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June 2017

Seeds of Revival

How a wave of new farmers is transforming Essex County towns

mj2017_pp36-37_webFor 169 years the Essex County Fair has celebrated the region’s agricultural heritage. But lately attendance for the five-day extravaganza of fried food, livestock exhibitions, carnival rides and demolition derbies in Westport has wobbled. One explanation—“Farming is just dying in Essex County”—was related to Schroon Lake business owner Lisa Marks about a year ago.   

“I was astounded that anyone could make that statement,” says Marks. After all, the county’s thriving local food scene was one of the things that had lured her and her husband, Edward, to open Pine Cone Mercantile and North Woods Bread Company here in 2015. “I think [local farming] is more vibrant than ever,” she says.

Which impression is more accurate depends on your frame of reference. Historically speaking, the pessimists have a point: Once a mainstay of the Adirondack economy, agriculture slid steadily from its peak around the turn of the 20th century, when the Champlain Valley had more sheep than people, until the dawn of the 21st.

But there are hopeful signs that the tide is beginning to turn. In 2007, for the first time in more than a century, the United States Department of Agriculture census noted an uptick in both the number of farms and amount of acreage used for farming in Essex County. By 2012, the last time the census was conducted, the amount of farmland had grown by almost 5,000 acres over the last dozen years.

Since then, even more farmers have moved in. But in many cases they are doing things differently from their predecessors.

Rather than milking a herd of cows or planting a field of corn and selling it to a major producer from away—the conventional model—these new farmers are part of the small-farm or local-food movement, focused on creating a food system that feeds the community they live in and keeps the money circulating locally. They espouse a commitment to healthy food and a healthy environment, with a general tendency toward organic practices. Racey Henderson, of Reber Rock Farm, calls this ethos the “triple bottom line,” balancing the financial, social and ecological aspects of their business.

In the process, these farmers are changing not just the local agriculture scene, but the county’s economy, culture, tourism and—crucially—its demographics.

On a Saturday evening in April 2016, Dogwood Bread Company, in Wadhams, was packed. The crowd, primarily farmers, skewed well below the median age—46—of the Essex County population at large. They mingled over wood-fired pizza topped with local ingredients before settling down to the evening’s business: the inaugural meeting of the Adirondack Farmers Coalition, a local chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Sophie Ackoff, field director for the Hudson Valley–headquartered group, explained its mission as “organizing to make it easier to start and stay in farming.” She said the Adirondack launch represented the organization’s biggest number of new members they’d ever had at one time.

In a place like the Adirondacks, where hand-wringing over the aging population is a perennial topic of discussion, any influx of young adults is notable. As paper mills, mines and other major employers have closed or moved elsewhere over the last few decades, young people have been forced to leave the region after high school—and few return. The exodus has affected everything from school attendance to health-care costs. The young farmers moving in, and in some cases starting families, represent one of the few bright spots in the overall demographic picture.

Though similar pockets are popping up throughout the Adirondack Park, the small-farm trend is most pronounced in Essex County, particularly in the Champlain Valley. The reason for this is simple: the same things that made it a farming mecca a century ago are still working in its favor. With rolling hills spilling gently toward the western shore of Lake Champlain, this region has always stood apart from the rest of the Adirondacks, resembling parts of Vermont or the Hudson Valley more than the High Peaks. Its fertile soils and availability of farmland make it appealing to young people looking to start a farm. And, compared to Vermont and the Hudson Valley, the land is relatively affordable, especially with grants from land-conservation organizations such as the Open Space Institute and the Essex-based Eddy Foundation.

But it will take more than cheap property to entice young farmers to move here—and to keep them here.

In early 2016 the Wild Center, in Tupper Lake, released a report it had commissioned called “Connecting Millennials to the Adirondacks.” While it was geared toward tourism, the report’s insights—especially Millennials’ attitudes about food—could easily apply to attracting more young people in general. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said they were interested in food, wine and breweries, and 66 percent said they were interested in farmers’ markets. Overall, food quality is a high priority to Millennials, the generation born from about 1981 to 2000.

