by R.J. Anderson
Strong friendships typically spring from deep roots. That is certainly the case with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and Eden Valley Growers, Inc., a 50-year-old vegetable growing farm cooperative in western New York. It’s also why CCE recently honored Eden Valley Growers with its 2016 Friend of Extension award.
“Excellent extension and research programming is not possible without grower involvement and that is where Eden Valley Growers comes into the picture,” said CCE Director Chris Watkins during the keynote address at the Friend of Extension luncheon on December 2, held at Cornell University’s Moakley House. “Their member farms are key in connecting university research to real-world farm utility.”
Based in Eden, New York, Eden Valley Growers consists of ten member farms, most of which are third or fourth generation. Members use the co-op for marketing and distribution of produce. Each year, the cooperative ships over half a million cases of fruits and vegetables throughout the United States.
For more than 30 years, the Friend of Extension award has been presented by Cornell Cooperative Extension and Epsilon Sigma Phi, to recognize truly outstanding support of and personal involvement in Extension efforts.
In nominating Eden Valley Growers for the award, CCE of Erie County Executive Director Diane Held and CCE Erie Farm Business Management Educator Megan Burley, along with Cornell Vegetable Team Specialist Darcy Telenko, described members of the cooperative as always willing and able to answer questions from CCE educators, host farm tours, and sit on panels for a grower workshops. In addition, Eden Valley Growers advise CCE staff on research projects and have participated in hiring searches to fill positions on CCE’s Cornell Vegetable Team.
On hand to accept the award were representatives from member farms Henry W. Agle & Sons, Amos Zittel & Sons, W.D. Henry & Sons, MCR Farm, and D. & J. Brawdy Farms. In accepting the award, Mark Zittel told the audience that the relationship between Eden Valley Growers and CCE is a symbiotic one and that CCE provides unbelievable resources for vegetable growers throughout the state. The most important of those resources, he said, are extension specialists such as Telenko, who are wholly committed to assisting the cooperative’s member farms.
Watkins said those farms in turn provide an important conduit for extending Cornell’s research and agriculture expertise. “The member farms’ support and willingness to host research trials and implement Cornell recommendations allows CCE to provide current solutions that keep the vegetable industry thriving across the state,” said Watkins. “We are honored to call Eden Valley Growers a true Friend of Extension.”
by Peter Smallidge
A sugarbush is a special type of woodland. Woodlands include a complex mixture of natural processes and attributes such as soil type, elevation, tree species, types of wildlife, history of use, tree age and more. Foresters can help maple producers gain an in-depth understanding of these factors to achieve a healthy and productive sugarbush, but there are several steps a maple producer can take on their own.
Three principles should guide the way a maple producer looks at a sugarbush. These principles apply to all woodlands. First, managing the sugarbush to produce a specific product (in this case sap) is really about managing which plants receive sunlight. Sunlight feeds the leaves that make sugar, which of course is needed for high quality sap. Second, trees are biological organisms, similar in some respects to a tomato plant, a cow, or a human being. Biological organisms are born, grow and eventually senesce. They also respond to stressors in their environment, and their vigor determines how well they respond. Third, as trees get larger they require more space. Because trees cannot move as they become crowded, some trees will die as the sugarbush matures.
With these principles in mind, a reasonable goal for a sugarbush is to make sure that trees of good vigor and potential longevity have adequate sunlight, stress events are minimized, and the effects of crowding are controlled by the owner who selects which trees will remain. Following are a few actions that maple producers can take to help keep their sugarbush healthy and productive.
1. Monitor crown health. The leafy part of the tree, the crown, is perhaps the most important part of the tree to monitor. Be alert to evidence of unhealthy crowns. Symptoms of poor crown health may include dead branches in the upper part of the crown, poor leaf color during the growing season, unusually small leaves, or a transparent crown. There will always be a couple trees in a sugarbush with poor crown health, but if several trees show these symptoms it is a sign that a problem exists. A symptom tells you a problem exists, but it doesn’t usually identify the problem. Crown health may decline as a result of root problems, such as compaction from machinery.
Repeated injury to the crown can also reduce health because of reductions of energy reserves in the roots, as occurs when defoliation coincides with drought. Crown problems often result in less sugar production and lower yields the following sap season. In extreme cases, minimize or avoid tapping to allow trees to recover a healthy crown. Unfortunately, the causes of unhealthy crowns often can be difficult to change. Some of the following actions also help maintain good crown health.
2. Assess competition for light among trees. Trees need light to grow. Although sugar maple is tolerant of shade, it does not thrive in these conditions. Maple producers need their trees to thrive, not just survive. The appropriate stocking, that is the number of trees of a given size per acre, is a numeric index of competition for resources, specifically light. There are also visual indications of too much competition for light. First, if the upper canopy, collectively the crowns of the tall trees, is closed and does not allow sunlight through, then there may be too much competition for light. If the canopy is closed, and some trees have rounded crowns while other crowns are flattened on two or more sides, there is likely too much competition.
If the maple trees produce seeds, but there are no seedlings, there is either too much shade or too many deer. Before taking action, visual cues to competition should be assessed by a forester who will measure stocking. In many cases the state forestry agency can provide a public forester to do the assessment. These foresters are pre-paid, i.e. your tax dollars at work. If competition is high, thinning around the best trees will ensure they have enough light to continue to thrive. Look for resources on Crop Tree Management to guide the selection of trees to cut and those to leave. Woodlot and sugarbush thinning webinars are archived at www.youtube.com/ForestConnect.
3. Look for interfering plants. Interfering plants are either native or non-native (or “invasive”), and interfere with something the owner wants to accomplish. Examples of interfering plants include multiflora rose, ferns, beech, striped maple, bush honeysuckle, and many more. For maple producers, interfering plants may complicate access for tubing or buckets. Interfering plants may also impede efforts to establish young desirable maple seedlings. In some areas, deer pressure is high and they browse desired plants. This browsing gives a growth advantage to the interfering plants that deer do not browse. Strategies and techniques to control interfering plants depends on the problem plant, its abundance, how thoroughly the maple producer wants to control the plant, and the producer’s use of herbicides or organic strategies. The author’s website includes numerous resources to help control interfering plants.
