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The changing face of agriculture; Why we need to support it

By Tom Kappner
April 30, 2014

Agriculture is a foundation of our community, essential to our social, environmental and economic wellbeing, not only historically, but also today.

Despite its low overall employment rate (2.2% of Sullivan County’s workforce), its vital impact is indicated by its stronger growth rate and higher multiplier effect compared to other sectors. It is connected to tourism and recreation and a wide variety of ancillary businesses such as supplies (seeds, feed, etc.), machinery and maintenance, veterinary services, insurance and financial services, sales and distribution of agricultural products, and more. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, from 2011 to 2012, Sullivan’s 323 farms contributed $85.9 million dollars to our local economy with a total economic impact of $257.7 million dollars, considering that every dollar generated by a farm turns over three times in the community, staying in our local economy.

As vital as agriculture is, it is has also been severely threatened for several decades by the corporate-industrial forces, often referred to as the market forces pushing for globalization. At the height of the depression in the 1930s, we had some 2,000 dairy farms in Sullivan with six or fewer milking cows each. Now we have under 30 dairy farms with 60 or more milking cows each. Our traditional family farmers simply cannot compete with industrial giants in the Midwest, West and further upstate with a couple of thousand cows producing for world markets.

Fortunately our agricultural sector is resilient and has been making the adaptations that have great potential for its future. What has been emerging is a widely diversified multiplicity of small-scale producers taking advantage of our greatest competitive advantage: the growing interest in nutritious, wholesome foods that are not full of chemicals and artificial ingredients and the proximity to the vast New York metropolitan markets with consumers willing to spend a bit extra for a quality, healthy product. Our producers are connecting directly to consumers locally and in the metropolitan area, and in general, people are interested in supporting local farmers rather than large agricultural businesses and processors and distributors operating nationally and internationally.

The diversity of our agricultural sector augers well for its potential as does the growing number of enterprises that use local ingredients to produce value-added products, notably cheeses but also artisanal production using fibers from alpaca and sheep, and breweries and distilleries using local products.