Courtney Grimes-Sutton, 34, who started Keeseville’s Mace Chasm Farm with her husband, Asa Thomas-Train, in 2013, says the study’s conclusions ring true. “Our generation wants to learn something when they go somewhere, spends more on food than any other generation and wants spaces to hang out. We need more gathering places. Nothing else is going to keep young people here.”

In some Essex County communities, the farms themselves are becoming gathering places. A couple times a year, Grimes-Sutton and Thomas-Train host their friends’ bands for concerts on their property. Last August, while traditional New Orleans jazz band Tuba Skinny performed in the barn, the couple served gumbo and boudin sausage from their food truck. “If there’s food, it becomes an event,” Grimes-Sutton says.

On Thursday nights throughout the warmer months, the couple park their food truck across the road at Ausable Brewing Company, cooking up tacos from their own pasture-raised meats and other local ingredients; they also bring it to special events around the region. The food truck doesn’t add a lot to their income, Grimes-Sutton says, but it’s important as “a gateway to buying our food.” 

Between Mace Chasm Farm, Fledging Crow Vegetables, North Country Creamery’s Clover Mead Café, and Ausable Brewing Company—operating under the state’s farm brewery license that Governor Andrew Cuomo established in 2013—this little section of rural Keeseville has been transformed into a destination for the locavore set.

Sugar House Creamery plays a similar role in Upper Jay, a sleepy hamlet with fewer than 300 residents (see “Sugar House Creamery,” June 2015). On Sundays from late October to early June, Margot Brooks and Alex Eaton, 32 and 33, respectively, host the Snowy Grocery, a scaled-down farmers’ market, after the one at Marcy Field closes for the season. Locals come to fill their reusable bags with freshly baked scones, beets and hockey puck–size wheels of Little Dickens, Sugar House’s soft-ripened cheese, but there’s more to it than stocking the refrigerator. “It’s also about connecting communities,” says Brooks. “People who [come to] live here want to live intentionally, and they want good food that’s nourishing.”

If anywhere is the cultural center of the Essex County farming scene, it’s the Whallonsburg Grange, smack in the middle of the highest concentration of farms in the county. The revival of this community center, which dates to the Champlain Valley’s original farming heyday, is representative of the burgeoning local farm movement as a whole. Nearly every week the 102-year-old building, renovated in 2008 after decades of disuse, hosts cooking classes, film screenings, lectures or square dances.

In August, Kristin Kimball, of Essex Farm, introduced a guest speaker on farming and the environment. Standing in front of the grange hall’s recently restored painted theater curtain, Kimball said, “In the 13 years we’ve been farming here we’ve seen a community of farmers spring up. While headlines in the rest of the country are all about agricultural decline, in our little area we have headlines about agricultural growth.”

Kristin and Mark Kimball were the pioneers of the small-farm movement in Essex County, a story Kristin detailed in her 2011 memoir The Dirty Life. Directly and indirectly, the Kimballs were responsible for bringing other young farmers to the area. Some, like James Graves and Sara Kurak, of Full and By Farm, in Essex, and Courtney Grimes-Sutton, of Mace Chasm, came to the Adirondacks to work at Essex Farm before starting their own ventures. 

The Kimballs formed the Essex Farm Institute in 2012 to offer on-farm experience to beginning farmers. In 2016, the organization changed its mission to focus on supporting the farmers in the community through farm visits and workshops on topics like welding and protecting livestock from predators. Racey Henderson, of Reber Rock Farm, joined as program coordinator, a position that dovetails nicely with her experience as a rural development consultant in Africa.

Henderson, 39, is another Essex Farm alum; she met her husband, Nathan, when she worked there between stints in Africa. When the couple, along with partner Chad Vogel, went looking for their own farm, in 2012, they initially avoided Essex out of concern the area couldn’t support another draft horse–powered operation like the Kimballs’ and Full and By Farm, but they found the perfect spread a few miles away.