4. Monitor tree diameter growth. Tree diameter growth is critical to maple syrup producers. Diameter growth is an index of crown health. Diameter growth also helps to heal tap holes, adds new wood for future tapping, and acts as a reservoir for sap. A tree may produce the same amount of wood each year, but the thickness, known as the diameter increment, will decrease because the wood is spread around a bigger tree. Tapping guidelines assume tree growth is sufficient to add new wood and prevent future tapping into columns of stain from prior tapping. “Pattern tapping” helps prevent tapping into a stain column, and so does adequate diameter growth.
Producers should expect annual diameter increments of 1/8th to 1/10th of an inch for trees less than 16 inches, 1/10th to 1/12th of an inch per year for trees 16 to 20 inches, and 1/12th to 1/16” of an inch for larger trees. The actual growth necessary to provide a sufficient thickness of new wood depends on the depth of tapping and the offset of the tapping pattern between years. “Band tapping” high versus low bands of the tree will reduce the expectation for diameter growth (but why would you strive for slower growing trees?).
Annual measurements at the same position on the stem with a tape measure will reveal tree growth. Producers can place an aluminum nail in the tree at 12” high, and use a 3.5-foot stick to locate consistent height to annually measure diameter at breast height (dbh). Measure a minimum of 30 to 40 trees, and at least one per acre. Just as producers should measure sugar concentration, so they need to measure tree diameter growth.
5. Consider tree age and longevity. Sugar maple can be a long-lived tree, with some trees reaching 300 to 400 years of age under ideal conditions. Under normal conditions, maple will likely have reduced production between 150 and 250 years of age. Maple producers could assess if there are patches of old or otherwise unproductive maples and regenerate a couple small patches every few years. Cutting within patches needs to be sufficiently intense to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Patches could be 0.25 to 0.75 acres, and vigorous trees within the patch could be retained. Young seedlings should be protected from deer by fencing or dense continuous piles of brush around the perimeter. A forester can help assign vigor-ratings to trees, and producers can monitor sap production for individual trees. The location and timing of patch cuts should synchronize with planned changes of tubing and mainline.
6. Livestock. Historically, many farm woodlots and sugarbushes have allowed cattle and other livestock to free range. In these cases, grazing involved a perimeter fence and then free choice of consumption by the livestock. This continuous or set-stock grazing proved detrimental to the animals, the trees, and the land where the stocking rate (same concept as for trees, see #2) was too high. Sustainable grazing is possible, but requires considerable work. Silvopasture is a deliberate process of integrating livestock into woodlands while also managing for nutritious forage plants. Management-intensive rotational grazing in small paddocks with herd/flock movement daily ensures ample rest periods for the land and intensive, restorative grazing of the forages. With careful planning, silvopasture practices can solve some interfering plant problems. Any plans for deliberate grazing should assure that root damage is avoided; pigs in particular can cause root damage through their tendency to “root.” The author’s website has several references and resources for silvopasture.
7. Avoid soil ruts and compaction. While tree crowns are perhaps the most important part of the tree for producers, tree roots tie for first place or are at least a very close second. The roots anchor the tree to the ground, pull water from the ground into the stem for sap, and feed the foliage. Damage to roots by tractors, skidders, or livestock can cause irreparable damage. It is easier to prevent than to fix a problem. Producers with buckets need to access the sugarbush, but they should limit the number of trails. In chronically damp or soggy areas, install corduroy with a continuous mat of small logs and poles to float the tractor. Use as small a machine as possible that is safe and effective, and add high floatation tires if practical. Other types of woods work should allow equipment only during seasons when the ground is firm: usually summer, dry falls, and during cold winters. Repairing ruts with fill or corduroy may help avoid the need for a new trail and more damage in a new area, but this will not repair the damage to the roots.
8. Mixtures of species. Your sugarbush will generally be healthier and more resistant to stresses such as insect defoliation if there is a mixture of species. When thinning a sugarbush to provide more light to desired trees, avoid the temptation of a monoculture. Providing adequate sunlight to keep a thrifty maple healthy may be best accomplished by cutting another maple… there, I said it, it is okay to cut a maple. Seriously though, most producers can look at a maple with a small crown, weak fork, or old scars from maple borers or tractors and know that the tree is not productive or is otherwise risky. Bucket producers have the advantage of truly knowing a tree’s productive capacity. Paint or mark a tree of low productivity during the season, and cut that tree later in the year when time permits. When cutting firewood or thinning, set a target for the main canopy to be about 75% sugar maple or red maple and 25% other species. These aren’t hard numbers, but use them as a guideline.
Time is of course the biggest obstacle to maple producers working in their sugarbush. Start with the easy tasks, and keep a list of priorities. Use this list to guide a discussion with a forester from your state forestry agency or your consulting forester. Let them know your goal is a productive and healthy sugarbush. A forester can help you develop a plan and a schedule to optimize the use of your time. Finally, be safe in the woods; there are too many stories of maple producers hit by trees and crushed by tractors.
Acknowledgements – Joe Orefice and Steve Childs provided helpful reviews of this article. This article was adapted from an article by the author that was published in the Maple Syrup Digest October 2016.
Peter Smallidge is the NYS Extension Forester and Director, and works in the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest as well as at the Department of Natural Resources and the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Ithaca, NY 14853.
Support for ForestConnect is provided by the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and USDA NIFA.
Binghamton Farm Share helps CSA farmers develop sustainable business in untapped low-income markets.
by Kate Miller-Corcoran
Connecting farmers and residents in low-income areas is a strength of the Binghamton Farm Share. Each season since its inception in 2013, half of the share members have fallen within very low to moderate income ranges, as set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Share distribution grows each year, and in 2016 an average of 65 weekly shares, bringing in around $1,300 weekly, were distributed to members falling within these income levels. While there is initial work that needs to be put into growing relationships in these areas, the benefits reaped by both the share members and the farmers is incredibly worthwhile. Programs like Binghamton Farm Share help to lighten the load on the farmers by having a central contact for the members, allowing the farmers more time to grow their produce. However, farmers around the country are also successfully marketing shares and delivering to low-income areas on their own.
