A brick red barn stands, perched above a soil-covered hill. Seven grain bins tower opposite a gravel path, dividing the structures. Vegetable greenhouses surround the barn and bins, and skirt the edge of the hill. Beyond the buildings stretch the remaining 110-acres of Cobblestone Creek Farm in East Syracuse, N.Y.
Mid-day sunlight streams through the tops of greenhouses and creates a glare against the dull metal of the bins. A coop of chickens adjacent one building contains red and cream-yellow feathered roosters and hens. The chickens cluck as their eyes follow the movement to and from the neighboring greenhouses. Three members of the Eggert family, owners of Cobblestone Creek, bustle to finish the Sunday chores they started at 5 a.m.
Diane Eggert, 57, stands at a waist-high wooden slab table. Her 5-foot-3 frame hunches while she shakes cabbage seeds into the palm of her dirt-covered hand. After pushing seeds into soil pods, she dusts off her hands and moves the plastic pod tray to the rows at the table’s edge. Each tray holds seedlings that her husband Steve Eggert, 57, and his cousin Kory Hyde, 24, plant in the fields once the outdoor temperatures rise.
Together, the Eggerts and Hyde produce eggs, vegetables, fruit, and herbs to feed their growing community-supported agriculture (CSA) membership. In 2014, Cobblestone Creek supported 82 members at a $600 annual member share price. This year, Diane says they hope to increase to 100 members.
Farmers markets increased in numbers nationwide from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,268 in 2014, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture report. That more than 350 percent increase shows a rise in communities buying local-harvested food. Following the trend, mid-sized farms that don’t have the capital funds to invest in new farming technology instead choose to downsize to small farm operations, says James MacDonald, a branch chief at the USDA. The growing market for small or hobby farms coupled with shifting technologies for large farms supports the CSA movement. Of the 12,617 CSA farms in the U.S. for 2012, California, Texas, North Carolina, and New York state reported the highest numbers of farms in those states, according to the USDA.
Diane and Steve opened their CSA in 2010. Steve’s family started Eggert Family Farms in 1941 as a fruit, vegetable, and dairy farm. But the cost and labor of maintaining a small dairy eventually outweighed the income. Steve took over the farm in 1979 and revamped to produce grain. He rented 1,200 acres to expand on his family’s 110-acres and built grain bins. But the compounding results of a fire that burned down one bin, urban expansion from Syracuse, and a harvest-less season in 1992, shut down Eggert Family Farms. “Nothing grew, we lost everything,” Diane says. And Steve struggled to drive tractors on the same roads as commuters. “When I grew up out here, this was country,” Diane says. “This ain't country anymore.” Diane married Steve in 1985, and after the crisis in 1992 they started Cobblestone Creek Farm.
Diane says it took 10 years to dig out of the loan debt to restart a vegetable business. But, the Eggerts now gross about $80,000 through their CSA and make a little extra by renting out the remaining grain bins. To cover the household costs, she works as executive director for the Farmers Market Federation of New York. Now, her daily routine consists of rising at 4 or 5 a.m., washing eggs or doing laundry, going to work at her office, and coming home to wash and package produce for CSA members.
Cobblestone Creek Farm
Vegetables, fruit, almonds, mushrooms, eggs, goats, horses; small retail and hobby farms keep popping up all over the U.S.
Brian Luton, owner of Stones Throw Farm in Nedrow, N.Y., grew up with the nickname “dirtball.” He experimented with small gardens from middle school to college. After a few years working for Syracuse Urban Delights youth farm stand, he and his wife Megan decided to start their own farm. They sold vegetables and herbs at local markets until 2007 when they decided to open a CSA membership. She still works for the Syracuse City School District and he runs the 26-acre farm. Together with their two children ages six and three, Brian and Megan grow produce for an annual average of 120 CSA members.
Brian says he dreamed of owning his own farm, and now he shares his passion with his children. “In some regards, we try not immerse our kids in the fact that my job is here at home,” Luton says. “At the same time, there’s aspects of home business that’s interesting for kids to see, especially their dedicated parents.” Brian’s family didn’t have a farm to offer, but growing popularity in local markets created a potential for the Lutons to succeed from scratch.
Agriculture in New York state contributed about $37.6 billion to its state economy during 2012, according to a report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. That represents an increase of more than 22 percent since 2007. More than half of those sales came in for farms netting less than $10,000 annually. The USDA also reported 19 states increased farm acreage from 2007 to 2012.