So far, the region isn’t oversaturated, in part because farmers are finding ways to differentiate themselves in their offerings and business models, some of them novel. Instead of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system, where members pay an up-front fee for a share of the year’s bounty, Reber Rock opted to open a farm store; in addition to grass-fed beef and other pasture-raised meats, they make and sell sunflower oil and homemade soap. KZ Farm, in Westport, produces the ingredients for their Poco Mas taco truck; owners Josh and Sarah Kingzack are experimenting with packaging sauerkraut and pickled vegetables to extend their business to the off-season. Farmstead Catering at Echo Farm, in Whallonsburg, provides all of the food and flowers for custom wedding events, planting and raising only what it needs for up to six weddings per year. “It’s like a CSA for your wedding,” says Dillon Klepetar, who started the business in 2014.

“People are deciding for themselves what fires them up, what makes them happy,” Henderson says. In the end, though, she adds, “We’re all competing for the same dollars.”

How much bigger the local movement could grow will depend in part on whether these new businesses can reach more customers. “If a hundred percent of Adirondackers actually only ate local, we could support so many more farms,” says Brooks. “The barriers are cost and convenience. That’s a bigger social issue. We all need to figure out how to make it more accessible and more convenient.”

One of the groups working on overcoming those barriers is the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA), based in Saranac Lake. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to support sustainable economic development, with agriculture as one of its focuses. Last fall ANCA and several partners launched Bike the Barns, a fundraising bike tour with stops at area farms; the proceeds went to help subsidize CSA shares for people who can’t afford them.

“There are definitely hunger issues in our region,” says Josh Bakelaar, ANCA’s director of local economies and agriculture. “Price is one of the things we can work on.”

One problem is that fresh local food is often more expensive than meats and produce shipped across the country or the world. But that doesn’t mean local farmers are getting rich. On the contrary, the financial risks for farm startups are great, and many beginning farmers need a supplementary source of income, whether a part-time job or an Airbnb rental on their property.

Another obstacle is student loan debt. The National Young Farmers Coalition is lobbying to have farmers included among essential “public service” professions, such as teachers and nurses, in a federal loan forgiveness program.

Working off the land has always been a physically demanding profession with little promise of financial reward, but to the farmers giving it a go here, that’s not the point. “Farming is totally a choice,” says Grimes-Sutton. “I’m very employable, but this work is the healthiest work for our minds and bodies.”

Building a thriving agricultural economy has implications well beyond the farmers themselves. Multiple studies have found that for every dollar spent on local goods, as much as 58 cents continues to circulate locally, while only about 14 cents of a dollar spent at a chain store stays in the community. On top of that, farmers use the services of local tradespeople and other local businesses. “Helping a farm and keeping it going creates all kinds of jobs, not just on the farms,” Bakelaar says. “It has this multiplier effect that’s hard to quantify.”

Like much of the Adirondacks, most Champlain Valley towns all but shut down in winter. But on a Thursday morning last December, a commercial kitchen in a former self-storage warehouse in Essex was full of workers making hot sauce and processing vegetables.

Launched in 2016 by Jori and Andy Wekin and Steve Blood, the Hub on the Hill is both a product and an enabler of the growing local food scene.

The Wekins moved to Essex from Vermont in 2010 to manage Black Kettle Farm, a small operation associated with Lakeside School, a Waldorf-style program where children spend a lot of time on the farm and in the woods. The Wekins saw it as an opportunity to “dig in to a community” where they could raise their young children according to their values.

As more farmers moved into the area, Jori says she and Andy wanted to do something to help support them. “We were inspired by what was happening.”

Jori was instrumental in helping the Whallonsburg Grange renovate its community kitchen in 2012. She and several partners used it to start a co-packing business, now called Dak & Dill, making pickles, condiments and other value-added products from local ingredients. They soon realized the need for a bigger work area for Dak & Dill and to help launch other businesses. In addition to the spacious, well-equipped kitchen, the Hub on the Hill has a fermentation room and cooled, frozen or dry storage space for rent. There’s also a self-service store featuring local foods and crafts. Poco Mas, Farmstead Catering, Flying Pancake Catering and Dak Bar energy snacks are a few of the businesses the Hub has incubated.