Binghamton Farm Share (BFS) is a modified Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, born from a study done in 2012 by the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE) in Oneonta, NY, to determine the best way to increase access to good food in local food deserts. This study found that convenience and price were the top priorities for residents when it came to buying food, which BFS is able to achieve. Every week of the growing season, Binghamton Farm Share goes directly into neighborhoods that lack fresh, healthy produce to distribute CSA shares from local farms. By accepting SNAP benefits and providing a 50% discount to income eligible members, residents can better afford this good food. This opens an untapped market for farmers, one that should be further explored as we move into the future.
The success of Binghamton Farm Share relies heavily on the member education that we provide for our members. With the help of a grant from the Northeastern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NESARE) program, we have been able to create extensive member education materials. These materials are universal, and can be found on our website for use by any farm that may wish to use them.
Keeping in mind that many of our share members are new to cooking with fresh vegetables, we create easy-to-follow recipes using ingredients that most members have on hand. This makes recipes accessible both to members who might be facing economic hardships, but also to members who are new to using a CSA as their source of produce for the week. Showing members how the produce they receive can enhance food they are already eating as well as sharing variations of dishes that members are familiar with to help people think about produce in new ways. For example, we have recipes for carrot tacos, zucchini “crab” cakes and broccoli quinoa tots. We have these recipes available to sample at distribution. When members have tried something and know they like it, they are more likely to take the time to replicate it at home.
People joining a CSA generally have the desire to learn to cook with fresh produce, but some lack expertise. Guiding members in the basic ways of using fresh produce helps to retain members. To start, we created a comprehensive vegetable list, which includes all produce that has been distributed through BFS. Using this, members can identify produce, get simple preparation techniques, and learn how to store the produce for both the short and long term. The comprehensive vegetable list was also split into individual Quick Guides for less common produce to distribute on weeks they are found in shares. Both the comprehensive vegetable list and the quick guides can be found on the Binghamton Farm Share website.
When members understand the importance of proper storage, for both the short and long term, retention increases throughout the season. We found BFS members were commenting on their end of season surveys that their produce wasn’t staying fresh long enough. Lack of knowledge in storage was attributed to much of this. For the past two growing seasons we have provided a colorful single sided “Care for Your Share” informational sheet that our members receive at the start of the season to hang on their refrigerator. It’s a quick reference on how to store produce and how quickly each vegetable should be consumed. We also place an emphasis on storage at weekly distribution. We provide our distribution volunteers with extra knowledge and prompts for helping members understand what is in their share and how to store it.
Through our NESARE grant, we have been able to work with our partner farms to help them understand the needs of members who may have limited resources or lack experience preparing food. Many of these members simply want access to affordable produce, and are not looking for more sophisticated shares. While we acknowledge that the traditional CSA model is not one in which a member chooses the food received, we also must understand the needs of our members if we are to have success in spreading fresh produce into areas that need it most. People just learning to eat healthy are most likely to stick with a CSA share if it contains a majority of produce that they can recognize.
It’s important to consider what members in lower income brackets may be facing. What cooking utensils are available? Do they have cutting boards, ingredients to prepare food, or time to prepare extensive recipes? BFS raises money throughout the year to purchase cooking utensils and spices to give our members to start the season with. We also utilize surveys; most helpful is the mid-season survey which encourages members to give us feedback on what produce they need more help with, what recipes they would like to see more of, etc.
Our farmers adapt to create shares that with the 50% discount will cost members less than $10. It is important to remember that even when people are paying that little per week, it is an investment of their food budget. According to the Food and Health Network’s 2014 “Helping to Create Hunger-Free Communities” Report, “In 2013, monthly SNAP benefits in the [9 county] region averaged about $132 per recipient.” If a share member receives the least expensive share their cost is $40 per month or 30% of their food budget.
Another consideration is the unpredictability that can come with living without economic security. Member reminders are extremely important. Both a reminder the day before and having someone that can call members within a half hour of the end of distribution if a share has not been claimed are provided. BFS also utilizes a Share Bank, which is available for member use if a payment cannot be made. Certain times of the month budgets can be tight and this helps to keep members in the program rather than leaving due to embarrassment of not having funds to pay for a share. Members are able to use the Share Bank twice in a season without paying it back. However, most members do reimburse the money used.
There are programs that farmers can tap into to make CSA programs accessible to members in low-income areas, including asking your own members to donate to a fund for those who may not be able to afford the full price of the CSA. This way, farmers can still be paid the full price for their share and families who most need it can have healthy, nutritious food on their tables.
Food is a commonality among us all. Food brings people together and creates community. Our world is seeking community now and small farms are situated to bring people together through programs like Binghamton Farm Share.
Kate Miller-Corcoran grew up on a dairy farm in Windsor, NY, where her family has been farming for 4 generations. She received her BA in English from Penn State University and her Master of Arts in English from SUNY Cortland. Currently, Kate is the Program Coordinator for Binghamton Farm Share. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (607) 238-3522.
For more information, visit:
Binghamton Farm Share: vinesgardens.org/farmshare
Food and Health Network Resources: foodandhealthnetwork.org/resources/
Northeast SARE: http://www.nesare.org/
by Reuben Dourte
In the farming community, machinery and implements are regularly borrowed or rented. For the most part, farmers are a close-knit community who look to help each other out when possible. Sometimes situations arise where a tractor may be broken down, and to continue time-sensitive harvest of planting operations, the neighbor’s tractor is borrowed. The lender farm may carry insurance coverage on the tractor and as such may not give much thought to lending their equipment to their neighbor, but doing so without adequate consideration or conversation is probably not advisable.
If you are the one borrowing equipment from your neighbor, you will want to consider including an adequate limit on your own insurance policy for borrowed or rented farm equipment. How much coverage do you need? A good starting point is to determine your maximum possible loss to borrowed equipment. If your neighbor lends you a $50,000 liquid manure tanker, it is probably advisable that you have insurance for $50,000 of borrowed equipment. If you store the tanker and the neighbor’s grain drill in the same implement shed, this limit may need to be increased, since a fire or building collapse could damage more than $50,000 of machinery.
