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Left to right: Sarah Chase of Chaseholm Farm Dairy and Creamery in Pine Plains; Columbia Land Conservancy’s Terence Duvall; CLC President Troy Weld, moderator; and New York Farm Bureau board of directors VP Eric Ooms at the Farm Film Festival at the Crandell Theatre in Chatham on Sunday, April 30. Photo by Deborah Maier

New York state farming: variety, ingenuity and a new crop of farmers

CHATHAM —  “In terms of farming, New York state is very active. It’s going and growing.” That’s how Terence Duvall responded to the question of what everyone should know about the Farm Film Festival on Sunday, April 30, if they were not among the audience of 120 that day.

Nine films were featured at the free screening in the 1926 Louis L. Wetmore-designed Spanish Renaissance-style Crandell Theatre, which accepted voluntary donations to the Chatham Silent Food pantry in lieu of an admission fee.

All of the films reflected the vibrant reality of farming in New York state in the 21st century, with the longest one, “Our Farms, Our Farmers” by Murphy Birdsall and Keith Reamer, focused on our own corner of Dutchess County.  A leitmotif of the many different stories in the festival was love of the land, its gifts and its many demands.

The first film, “How 7.1 Million Acres of Farmland in New York are Harvested” was a rapid-fire rundown of statistics across all major farming and livestock businesses in the state as of 2022, noting that there were 33,500 farms and 753 farmers’ markets in operation then.

“Little Farmhouse Flowers,” part of “The Good Life” series of short films on unconventional farming worldwide, free on YouTube, follows former art teacher Linda in her quest to build a life based on her love for flowers and family. In her relatively harsh northern climate—with a dependable growing season almost two months shorter than that of our area—she has learned to use tunnels within tunnels to avoid the need for heated greenhouses. With her Pyro weeder—like a flame-thrower in the war against unwanted vegetation—and her sustainable floral design work (“No floral foam, which is basically microplastics”) plus the involvement of her whole family, she has crafted a future-oriented life that also feeds her original dreams. “I have an innate need to tinker and create; [with this farm] I just  happen to be growing my own art supplies.”

A ‘gateway crop’

“Grow Hemp NY” presented the newest of the major New York farming crops and practices since the plant’s substances were removed from the DEA’s schedule of Controlled Substances along with the 2018 Farm Bill. They are the same species as marijuana plants, but hemp plants by law cannot contain more than .3% of THC. CBD can be derived from both plants. Those who have farmed hemp for two years have been given a fast track to growing cannabis for the adult-use market.

In “Dirt Stories,” a quartet of women from upstate New York practice regenerative farming, a philosophy and technique aimed at keeping the soil alive for the long term rather than solely focusing on immediate yields.  Starting with an old photo of Dust Bowl times, the women in turn discuss how cover cropping is part of this solution, and how the judicious use of nematodes—”between bugs and bacteria,” and potentially both helpful and harmful—are ways of using animals “to create an ecosystem for us.” Traditional farming, they reminded us, releases lots of carbon, whereas regenerative agricultural practices sequester it.  A wry wrap-up is a shot of a poster adorning a barn: “Yes. Women farm. Thanks for asking.”

‘Our Farms, Our Farmers’

Interweaving the hopes and challenges of six farmers and three existing farms of the 15 or 20 that are remembered by the older of them, Birdsall and Reamer’s film is a thoughtful call to support small-scale agriculture in our area in whatever ways we can. The filmmakers were thrilled to see their work on the biggest single screen around, and more than pleased with the sound and image quality at the Crandell. “It was altogether a lovely event,” said Birdsall, whose favorite among other films was “Project Eats.”

“Our Farm, Our Farmers,” produced by the Little Nine Partners Historical Society,  is a 22-minute trove of heartfelt stories and remarks.

Standfordville’s John Boadle, a farm kid and now a highly skilled freelance farmer, “farm whisperer” and tractor repair genius, according to filmmakers Birdsall and Reamer, remembered fellow students nodding off in study hall.  Their teacher would gently prod them awake, knowing they had been up since 4 a.m. and had already put in a day’s work.

On his longtime pursuits of bovine genetics, “You want a dairy cow to ‘look dairy’—taller, better leg, depth of rib,” claimed Barry Chase. With a better leg, they more easily walk on pasture; a big muzzle enables them to get more grass, their main nourishment; depth and openness of the ribs in a calf indicate that she will be a good milker later on.

