paying down debt and saving for future disasters is just common sense. A little diversity also never hurts.
For more information about Cornell’s Extension programs and resources available to farmers, landowners and all residents of Clinton County, contact the Clinton County Extension office at 561-7450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite No. 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450 or email Phh7@cornell.edu.