Hopefully, your neighbor’s insurance agent is having this same conversation with him or her. Since you do not know what coverage they have elected to buy, or how their policy coverage forms read, it is important for you to have a conversation with them before you lend them your equipment. You may want to verify that their policy does not stipulate that a written agreement needs to be in place for coverage to be extended to hired or borrowed machinery. You will also want to verify the coverage limit on their policy. Damage to your equipment will be covered on an actual cash value basis, so the neighbor with $5,000 of coverage for rented or borrowed equipment may be grossly underinsured, even if they are borrowing an older model tractor. You need to evaluate the actual cash value of your equipment and verify your neighbor’s policy limit to determine whether or not coverage is adequate.
If your machinery is damaged while in the care and control of your neighbor, you may have a couple options. Your first option is to ask your neighbor to turn in a claim against his or her own policy. If you have failed to verify their coverage limits, and they are underinsured, their policy may only pay part of the loss amount. You may be left with no other option than to turn the claim into your insurance company, at which point you may receive actual cash value of the item lost minus your deductible amount. If you have your equipment insured to adequate limits, you will not need to worry about an unpaid claim. However, this scenario is less than ideal.
First, as mentioned, your deductible will be subtracted from your claim settlement, potentially leaving you to pay for the difference out of pocket when you go to replace the piece of equipment you lost. Hopefully you could recoup this expense from your neighbor, but they may be in a situation where they are unable to pay. Furthermore, there is a good chance that your insurance company will attempt to subrogate against the at-fault party, i.e. your neighbor. Again, if your neighbor does not have adequate insurance limits, and they do not have the means to reimburse your insurance company, the company may not be able to recoup their claim payment. This whole legal process could certainly also put a strain on your neighborly relationship. Perhaps most detrimental is that in the event that your insurance company is unable to successfully subrogate against your neighbor or their insurance policy, the claim will remain on your loss history. Your account’s quality of risk has now been reduced and your loss runs will show this activity if you want to shop your insurance coverage in the near future. Some farm companies will not write an account that has had losses within the last three years. Other companies may write it, but surcharge the policy, and still others may not offer the same aggressive price credits that would have otherwise been available. If you are insured with a company that provides credit for policies that have no claims, you may lose this credit and incur a higher annual insurance cost for the next few years than you would have otherwise realized. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get your deductible back from your neighbor, but trying to explain to them the loss of policy credits you incurred is probably a more difficult conversation.
If your policy lacks appropriate and adequate limits of insurance coverage for items of machinery that you are renting or borrowing, you need to have a conversation with a licensed insurance agent about how you can fill that coverage gap. Before you lend your machinery to your neighbor, you should be having a short conversation with them to verify that they have coverage in place to protect you in the event of a loss. A simple, this discussion can save a lot of headaches in the future and go far to avoid the potential fall-out between friends.
by Kina Viola
New York livestock farmers, whether experienced or just getting started, will benefit from the release of a new pricing tool from Cornell Cooperative Extension. The “Livestock Price & Yield Calculator” exists as part of MeatSuite.com, an online directory of over 160 New York State farms selling meat in bulk. The calculator has been designed to allow farms to enter their own data and profit goals, then price their meat with the assurance of meeting those goals. These features make the calculator a vital tool for farmers to create pricing for each marketing channel they utilize, whether selling whole carcasses or meat by-the-cut. For success, users need to prepare in advance by gathering their current meat prices, invoice from their processor, and the weights of cuts from one average animal in their herd. With this information on hand, the calculator takes about ten minutes to use.
Marketing labor, processing and travel costs, and the difficulty of meat-cut inventory management may leave farmers wondering if local food channels, such as farmers’ markets or restaurant sales, can yield profits. The calculator can be used to develop the pricing needed for a farm to realize a profit in each channel. In some cases, the prices calculated won’t work for the customers in that channel; this is an indicator that the channel is not viable. In contrast, where price adjustments are tolerated, the farm can proceed with sales in that channel, confident that they are receiving a profit with each sale. In this way, the calculator tool is not only for figuring out pricing, but also a means to “test” the viability of marketing channels.
The calculator addresses several barriers in meat direct marketing, most notably that farmers utilizing value-added channels typically underestimate the value of their invested time. To solve this, the calculator includes features that empower the producer to create a desired level of profit—either as a percentage mark-up or as a flat dollar-per-head value—and set pricing of cuts or whole animals to reach the goal in each channel. Farmers who drive longer distances to truck their animals to processing are compensated for time and gas, for example. Additionally, the price calculator combats the confusion many producers may have about managing inventory, and how inventory can be managed by prices. The “magic” of the site lies in the farmer’s ability to manipulate the prices of individual cuts based on their proportion on a carcass and the degree of consumer demand in the farm’s channels, all while maintaining the desired level of profit per head.
The calculator is an exciting tool for building up farm viability. But its benefits don’t end with the producer—it can also facilitate a productive exchange with buyers. Wholesale buyers wishing to buy meat by the whole and half animal can use the calculator to understand how to price different cuts, whether for a plate cost or for the retail case. Additionally, farmers can use the calculator with potential wholesale buyers in order to teach them what goes into the farm’s prices. Using the site, buyers are able to see costs like transportation and processing fees to better understand the value of the products. Farmers and buyers will be encouraged to collaborate and develop a price that works for both parties.
For farmers to survive over time, the ability to set fair prices for their labor becomes key. With each use of the calculator, producers will take steps to ensure for themselves a more reliable income and feel confident that their hard work is paying off.
NYS farmers are invited to use the Livestock Price & Yield Calculator located at calculator.meatsuite.com. MeatSuite.com, which houses the Calculator, is an online directory any farm selling meat in bulk can join. Farms may contact Matt LeRoux, email@example.com, for help or with questions.
Kina Viola is a Project Coordinator for the Finger Lakes Meat Project, a project of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County aimed at increasing the freezer trade regionally. She also manages the MeatSuite.com online directory, and the Ithaca Meat Locker, a community storage space for bulk meat.
by John H. Lavelle
Most farmers have a substantial real estate portfolio. Depending on the geographic region, this can be extraordinarily valuable, but in every case, land is always a critical asset for the succession of the farm business to future generations. In many cases, the value of the land is also a planned retirement asset for the senior generation of farmers. These two ideas, critical asset and retirement asset, often combine to doom family farms that do not plan for the future.
Conservation easements can often save the day for families struggling with the transition of farm businesses to the next generation. But what exactly are these, and how can they work for the typical farm situation? This short article is designed to raise farmers’ and planners’ awareness of how this powerful tool can solve otherwise intractable conflicts over the role of land in the estate plan.