MacDonald, with the USDA, says nearly 30 percent of the statistics for those under $10,000 represent farms that gross $1,000 or less. Because the USDA hasn’t changed criteria for what constitutes a small farm, people who own a few horses or even one cow classify as a small farm — which can skew trend data on small farm growth. MacDonald says he sees two trends in agriculture right now, though: a decline in mid-sized farms and an increase in both small commercial and large farms. The USDA classifies size by income:
- Small: $10,000 - $350,000
- Mid-sized: $350,000 - $1 million
- Large: $1 million and above
Mid-sized farms don’t gross enough to cover maintenance costs, MacDonald says. Some farmers retire and rent their land to escape the labor-intensive business. Some who want to continue farming add a niche product to their market sales.
Take a dairy farm for example, MacDonald says. A farmer who once sold milk from 200 cows can’t compete with the market prices driven by big dairies. The farmer might increase their herd to 1,000, but land and equipment costs outweigh income benefits. So, they start making and selling cheese at a local market. “The tricky part is now you have to be good at one or two more businesses.” Now, a dairy can survive on the milk and cheese sales from 200 cows.
The key word is “niche,” MacDonald says. “Small cities have to be nearby, which is why there’s interest in the Northeast,” MacDonald says. Cobblestone Creek Farm and Stones Throw Farm operate outside of the Syracuse, N.Y., city. Both farms’ CSAs draw from local residents. Both farms specialize in vegetable produce. Both also sell small amounts of extra items like eggs and herbs. They have small operations supported by a separate outside incomes. MacDonald says these farms reflect the growing desire for an agricultural lifestyle.
Luton runs a farm he started based on an interest later in his life. But, new farmers include college students studying to run their own farm or take over a family operation. Interest in farming continues to grow. In 2014, the National Future Farmers of America (FFA) collegiate education program had more than 100 applications for 50 positions. This growth creates the need for information on how to survive in today’s quick and volatile market, says Ryan Amaral, a collegiate education specialist for the FFA.
The FFA has about 600,000 members ranging from junior high to college aged. Educational programs teach the students how to care for livestock, manage farm finances, and understand the tasks of running a farm. Future farmers need to know how to navigate the technological and size changes in agriculture in order to continue providing for the country, Amaral says. “I have a friend who does row crops, but today to make a full income she has to diversify,” he says. “Especially in the U.S., you don’t want to put all of your money in one crop.”
Amaral’s grandparents owned a dairy farm until upgrade costs forced them to sell. His father now harvests almonds in California as a part-time hobby. Amaral says he doesn’t plan to continue his family farm, though. He wants to commit his time and his degree in agriculture business to preparing small and hobby farmers. New farmers face more financial burdens than past generations, he says. Despite growing interest, these challenges could slow farming growth.
Small farms and CSAs offer families that can’t afford costly upgrades a way to continue a centuries-old tradition. But urbanization, maintenance costs, and the expenses of building a new farm, threaten the next generation. New farmers replace retiring farmers at a decreasing rate, and leave researchers wondering who can take over the jobs.
Shuffling her hooves against the hay-strewn floor, tail whipping across the wood slates of her stall, Tia Flora stares down the feed bin just feet from her nose. Mid afternoon on a Saturday guarantees food and a visit for the prized cow at Silver Spring Dairy Farm outside Syracuse, N.Y. Her owner Chuck Luchsinger strokes the frizzy short hair between Tia’s eyes, never flinching as the more than five-foot tall animal tosses her head.
Charlie Luchsinger, Chuck’s 33-year-old son, says Tia’s matted black coat separates her from the other brown jersey cows in the barn. “Her mother was sired out of a Jersey bull from New England with hint of something else behind there,” Charlie says. “She turned out black, and with a lot of white it’s very unique.” For Charlie and Chuck, these unique traits make their cows worth more than the gallons of milk they produce.
Charlie, like his dad, has worked on the farm since his birth. He has weathered the good years and bad, but he says he wouldn’t trade working with his family for another job. They have a commitment to a quality product based on pride.
The average age of a U.S. farmer rose to 58 in 2012, according to that year’s U.S. Census of Agriculture report. That shows a 16 percent increase in age since 1980. But numbers deceive. Fred Gale, a senior economist at the USDA, says farmers should have died off years ago at that rate. Technology developments support efficient practices now, though. Family farms can industrialize to run large farm operations with fewer workers. And often the statistics reflect the reporting member of a farm’s family: the patriarch. A son or daughter training to take over may not appear in Census data.
