Making connections with local farmers | St. Lawrence University Sustainability Program

Making connections with local farmers

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Over the past few weeks, I have visited many local farms and met the farmers behind all the produce. Each one of these farms was unique and the farmers had very different views on how they wanted their farm to interact with the local community. Living in the North Country, it is hard to begin a farm and sustain it for many years, because the local market is rural and the county has many members who are living below the poverty line. However, many farmers like Dan Kent of Kent Family Growers, and Bob and Flip of Littlegrasse, have both modified their faming techniques to fit the specific markets they want to target. 

Dan Kent, has a small-scale organic farm located in Lisbon, New York (about a 20 minute drive from Canton). Even though Kent Family Growers is seen as small-scale compared to industrial agriculture, his farm is on the larger end of small-scale farming, with about 20 acres in production. He employs three foreign workers (from Guatemala and Haiti), because he has had problems in the past with using local employment. He hired local community members and local Amish men to work for him, but had issues with reliability because other problems in their life would take precedent over their work. The local community's workforce being so unreliable is what turned Dan Kent over to the idea of workers on VISA programs. The Kent family supplies these workers with housing and food and access to a car if needed. With this more reliable workforce, Dan has been able to amp up his production using heavy machinery. Kent Family Growers does CSA shares throughout the seasons, shares ranging from late spring into winter. He is able to extend his CSA shares because he uses hoop houses to keep the temperatures warm enough for the plants to grow and protect them from the weather conditions as they change throughout the season. He also has a large storage cooler, which he stores most of his root vegetables for the winter shares. The farm also distributes produce in bulk in New York City, which has greatly helped their finances as organic produce in the city can go for a pretty hefty price. Dan Kent also has a connection with a distribution truck company, who does a loop in the North Country to supply the Chinese restaurants in the area with their produce, so Dan Kent sends his produce down to the city in their empty truck after they drop off their load. Dan Kent has altered his farming to be largely mechanized to produce enough produce to sustain his family, which includes a wife and three children, as well as sustain a strong connection with his foreign workers, so they will see this job as a career path and will continue to return to work each season. 

However, Bob and Flip of Littlegrasse has an entirely different mindset around the word CSA. CSA stands for community supported agriculture and at Littlegrasse they put a large emphasis on the word community. They feel that many farms who are CSA's have strayed from the original meaning behind the phrase, and have used the word CSA as a marketing strategy as opposed to a mission statement for the farm, which is what CSA stood for when it first came about. Now CSA is just another way for smaller farmers to compete with the industrial agriculture corporations, by devaluing their products and losing touch with why they are growing food in the first place. As Bob put it, "we (Littlegrase) don't sell food, we feed people." Littlegrasse cares more about giving their local community access to organic, no-input (no sprays, even the organic ones) produce at an affordable price. Littlegrasse chose the spot for their farm not because the land was super stellar, but because of their accessibility to the local community and the university. Littlegrasse specializes in shares for University faculty and students, by modifying the share length to fit the school year. They even do barter shares, where if people are willing to go work with them for  couple hours a week they can secure a share with them for no additional cost. They don't want their farm to be exclusively for the elitist population, whom can easily afford the organic prices for produce, but instead give their poverty-stricken community access to good quality food. Since they are such a community focused farm, they ask that their members work on the farm once a month and they host potluck events once a month, where the members come together to do some farm work and then celebrate after with a potluck lunch. Littlegrasse puts such an important emphasis on community participation because they want their shareholders to get to know their farmer, and reconnect with their food and the land. Unlike Kent Family Growers, Littlegrasse does not use machinery for transplanting or harvesting (that is all done by hand). The only time they do use machinery is when they are prepping a bed and need to till or when they are mowing down a cover crop. Bob and Flip are able to financially do this type of niche market because they do not have any children, only own one car and also both have other sources of income. 

Kent Family Growers and Littlegrasse are both very successful farms, but they each have different views on the way they want to run their farms. Kent Family Growers chose to do CSA shares and bulk deliveries to the city because that option is what their family needed financially. While Littlegrasse opted to be more true to the CSA original meaning, which financially supported their simple lifestyle and helped them maintain the meaning of CSA, which is important to them.