Cash Out Without Selling?
For the lucky few, a conservation easement can facilitate a large payment to the senior generation farmers, while keeping the farm in the family. For farmers whose land is very valuable as a conservation asset, they can get paid for agreeing to restrict their land to agricultural uses indefinitely. Generally known as a “purchase of development rights” or PDR, this technique trades cash for the creation of a conservation easement.
Where does the cash come from? State and federal funding programs, as well as private land trust funders, devote money from time to time to conserve farmland. This money is scarce, and changes according to government budgets every year, but it is possible for the best land to qualify for these programs. Ordinary farms need not apply, but in high growth areas or very special conservation areas, farmland may be eligible. If you join the queue early and often enough, every year someone is approved.
So what happens? The farmer agrees to restrict the land to its current uses (i.e. agricultural, open space, woodlands, etc.) with perhaps some limited development areas needed for farm expansion. The land is appraised before and after the proposed restrictions, and the decrease in value is how the PDR is computed. Some program or combination of programs might pay the farmer 100% of that value, while others might be less than that. For most farmers, cash received in a PDR transaction will be taxed as a capital gain.
If you are lucky enough to get a PDR, it can solve the senior generation retirement income problem. At the same time, it lowers the value of the farm for the purpose of transferring it to the next generation. In addition, certain tax benefits might be available, discussed below.
Tax Planning with Conservation Easements
For very successful farms and large landholdings that are not farms, a conservation easement presents many tax planning benefits. The vast majority of conservation easements are donated in full or part and are not sold as in the PDR situation above. In exchange for donating or giving up the development rights, very powerful tax benefits are available.
These tax benefits for high bracket taxpayers can sometimes make the difference between retaining legacy farms, vacation properties, and forest lands, and needing to sell them to plan for estate taxes or to otherwise work out estate planning issues. Here is a quick summary of the possible tax benefits when a PDR is not available (which is most of the time):
Income tax deduction. For high earning farmers and wealthy landowners, a charitable income tax deduction is awarded for simply agreeing to restrict the land under a conservation easement. In many cases, the government gives you this benefit even though it is what you want for the land anyway. The deduction is equal to the difference between unrestricted land and the value after the restrictions. Your use of the deduction depends on your individual tax situation. For qualified farmers, this “paper” deduction can completely offset the tax on your income for up to fifteen years. In addition, New York has a conservation easement tax credit granting New York donors a refundable income tax credit of 25% of their school and property taxes paid during the year (maximum credit is $5,000).
Estate tax benefits. First off, whether you believe the estate tax will still be around or not (it just celebrated 100 years in 2016), getting benefits for something you would do anyway still makes sense. The conservation easement lowers the value of the land for gift and estate tax purposes. This means more land can be transferred within today’s large exemptions from the gift and estate tax than without the easement.
Secondly, an additional 40% off the value of the encumbered land, up to $500,000, is available at the death of the landholder(s). None of these benefits cost a single dollar (other than the cost of doing the easement, of course). So, the easement provides lower value to begin with, and 40% on top of that in many cases. The more significant the impact of the easement, the more likely the landholder will get the full 40% reduction. Farmers in high growth areas usually qualify for the maximum benefits.
Conservation easements have a long lead time. It might take years to get a PDR. For a full or partially donated easement, a year is the minimum amount of time. Qualified appraisers are needed for the before and after valuations, which drive the purchase price in PDRs and the tax benefits for donated easements. Legal documents are involved and a land trust or government agency is a key partner.
However, the benefits are substantial, and farmers and other landowners should be alert to this opportunity. Together with professional advisers familiar with the technique, farm families can greatly benefit their own estate planning when this tool fits the situation.
John H. Lavelle, CPA, LL.M., is a founding partner of Lavelle & Finn, LLP, Attorneys at Law, in Latham, NY and co-owner of Windhorse Thoroughbreds and Cotton Hill Farm in Middleburgh, NY. He can be reached at (518) 869-6227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samuel Palmer works at Cross Island Farms to gain experience for his budding new career: farmer.
by Alyssa Couse
Jefferson County, NY is home to two prominent ways of life: agriculture and the military. The proximity of Fort Drum to local farms and agribusinesses creates an opportunity for the two worlds to collide. As different as these lifestyles seem, there are actually many glaring similarities. Each requires dedicated, responsible, compassionate, hardworking people who have the ability to wear multiple hats. Technology is being incorporated more and more into each industry, thus creating more opportunities in information technology and engineering.
As farms expand with more animals and employees, management skills are required to keep the operations moving efficiently. Soldiers with experience in diesel mechanics could apply their skills to farm equipment and hauling trucks. These are just a few examples of how the agricultural industry is in need of a workforce that is remarkably compatible with the skills of the military service men and woman who are transitioning into civilian life.
Through the Cornell Small Farms Program, whose mission states “We help farmers get expert assistance to facilitate all phases of small farm business development, from initial growth to optimization to maturity,” the Farm Ops program was born. This effort brings resources to veterans who want to enter the agriculture industry. From starting their own small farm, to working for a local farm or agribusiness, veterans have access to a statewide network. Online courses, business planning resources, workshops, and on-the-job training opportunities are available to guide veterans in their transition from military to agriculture. As the Agricultural Outreach Educator for Jefferson County, I wanted to explore a real-life example of the project at work.
Here is a local success story for inspiration. Infantry Captain Samuel Palmer is trading his Army boots for muck boots. With a love for the outdoors and a passion to help the food system, Sam decided that agriculture would be his next venture. This spring, the Palmer family will be returning home to New Hampshire to start Sapling Forest Farm. The farm name is a product of Sam’s initials S.A.P. with his son being the “sapling.” Although he had worked on a few farms throughout high school and college, Sam did not come from a farming background. Utilizing the Beginning Farmers Project resources such as business planning materials and attending events/workshops, Sam’s dream has become a reality. He most recently received a certificate from the Produce Safety Alliance’s Grower Training which satisfied FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) regulation by attending a training held at Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension.