Gale says CSA and market farms coexist with the gigantic industrial farms. He predicts this change will direct future agriculture. “People don’t get rich off farming, but they enjoy it and the lifestyle,” he says, “the connection to the community.”
Operating a small dairy farm that milks about 100 cows daily, Chuck — in his 60s — and Charlie spend the hours between 4:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. each day feeding, milking, cleaning, and fixing equipment. They hire two fulltime and one part-time worker to help with the chores. Large commercial dairies have workers tasked with one job like milking, cleaning, or feeding. At Silver Spring, though, everyone does every task.
As a milk supplier for the corporate producer Byrne Dairy in New York state, Silver Spring fills a stainless steel tank that a trucker picks up every two days. Last year, Chuck says they grossed about a half a million dollars in milk sales and $20,000 from the small market where they sell produce, cheese, and beef. The Luchsingers open their market to the community, but when it comes to sustaining their own farm they focus on growing enough hay, oats, and other grains to meet their feed needs. Chuck says they chose to stay a small farm and build on efficiency instead of expanding for production.
The stress of the market comes with the choice to stay in operation. “We all sort of live and die by the milk price,” Charlie says. “It’s one of the businesses where one year hopefully balances out the next.”
Thomas Overton, associate director of Cornell University’s cooperative extension, oversees education programs for New York farmers. He says families own and operate 99 percent of the state farms. Similar to Amaral’s work in the FFA, Overton says researchers — like those at Cornell — need to reach out to the community and teach practices to improve health and efficiency on small farms.
At a farm like Silver Spring, the family doesn’t have the financial resources to replace expensive equipment or rely on feed sellers to sustain their herd. Overton says in New York, which has the third largest dairy production in the country, the community needs to support the small farms that directly impact the state economy. And each produces using its own style. “Some are organic and some are conventional,” Overton says. “Some folks graze, some don’t. There are different ways.”
But, the Luchsingers add niche products to their sales to offset costs. They sell cream and cheeses at markets, and they breed heifers for competition.
Cobblestone Creek, unlike Silver Springs, downsized from a dairy because of upgrade costs. The Eggerts planned to downsize more to shut down the farm after retirement. Hyde stepped in with plans to take over the vegetable CSA, though.
Hyde says he loves spending hours in the fields with the plants. Steve and Diane teach him the business and continue to invest money in upgrades so that he can keep the family farm running.
Diane Eggert hands two young girls each a colored sweet pepper on a visit to Cobblestone Creek. On Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer, CSA members and their families trek to the fields for fresh produce. A white tent arches over the gravel driveway. Vegetables and fruit wait in boxes, the skin taut and dirt-free. Parents meander between tables to choose the ingredients for a later meal. Children run to explore the greenhouses and fields filled with their food. “They know when they come here they’re getting food from here. They know we grew it, we picked, and we prepared it for them,” Diane says. “It’s about knowing their source of food.”
Large farms produce greater profit, but take away the personal relationships built in CSAs. The Eggerts, the Lutons of Stones Throw, and the Luchsingers of Silver Springs share a passion: fostering relationships with locals.
Diane says she remembers the year she underwent surgery. Her CSA members called to check on her recovery before her family members called. Their care proves she and Steve support a caring community of those who share an interest in local farming.
Small farming doesn’t lead to wealth, says Violet Stone, program coordinator for Cornell University’s Small Farms program. Rather, people downsize from large operations or start fresh to live an agriculture lifestyle. Working outside provides health benefits through exercise and selling local goods connects people with the community. “So many young people are drawn to smaller operations that allow for flexibility and creativity,” she says.
Niche and hobby farms diversify the market choices for farmers. From mushrooms to nuts to bees wax, small farms trend in the local-grown movement, Stone says.
Diane tucks a tray of freshly planted seedlings on the greenhouse side table. She pauses, places her left hand on the wood slats, and leans against the sanded edge. Her breathing slows. Her eyes — masked by transition-lens glasses — scan the flats of plants. Taking her right hand, she rubs the curve of her lower back. Hunching to plant leaves her aging body aching.
Cobblestone Creek takes a 24/7 commitment. With Steve and Kory, though, the work never gets old. And the chance to share her passion for farming with CSA members keeps her days alive. “I can’t imagine ever retiring. This is too important to me,” she says. “I’d probably retire from here feet first.”
Standing straight, Diane turns to leave the greenhouse. She doesn’t wear a watch on her wrist, but after more than 30 years of routine farm work she doesn’t need a clock to keep on schedule. Dusting her hands one last time, she walks out of the building and heads toward the house. It’s 2 p.m. and time for lunch.