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Homeward bound: Youth returning to county's farms

Saturday, June 21, 2014 - Updated: 4:08 AM


There is life on the farm, and one can thank the younger generation for that.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Farms in Montgomery County are on the rise despite a decrease nationwide.

College graduates with farm degrees are returning to the area to either work on family farms, or branch out on their own.

Evolving technology is making farming more efficient and allowing owners to expand.

Farm numbers increase

The number of farms in Montgomery County totals 659, a 9 percent jump since 2007. The types of farming vary, from cash crops and vegetables, to cattle and livestock operations.

However, dairy, the fifth-leading commodity in the nation, continues to be the No. 1 income generator in the county. And, the number of farms continues to increase -- from 162 in 2007 to 191 in 2012 -- with the majority being full-time, year-round businesses that provide a livelihood for the operators.

"Agriculture in Montgomery County is a huge economic engine," said David R. Balbian, area dairy management specialist from the Cornell Cooperative Extension. "Some agricultural economists indicate that every single dairy cow has a roughly $15,000 economic impact to the economy. The 2012 Census showed Montgomery County with 13,660 dairy cows."

Yet, it is not only dairy farms on the rise. There are many other types of farm operations including vegetables, greenhouse crops, forage & grains, and other types of livestock.

There has been growth in farming at both ends of the spectrum, large and small, Balbian said. There are more larger farms today, which are a result of expansions over the years; at the same time, there are more small farms, especially with the influx of Amish families.

The smaller farms tend to be more diversified, and this is certainly true with many of the Amish farm families, Balbian said.

Balbian reports that while there are more farmers moving to the area, most of the farms, and the farm families that operate them, have been in the area for years.

The Egelston family has owned and operated Glen Meadows Farm in the town of Glen for four generations, and has recently completed a five-year expansion from 60 cows to 250 cows.

Dennis Egelston, who owns the farm with his brother Bill and son Clark, said running a farm can be fiscally challenging, since profits rise and fall, depending on what it going on in other parts of the country.

"We are part of a global market, so things outside of our control, control our prices," Dennis said. "A drought in other parts of the country and a weak dollar make our product worth more."

This year, prices are at record highs, Egelston said, due to the drought in California and a growing buyers market from China and India.

However, Egelston expects prices to come back down. The key to success, he said, is to prepare for those lows ahead of time.

According to Balbian, a farm is defined as normally having agricultural sales of $1,000 or more per year. Of the 659 farms in the census, 164 of them had gross sales of fewer than $2,500. Another 150 farms had gross sales of greater than $100,000.

"These are generally the farms that make farming their livelihood," Balbian said.

Younger generations take over, start new businesses

Family farms rely on the next generation to take over the business, and, in Montgomery County, there is a growing trend of college graduates returning to the area to do just that.

Clark Egelston is one of them, and helps with daily operations of feeding and milking the cows.

Clark is a 2014 graduate from Virginia Tech with a degree in dairy science, and is the only one of his siblings who wanted to continue the family business.

"I always knew that I wanted to go into dairy farming," Clark said.

While Dennis said he is not ready to retire yet, knowing his son is there to take over is reassuring.

"It allows me to have more time to do other things," he said.

Clark has plans to expand the farm in the future, but the land around the property is limited. That could mean a potential satellite farm in another part of the county, and a chance for Clark to start something new.

In addition to the families that have been in the farming industry, some of the younger generations are returning to the area start their own business, like Jamie Sammons.

Sammons has worked on farms her whole life, starting as a child when she used to go to her grandmother's dairy farm to milk the cows. Then, when she was 14 years old, she began to work at Sand Flats Orchard and Green House in the town of Mohawk.

When she went to college, she obtained her associates degree in criminal science, planning to follow in her father's footsteps in law enforcement. Then, she decided she wanted to get her bachelor's degree in something new, and enrolled at SUNY Cobleskill, where she heard about a horticultural program.

"I wanted to try it, and I fell in love," she said.

After obtaining her Bachelor's in horticulture and a certificate in floral design, Sammons decided she wanted to open her own business. But, unlike other florists who buy their flowers from out of the country, Sammons decided she was going to grow them herself.

Sandflats owner Jim Hoffman provided Sammons with a piece of farmland, and she began planting. The first year, Sammons planted only a few rows of flowers, unsure of how they would take. She also began putting her name out there, and acquired a handful of flower appointments for weddings.

Today, Sammons' farm has expanded to roughly an acre with a variety of flowers already starting to bloom in time for the summer season. Business has picked up as well, and Sammons reports that her calendar is full for wedding appointments.

Montgomery County Agriculture Economic Development Coordinator Melissa Potter said her office works with several farms where the next generation has gone to school and has come back to the farm.

"It is very exciting to see," she said.

Technology increases efficiency

From hand tools to the cotton gin, to plowing equipment and computers, technology has allowed farmers to improve efficiency and productivity.

Today, farms have begun to evolve once more, as they adapt to the increase in digital technology.

"Technology drives agriculture, and as the labor force declines, farms need equipment that increases their efficiency," Potter said.

Dennis Egelston agrees, which is why he decided to upgrade from the old stanchion cow barns to the free moving stalls.

In the stanchion stall, each animal is tied up in a stall for resting, feeding, milking, and watering. It is more labor intensive for the farmer, who has to attend to each individual cow.

With the free stall, the cows are free to move around. The farmer can stand in a pit and attend to multiple cows at once, which allows more milking to get done at one time.

"It all comes back to efficiency. The more animals you can take on per worker, the more income you are going to generate per worker," Dennis said. "We had to get more efficient. We couldn't do what we were doing, because we couldn't run the numbers that we needed to run to make income enough to live."

In addition to changing the stall design, the farm has also upgraded to an automatic feeder for the calves, which allows them to eat when they want to, rather then relying on the farmer.

"The calves wear the tag and they go in, and its a computerized thing, so it knows who they are, and it knows how much milk they get. They can get up to 14 feedings a day," Dennis' wife, Judy, explained. "It's like an infant; they can eat when they want to eat."

While robotic milking is becoming more popular in upstate New York, many farmers in Montgomery County have shirked away from it.

"I wouldn't rule out robotic milking, but right now its not for us," Dennis said. "The system we have for our size dairy is efficient."

Potter said there are no farms in Montgomery County using the technology, and only three farms use it in upstate New York.

Digital technology has also impacted traditional farm equipment, including tractors, choppers and combines, which now have onboard computers and GPS systems, as well as more safety equipment, such as back alarms and seat belt buzzers.

Balbian said equipment varies depending on the size of the farm. Larger farms tend to use larger equipment to handle more acres quickly, he said, while on smaller farms, traditionally owned by the Amish community, there is more horse-drawn equipment.


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