To gain some hands-on experience, Sam sought guidance from a local farmer from whom he was buying organic pork. Sam has been spending most weekends helping Dani Baker and Dave Belding of Cross Island Farms on Wellesley Island, NY. This was a perfect pairing: Sam was interested in learning about organic livestock and produce, and Cross Island Farm is a very diverse organic farm with livestock including pigs, goats and beef cattle, greenhouses of fresh produce, and an edible forest garden. Sam’s military experience has helped him handle high-pressure situations that arise, such as a “goat rodeo”, or goats escaping from their pen. Remaining grounded and having strong communication and management skills are crucial to farming and were instilled in his years in combat. In addition, building spreadsheets and online marketing skills are tools from the military that he can now add to his farming toolbox.
On the weekends when he isn’t on Cross Island Farms, Sam is traveling to New Hampshire to work on his own farm. After a weekend spent planting winter rye on his land, Sam was elated to share the experience with Dave and Dani. “Guess what I did last Saturday? I worked on MY farm.” The support and guidance he has received from his mentors, local educators, and the Cornell Small Farms Program were unexpected benefits for Sam during this transition. He encourages anyone who is interested in agriculture to simply contact a farmer and get out there!
After sitting down with Sam, I wanted to enrich his story with the perspective of the local farm he has worked on. Dave Belding of Cross Island Farms explained how the relationship with Sam Palmer began. Sam and wife contacted the farm for organic foods for their family. Sam had heard about the volunteer opportunities offered and asked how he could help. Shortly after, Sam began helping out on the farm on weekends. Sam is the first veteran to work as a volunteer, but the farm has been host to many volunteers in different programs. The WWOOF program, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, has brought volunteers from New York City, Chicago, Spain, Switzerland, Singapore, Austria, and Germany. Cross Island Farms also has local volunteers and has had interns from SUNY ESF and Clarkson University. After such a positive experience with Sam Palmer, perhaps more veterans will be added to the list of regular help.
Dave describes Sam as a joy to have on the farm and that his work ethic, discipline, and resourcefulness from his military experience make him productive and independent. The farm has gotten great satisfaction from helping people to experience agriculture and it seems that learning is a two-way street. For example, Sam’s interests in practices like rotational grazing and forestry have been an asset to Cross Island Farms, as Sam brings knowledge from his own research and can implement it on the farm. Because of these skills, Dave feels that there will be “abundant fruit coming from the seeds planted through Sam’s experiences on Cross Island Farms,” in reference to the success of Sam’s future farm in New Hampshire. In general, Dave thinks that veterans have what it takes for the agriculture industry. Regardless of experience level, having the right personality traits are key. “The skills are one thing; the work ethic may be an even bigger thing.”
Sam Palmer’s transition into farming is evidence that having a farming background is not a pre-requisite. Experience can be taught. What cannot be taught as easily are the fundamental attributes of a successful farmer: work ethic, dedication, responsibility, passion, and the desire to work hard for an ideal they believe in. Sam and Dave agree on the advice they would offer to other veterans curious about agriculture: reach out to those in the industry and get a taste of what it has to offer.
Alyssa Couse is the Agricultural Outreach Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Part of her job is to help connect transitioning soldiers and veterans with resources and connections in the agricultural industry. She can be reached at email@example.com or 315-788-8450
Learn more about Farm OPS:
by R.J. Anderson
For commercial fruit and vegetable growers in New York state, winter is a time of reflection, preparation, and guarded optimism. It’s also a time to hone one’s craft through continuing education and consumption of research-based analysis.
A buffet of that insight drew more than 800 attendees to the 2017 Empire State Producers Expo, which took place January 17-19 in Syracuse, New York. Co-hosted by the New York State Vegetable Growers Association and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), the event featured Cornell scientists, CCE educators, and experts from across the country presenting on topics including weeds, wildlife and pest management; food safety; best growing practices; and business development tactics.
“The Expo provides a great opportunity to network with growers, educators, and scientists from throughout New York and beyond,” said CCE Director Chris Watkins. “The single goal is that attendees drive home the feeling that they have invested their time, energy and resources well, and hopefully with thoughts of how they can make changes in their operation to improve profitability.”
Tree fruit growers found sessions especially helpful as standing-room-only crowds packed the Syracuse Oncenter’s ballroom Wednesday. Kicking off the day, retired Cornell plant pathologist David Rosenberger detailed sudden apple decline, a troubling condition killing young apple trees across the state, which has puzzled researchers.
The afternoon featured presentations from horticulturist Ines Hanrahan, a fruit safety expert with the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. She spoke about honeycrisp apple best management practices and reducing the spread of foodborne pathogens through proper orchard management. Joining Hanrahan was Cornell horticulturist Greg Peck, who talked about the importance of soil health in apple orchards.
Highlighting the three-day event was a presentation by New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball covering Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently unveiled New York Certified Grown Program. Identifying and promoting New York producers who adhere to the state’s food safety and environmental sustainability programs, the certification assures consumers that the food they are buying is local and produced at a high standard.
“Many of the attendees indicated that they left the session with a clearer definition of the program,” said CCE’s Darcy Telenko, extension vegetable specialist with the Cornell Vegetable Program. “As a vegetable farmer himself, Commissioner Ball is able to connect [with] our growers and has a great understanding of food safety and the need to promote New York agriculture through concise messaging.”
Watkins agreed: “Commissioner Ball is a wonderful advocate for New York state farmers, and his willingness to attend EXPO and update the industry firsthand is priceless. It is in keeping with his often-spoken comments about our state being one based on partnerships, relationships and friendships.”
With many of the sessions packed, attendance numbers significantly higher than in recent years, and an on-site trade show buzzing with activity, Telenko said the 2017 event was one to build on. “We had a number of very interesting and current topics and we brought in great speakers,” she said. “I think anyone who attended an educational session – myself included – learned something new that we can take and implement on the farm to improve vegetable and fruit production in New York.”
by Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming
The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming and the Cornell Small Farms Program are teaming up to create a new column called Lessons from the Land, which captures and share the stories of and lessons learned from farmers, homesteaders and land workers around New York and the Northeast. We want to hear stories from growers of all types and sizes, on real topics, that matter!
Each issue has a theme, and upcoming themes and deadlines can be found at http://groundswellcenter.org/lessons-from-the-land/.
Submissions of 400 – 800 words are requested, and can submitted at the website above.