Lo-Nan Farm’s father-and-son team, speaking of being part of a 600-member dairy cooperative—Cabot products are made from their milk—stressed that there’s been only a 50% increase in their remuneration for milk over a 40-year period. (For context, the General Accounting Office states that 2% per year is an average food inflation figure, except for the mammoth 11% between 2021 and 2022; milk prices are federally regulated but vary from state to state). “Doing more with less—that’s what farming has become.” Boadle agreed, saying, “It’s survival mode now.”

Ronnybrook Farm’s Dan Osofsky spoke of a different choice. “Walking away from a coop and its security is scary”; but they did it, and were an inspiration to Chaseholm when siblings Rory and Sara Chase took it over in 2013.

At Chaseholm, they’ve modified their systems with grazing management but stress the direct-to-consumer model, cutting out the middleman and creating and marketing value-added products on their own at their farm store and in many local stores and eateries.

A 2022 Stissing Mountain High School graduate, farmer Ben Prentice cited the “big huge emotions up and down” associated with a farmer’s intimacy with the land and animals; one morning you find a newborn calf, while another morning may bring the death of a cow.  That makes it like an addiction, he said. “The power of the land, that’s something you can’t explain.”

The sixth film, “Building a Brighter Future with Young Farmers,” featured the extremely diverse National Young Farmers Coalitions (NYFC) with one particularly charismatic woman spokesperson highlighted. Actions it has urged and seen implemented since 2010—major policies, loan/micro loan policies—give reason for guarded optimism. “We need to act now and act together” is its rallying cry.  See www.youngfarmers.org

“In Her Field,” made as a senior thesis film at Rochester Institute of Technology, featured another strong female farmer—Erin Bullock of Wild Hill Farm—and her groups of mentees.

“Project Eats” has many unexpected views, like the rooftop farms around New York City, and whiplash editing between huge, gleaming right angles and tender seedlings being transplanted. Wards Island has the largest New York City garden plot at 2 acres, but there are another five in the boroughs.  All are dedicated to providing people fresh vegetables in areas where that can be tricky or expensive, priced according to a buyer’s income or “what do you think it is worth?”

It’s an inspiring nine-minute look at an alternative to the industrial food system, and free to view online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-ay7I2g9Lo

‘Beekeeping in New York’

Another visual feast, with images like the closeup of two beekeepers in full gear with the Empire State Building huge and blurry in the background, this film, among other things, informs us that vacuuming bees—sometimes necessary in the constrained spaces of Manhattan rooftops—does not hurt them. This film was produced by the South China Morning Post.

In the panel discussion Q&A that followed the showing, moderator Troy Weld asked Sarah Chase, “How supported are younger farmers,  and how can we support them more?” Chase pointed out that she and sibling Rory had chosen to farm differently from their father—to go organic and grass-fed, which would not work at scale—and that the best anyone can do as individuals is to support local farmers by buying their products. There are programs to support young farmers, as Duvall elaborated; since 2008, the Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC) has connected farmers with land owned by others via agricultural leases with special conditions. The CLC, now four decades on, is a farmland trust to protect land for the future and offers subsidies for farm affordability.

Other audience questions queried how those robot milkers work; what a typical day in the life of a farmer looks like; what the current threats to farming are; and what the Farm Bureau does.

Second-generation Chatham dairy farmer Eric Ooms noted that 93% of his cows go to the robot milker themselves, saving a lot of costs.  As vice president of the New York Farm Bureau board of directors, he spoke of how well-meaning regulations can sometimes stress the profit margins of small farmers, giving the example of New York’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. “Transitioning to fully electric energy for grain farming will take time; and EPR [Extended Producer Responsibility laws, which mandate that producers must have and implement recycling of the packaging they use on their products] can be burdensome for small producers.”

The future of farming in Columbia and Dutchess

Ooms pointed out that it’s wise, as Chase has done, to diversify risks by adding beef and certain crop products. Local products in local stores are more prevalent than before, and should continue to increase. More opportunities are needed;  serving local food in schools is a good start.

Ooms noted the new perception that farming is very chic, with a story of an old professional neighbor who years ago urged him to get out of farming and now wishes for a farm himself.

All agreed that the interconnections between businesses you count on and those that count on you are a crucial part of the equation.

When asked what she would like people to take away from this presentation of some of the breadth of New York State farming, Sarah Chase said she would “encourage people to be curious about the origins of things…the things I’m consuming, the clothes I’m wearing…just think it through, and notice that our area…is a breadbasket, it’s providing a lot. Where can you make those connections?”

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