By Dan Hust
CALLICOON Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon laid out the simple premise of the county’s very first Agricultural Summit on Monday:
“The important thing about this event,” he said, “is it was organized for the farmers by the farmers.”
And many a farmer showed up, with around 200 people packing the second and third floors of the Villa Roma’s main facility in Callicoon for a daylong series of inspirational presentations and educational seminars.
Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis, who pushed for the summit in his 2011 State of the County speech, said the goal was to create a “useful agenda” that would not waste the time of farmers who otherwise would be hard at work on their farms.
“Too often we have meetings to have meetings,” he acknowledged. “We didn’t want that to be the case here.”
Thus summit attendees were offered interactive sessions on funding and financing opportunities, business planning, building local support, meeting the needs of new farmers, better marketing, and diversifying and evolving to survive and thrive.
In between those sessions were several guest speakers, including Edwin Shank of The Family Cow in Chambersburg, PA, who turned his near-bankrupt family farm into a million-dollar organic business.
“I don’t call this a story of success ... because we’re still not sure if we’re going to lose the farm,” he matter-of-factly acknowledged. “But it is ‘Our Journey of Hope.’”
Shank gave up the traditional dairy farming techniques his family had employed for four generations to focus on raw milk production, within the framework of 21st century organic certification.
Word got around, and soon the Shanks had individuals, not just cooperatives and larger firms, interested in purchasing raw milk directly from the farm.
Using famed organic farmer Joel Salatin’s methods, Shank and his family expanded into vegetables, honey, eggs and meat chickens, and has watched revenues double annually the past two years.
Shank saw no reason Sullivan County farmers couldn’t reproduce his success, especially considering that the New York City market barely two hours away is hungry for fresh, local food.
“I know,” he related with a grin, “because they drive down to my farm.”
What’s waiting for them at the end of that four-hour trip are just a few refrigerated tractor-trailers that serve as Shank’s farm store.
“There is tremendous opportunity out there,” he advised.
Indeed Shank now has 30 “drop points” where he trucks his goods so that customers don’t have to travel so far.
So Monday’s impetus became one of collaboration, encouraging the diverse, sometimes divided local farming community to join together in an effort to re-establish Sullivan County as a prime (and profitable) foodshed.
“We have to adapt,” assessed Bob Franklin of the Bethel Creamery, speaking specifically of the dairy farms that once were a mainstay of rural life but now only number around two dozen in the county.
“There are programs out there to help us adapt,” he added, with a personal hope that area officials will take up the marketing efforts and allow the farmers to focus on “the #1 thing: hard work.”
Dr. Peter Tarlow, a nationally recognized tourism expert and a longtime rabbi, agreed.
“I don’t think you have yet a good handle on how you market the county versus how you market the farm,” he told the crowd, advocating for a countywide branding campaign, a la “Sullivan County Healthful.”
“That’s raising your economy,” he affirmed, “... to make people say, ‘Oooo, Sullivan County food I want that!’”
No firm plans emerged from the summit, but organizers and participants promised to address the top identified challenges: the need for tax relief, a red meat plant, a creamery, a coordinated marketing effort, help with business planning, and even funding (where it can be found).
Incoming County Legislator Cindy Gieger, who will represent the county’s most active agricultural area, said she and a largely reconstituted Legislature plan to get to work on ag issues as soon as they take office in January.
“It’s definitely an industry worth saving,” she remarked, noting the county’s 350 farms are its top economic engine.
She envisions a future with a one-stop-shop providing grants and assistance to farmers, Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapters in every school district, even a local fiber mill.
“There will be no more waiting,” she vowed. “The time is now.”