Upcoming Topics & Deadlines:
Stocking Up – June 9 (Summer 2017 Issue)
Diversity – August 11 (Fall 2017 Issue)
The Lifecycle of a Managed Forest
During the winter of 2014-15, timber was harvested from the forested portion of our property, for sale to a commercial lumber company. There has been a forest stewardship plan in place on the property since 1994, recorded with the State of Connecticut and updated several times since the initial plan was written. A stewardship plan is a management document developed by a certified state forester, constructed around the goals of the forest owners. So I knew it was appropriate to harvest mature trees. I also understood that the timber sale would not only provide money for reinvestment in the farm, but that careful logging would help us to achieve other goals of our forest management plan, like improving wildlife habitat and our system of trails.
In spite of this knowledge, it was hard for me to stomach the thought of cutting down those beautiful, stately trees. This forest had been a playground for many of my childhood adventures and explorations. I now own this small, New England hill farm and its woods as the third generation of my family to steward this property. Through the stories, memories, and photos shared by my dad, I know a history of the property that is longer than my own years. I know that the 18 acres of pines had not always been there, but had been planted in the mid 1930’s by my grandfather and his two boys, my father and my uncle. What had once been a worn, upland pasture was now a forest; a legacy left by my forbearers.
My father passed away at age 93, in November of 2014. The timber had already been sold, and the loggers were only waiting for the ground to freeze to commence their work. As I grieved, I braced myself for what was to come. The aftermath of logging, even when it is well done, can look horrific to an untrained eye. I remember listening to a professor from the Yale School of Forestry on a field day several years prior. As we looked out at an area that had been recently logged, the professor commented that while some people would see this area as a mess, he saw a young, healthy, vibrant forest. It was a forest in its infant stages, and to him it was lovely. I tried to keep his words in mind as the winter and the logging progressed, but I cried when I saw the first load of logs stacked and waiting to be loaded onto the logging truck. The end of these trees seemed symbolic of my dad’s passing, particularly since the events coincided so closely, and my grief doubled.
Eventually spring came, and once again I took to the trails. While I felt the absence of those large old trees, I now saw the beauty of the smaller trees that were left behind. No longer overshadowed, these trees seemed to be basking in sunlight. I hadn’t realized how dark the forest had become when dominated by those large, mature trees. I felt as if the saplings were rejoicing in the new openness, air, and light of the forest, and I rejoiced as well. Life was visible everywhere, including many kinds of birds, wild flowers and wild berries. The rebirth of a forest is indeed a lovely and miraculous thing to behold.
North Granby, Connecticut
Today I got a phone call from a man who told me that he was going to die soon. It wasn’t exactly consistent with the scope and tone of inquiries we receive here at the CCE office, but then again, it kind of is. We get so many different calls here that I am no longer surprised by the questions and comments we receive over the phone and by email. My new motto in my office is “we got you covered,” and I feel that this is true of all of the departments here in the Ulster County Extension office. From “how many calories are in a big mac,” to “my dog was attacked by a raccoon last night,” we get all kinds of inquiries here, and are happy to do our best to point each of our clients in the right direction. So when I got this phone call, I was not particularly surprised since this individual had come across an article that I had written about the process of composting human remains.
Most people do not realize the intimate connection that farmers have with death and dying. Breeding many generations on the farm, and living in and with nature, provides both a frame and magnifier into the mysteries and processes of death. Farmers and ranchers understand that death is part of life, and deserves the same reverence and respect as the beginning of life. This man on the phone had a preference that most of us can understand… he wished to be buried on his family farm.
I was more than happy to guide him to the appropriate channels and safeguards to ensure that what he was doing was both legal and safe. To most farmers, a human body is relatively easy to compost simply because we are much smaller compared to some of our livestock. And since nothing on the farm is wasted, most ranchers compost their animals and use the nutrient rich fertilizer that is produced to enrich their pastures or gardens.
Besides farmers, the other major composter in the area is the highway department. With the overpopulation of both deer and cars on our roadways there are many wildlife fatalities every day. The highway department soon realized that pilling up the roadkill would be offensive to both the nose and eyes and would attract unwanted attention from wild animals. They realized that their best option was to compost the remains of the roadkill, which would safely dispose of the animals, would not attract wild animals to the area, and would make a value-added product out of what was previously considered waste. The only caveat is that the composting needs to be carefully controlled and monitored. There is an art to composting. When done right it is beneficial to everyone, but when done wrong, or neglected, there is a real opportunity loss.
The man who called was already aware of the issues and intricacies of composting, and I think that he was seeking more than just technical assistance in that he was looking for some kind words and support in his endeavor. I let him know that I would do all that I could to ensure that he was in compliance and that he could spend his eternity in the most comfortable placed he had ever known… home.
It is not often that I get calls about death, but it helps me to know that death and farming are sisters, and it is in the acknowledgement of their intimate relationship that we are able to our better understand our place and our farm in nature.
Jason Detzel, Livestock Educator
Cornell Cooperative Extension Ulster County
Raising Beef Cattle
“What is growing in this pasture?” asked the Cornell ‘expert’ as she walked Twin Brook Camillus Farm with us. Besides thistles, we didn’t know the names of all the other weeds that appeared on our land, after 30 years of commercial farming. We wanted to make the land environmentally productive and the soil biologically organic by raising beef cattle to market directly to customers.
Thankfully, not all the fields were in as bad a shape as the one we walked, but nothing was sustainable. We started in 2011 with minimum fencing, two feeder calves, and a pre-owned John Deere tractor with a loader and forks. Having just retired, my husband said, “I’m doing this the easy way!”
The ‘farmer’ (my husband) bought a post-hole pounder, for we knew that we needed two to three years to complete the fence around the farm, and thankfully, the ‘farmer’ is a handyman.
While grain-fed beef grow to full weight in a year and a half, most grass-fed beef takes two years to get to maturity. The benefits of all grass to a ruminant animal is found in the fats becoming ‘good’ fats, high in Omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks. We did not want to compromise the health benefits.
When we realized that our profit would be short the $10,000 gross needed for an agricultural assessment that first year, we raised up pastured broilers that got us to the mark. That, and we flipped a couple of cattle at the auction.