The next challenge to tackle, Wekin says, is distribution. Right now, individual farms are making their own deliveries and doing the legwork to find restaurants and other outlets for their products. It’s a huge duplication of effort—and mileage—that will need to be addressed for the movement to continue to grow and be sustainable. 

Despite some initial skepticism from their older and more established counterparts, the majority of the young farmers say they have felt welcome in their adopted communities. “Most of the local people that I’ve talked to are pumped” because their businesses are growing right along with the farmers’, says Klepetar, of Farmstead Catering.

Jay White, president of the Essex County Cornell Cooperative Extension board of directors, works with farmers of all stripes, giving him a good perspective across the generational and cultural divide. “The older farmers sit back a little and watch [and say], Huh, that’s a different way of doing that,” White says. “But when those young people call on those older farmers for help, they’re right there.”

In any case, not all of the newcomers were born post-1980. Though the small-farm movement is disproportionately young, there are plenty of farmers in their 40s, 50s and beyond whose practices and business models fit comfortably into the local-food scene. Some are lifelong farmers, while others are doing it as a second or retirement career.

Jay White, who is 47, is a good example. He and his wife, Sarah, have professional careers, but he longed to return to his family’s agricultural roots (his grandparents had a fruit farm in the Hudson Valley). In 2014 they bought 85 acres in Essex, with plans to turn it into a flower farm, vineyard and winery with a tasting room. They envision it as part of a growing emphasis on agritourism, a way to expand on the Adirondacks’ appeal as a vacation destination.

White is also spearheading an effort to establish several state-designated “cuisine trails” that guide tourists to farm stores, farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, wineries and other foodie destinations. It is inspired by a similar trail in the province of Quebec, called the Circuit du Paysan. Last summer a contingent of farmers and local officials toured part of the circuit with their Quebec counterparts; they hope to build a cross-border partnership that will bolster both regions’ tourism efforts.

Since the idea was floated in early 2016, interest from businesses wanting to be included on the cuisine trail grew so much that the group eventually submitted applications to the state department of agriculture and markets for six connected regional trails, with two each in Essex, Franklin and Clinton Counties.

The Wild Center’s Millennial study showed that travelers in that generation are looking for “authentic experiences” they can’t have elsewhere. “It only adds to the draw of a region to have special regional products that aren’t available in Brooklyn or wherever,” says Margot Brooks, of Sugar House Creamery. “The people who already come here for recreation often also appreciate good food.”

On a gorgeous Saturday in September the Essex County Fairgrounds hosted a new event called the Adirondack Harvest Festival that brought all of the strands of local agriculture and tourism together. The day started with a hamlet-to-hamlet hike on the Champlain Area Trails, while the fairgrounds, in Westport, were transformed into a farmers’ market with food trucks, a pig roast, music, craft beer and wine tastings, cheese making and beekeeping demonstrations, farmer discussions and screenings of Keene Valley photographer Ben Stechschulte’s 2012 documentary, Small Farm Rising. The only kids’ rides were on a horse-drawn wagon.

The event was everything that the new farmers say is missing from the Essex County Fair. “[The county fair] is a perfect example of the divide between the old and new,” says Racey Henderson. “It centers around food, games and agriculture, but the food is not local food. It doesn’t attract the new folks.”

At a meeting in September, members of a fairgrounds task force came to a similar conclusion. “I think we’ve got to put more ag participation back into the agricultural fair,” said Shaun Gilliland, the 58-year-old town supervisor of Willsboro, where he and his wife raise grass-fed beef, lamb and pork on their 500-acre Ben Wever Farm.

Henderson hopes the county fair’s organizers can find a way to breathe new life into the 169-year-old institution. “I really don’t want to see it die,” she says. “It’s an incredible opportunity for a combination of the old and new.”

At the Grange last summer, Kristin Kimball read a quote about how farmers are “always poised between nostalgia for an idealized past that never existed and hope for an easier future that never comes,” a description that could refer to the Adirondacks as a whole.

But for the young farmers who are putting down stakes here, and the communities they are joining, the balance is firmly on the side of optimism.

As Henderson says, “I think we’re at a pretty exciting place where anything can happen.”

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