Each year we built more fencing and bought more feeder calves, until we were selling 4, then 6, then 8, then 9 (because one broke its leg and froze overnight), then 10, which meant we were raising 8, then 12, then 16, then 18, until we reached 20, the maximum for our 47-acre farm.
All that time, we were building 3-walled mobile sheds for protection for the cattle from the cold and wind, which they seldom use but which was important for our Upstate NY weather. By dragging the sheds in the Spring to new areas, we use the tractor to scoop up the manure into a pile for composting (good garden soil!).
Many people think that grass-fed animals are just let loose in a big open field until they are butchered. We learned about rotational grazing, so we use temporary fencing to move cattle every two to three days through small paddocks of grass within that larger pasture. We learned that cattle ought to be moved out of a pasture when they’ve eaten down to the last 3 to 4 inches of grass. The remaining grass with its leaves creates new growth through photosynthesis, thus making it possible to rotate the cattle back into that same paddock in two to three weeks. This is what makes small farms sustainable, all while protecting the environment from overuse.
At first, we struggled with hay supply for the animals, so we bought a baler, but now we only bale a little of our own grass and we buy in most of the hay. We should probably sell the baler, but we get free hay from a neighbor if we cut and bale it.
We eat our own beef. We read. We learned that Europeans will never eat an animal that is less than 2 years old, for they claim that older animals have better flavor. While we thought the flavor of our beef was good, we wanted to improve it. We attended pasture walks, conferences, and seminars, continuing to learn. Anything worthwhile takes patience, experimentation, and endurance.
About two years ago, the ‘farmer’ learned how to marble our meat with outstanding flavor. At the end of summer, he separates out the cattle intended for harvesting, then grazes them through 3-4 rotations over a period of 4-6 weeks in a paddock of brassica and millet greens, annuals that are high in carbohydrates.
Oh my! I never want any other beef! And our customers agree. We’re thankful now for sustainable customers. Our patience and learning paid off, and those thistles are gone!
Elaine J. Kennedy
Twin Brook Camillus Farm, LLC
It has only been within the last 4 years that farming seemed as though it would be a viable solution to make an honest living. Since 2009, when my wife and I kept our first garden, there has been some intriguing force that continues to set me on this path, but it was never my intention to be a farmer.
Most of my childhood was spent outdoors wandering in the woods looking for something, but some of the most enjoyable memories that I can recall are of driving through the mid-west, nearly hypnotized by the large fields of corn and soy passing beside our vehicle. Some years later, I now stand in my own field, observing cover crops and dancing bees, planning future systems on our farm, and wondering if my children will view the land in the same way, if not better.
Being a steward of the land was something that just seemed right. After three deployments with the Marines, it seemed reasonable to find time to place my hands into the soil and sow seeds, all the while wondering how a small piece of matter could become a plant capable of feeding many. I found myself investing more time in the garden, viewing other plots, interested in other people’s methods. This childlike wonder still exists, but its sole purpose was to lead me to understand food systems, our relationship to them, and how we can utilize farm practices to sustain our future generations.
I am a farmer, a designer, and a builder. I am engaged with my community and provide opportunities for them to view the landscape through an ecological lens. I assist veterans’ transition into agriculture, and help them to navigate resources and programs that are beneficial to any farmer. But I am a father and husband first, and think of ways to provide nourishing food for my family, while also raising them to understand where their food is derived from and how our influence will either create resilient or detrimental systems.
Much of the world is witness to the impact that inconsistent weather patterns are having on the landscape, and more importantly, to our food supply. For too long, we have implemented practices that uproot soil carbon, leach nutrients, and deplete the fields of any biological activity. Though I do not agree with these methods, I do understand that they have served a purpose, and those large fields of corn and soy are still what inspire me to make appropriate changes within our annual design and plans that will lessen the impact we have upon the landscape.
Our communities are faced with difficult circumstances in all areas of life and our future relies heavily upon the ways we alter or adapt our lives to embody the whole system, not just a part of the system. Often, I ask visiting students if anything in nature grows alone or in a straight line, hoping that someone will say, “actually…”, but that has not yet been the case. My point is, if the foundation for existence, our planet, works in collaboration with other ecosystems and species, then why is it that we have not yet adopted this more diverse approach to growing and raising our food?
The permaculture movement has been moving forward for four decades, regenerative or restorative practices are becoming better known, agroforestry systems are being further examined, and the reason is not because it’s a buzz, but because they work, and our communities are beginning to see that. Preparing for the future means that we focus on planning for resilience through limited tillage, crop rotations, rotational grazing, perennial intercropping, diverse polycultures, etc.; all methods that our ancestors utilized which are capable of lessening the impact of, if not preventing, pests, diseases, compaction and nutrient leaching.
We as farmers can help our families and friends maintain optimal health and vitality. We can rebuild communities by bringing them to the farm and engaging them with the source of their supper. We can plan for and prepare our future generations for any difficulties that they may endure because farmers, designers, and pioneers chose to view the landscape differently and learn from our past, providing wholesome opportunities for our grandchildren. What matters the most is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, and sometimes that means breaking old habits and being humble in the face of uncertainty. The land reminds me to be grateful and find time to listen; nature knows best.
Jon, Wild Roots Farm
Increasing production on the farm can often require investments in equipment to improve labor efficiency, productivity and profitability. Are you a farmer who is interested in scaling up farm production through investment in your first tractor or upgrading to a bigger piece of equipment? Are you a beginning or experienced farmer who wants to understand tractors better and to use them and care for them more safely and efficiently? The Cornell Small Farms Program will be hosting two upcoming workshops on the basics of tractor operation, safety and routine maintenance.
This two-day, intensive workshop will be led by Shane LaBrake, who provides an unusual and holistic approach to tractor operation, safety and routine maintenance. The class is designed to de-mystify tractors and equipment, empower and inspire, and inform “scale-appropriate” equipment choices and purchase decisions.
The workshop will be held on Thursday, April 27th and Friday, April 28th at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St Lawrence County in Canton, NY.
Classes run 9 am – 5pm each day. Lunch and snacks are included. Cost is $75.00 total for both days. Scholarships are available for military veterans upon completion of the training (reimbursement for registration and partial travel expenses). For more information about scholarships, please contact Dean Koyanagi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Participation in the workshop is limited to 12.