By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY Quietly but firmly, the Sullivan County Farm Network is refocusing local eyes on agriculture.
Farmstock educational visits to working farms is the Network’s most visible success, but it’s also sponsored workshops on microcreameries and on-farm meat processing, helped establish the Winter Farmers’ Market in Callicoon, and become the most influential ag advocate at county government and economic development meetings.
Like the families they have raised on their farms, the six women at the core of the Network have dedicated themselves to nurturing this two-year-old organization, turning it into a voice for an informal membership numbering more than 200.
“Our mission is to increase farming activities in Sullivan County and to strengthen communication between those who grow food with those who consume it,” explains co-founder Cindy Gieger of the Gieger dairy farm in Jeffersonville.
Agriculture as a whole is the top industry in the county, accounting for upwards of $82 million in sales and an enormous $246 million in economic impact, according to a 2008 survey.
“And people are becoming ultra-conscious of where their food is coming from,” Gieger points out.
“We want to make that connection better [with] people knowing where their food comes from,” adds Amy Erlwein of the Erlwein farm in Jeffersonville.
Thus the Network is about far more than tapping into the collective will of the agricultural community it’s about bringing everyone together.
“Everyone likes to eat,” observes Alice Diehl, whose family has plied the hills near Jeffersonville for six generations.
“People want farms to remain here,” adds Gieger.
It’s not about gas drilling recognizing the variety of deeply held positions in the community, the Network is officially neutral on the subject.
Rather, it’s about preserving and growing the county’s traditional main industry in all its forms, from longtime dairy farms to brand new organic farms.
The Network hopes to connect such farmers to the people they feed and to the organizations, agencies and politicians who serve them.
“The times demand it,” says Sonja Hedlund, a Network co-founder well-known for her government activism and her Apple Pond Farm in Callicoon Center. “We have no other choice.”
Grants are being researched (as opposed to unaffordable loans), a countywide farm database and a mentoring program are under development, Time-Warner Cable is being pushed to expand its high-speed Internet to rural locales, and new ways of farming like growing grass for fuel pellets are being explored.
The potential, especially for young people interested in getting started in farming, is enormous, says Gieger.
“We should be the breadbasket of New York City,” she insists, noting that even North Carolina now has an ag marketing plan targeted at NYC.
“And if farmers can make a living,” adds Erlwein, “they’ll hire people.”
The biggest challenge is in fomenting existing farmers’ involvement.
“Farmers by their nature are not aggressive,” Diehl points out.
“They’re too busy!” agrees Jeffersonville horse farmer Elinor Young.
“They’re on the giving end, not the taking end,” Diehl adds.
So the Network hopes to “step into that gap” and return farming to the forefront of Sullivan County.
Gieger thinks they’re well on their way.
“We’ve increased the agricultural dialogue in the community,” she explains. “... People are starting to get it.”
Who they are
Though they don’t always agree, the following core members of the Network meet monthly in an atmosphere they consider trusting and honest:
• Cindy Gieger has been involved in dairy farming for more than a quarter of a century, raising her family with husband Stefan on the farm.
Inspired by a vendor’s marketing efforts at the NY Farm Show, she talked to Hedlund about educating people on better farming and better support for farming.
The duo started showing up at County Legislature and Industrial Development Agency Board meetings, pushing for ag-oriented issues.
Those experiences have led her to mount a run for the Legislature’s open District 5 seat (separate from her Farm Network activities). Campaigning as a Democrat, Gieger faces Republican candidate Gregg Semenetz this November.
• Sonja Hedlund has spent 40 years of her life in agriculture first in draft horses, sheep and lambs, now in wind turbine and agritourism ventures which she, along with husband Dick Riseling, showcases to those interested.
“I love having visitors,” she says.
She’s a communicator, sometimes outspokenly so.
“This is very serious work we are doing,” she admonishes. “The old ways are over. We want food, wages and energy that’s good, clean and fair.”
• Alice Diehl brings 44 years of farming experience to the table coinciding with her 44-year marriage to husband Pete.
Indeed, the Diehl name is virtually synonymous with farming in Sullivan County.
From dairy and vegetables to maple syrup and honey, she knows of what she speaks, and she’s intent on passing that knowledge on to another generation of farmers.
“I’m part of the brainstorming process that we all do,” Diehl relates.
And her connections to the state and national dairy industry are invaluable to the Network.
“One of my goals is to change the pricing system for milk,” she explains. “That’s one of the reasons dairy farming is not a viable business.”
• Amy Erlwein became a full-time farmer when she married her husband David 30 years ago, but she recalls growing a garden and butchering meat with her family when they first moved to the area in 1969.
“In fact, I still do that,” she says. “We feed ourselves mostly from our farm.”
Indeed, the couple had to give up dairy farming four years ago, as it wasn’t paying the bills.
Erlwein is crucial to the Network, both as its treasurer and as its liaison with the major ag agency in the county, Cornell Cooperative Extension.
She’s also been a vital part of Catskill Harvest Market in Liberty, finding local products for its shelves.
Crediting her grandchildren with revitalizing her interest in farming, Erlwein is glad to help the Network.
“This is still very vital and still needed,” she says.
• Elinor Young, her husband Dan (who’s now on the county’s Economic Development Corporation Board) and son Joseph have owned and operated Bridle Hill Farm in Jeffersonville for 11 years, raising horses and conducting agritourism.
She came across the Network after its founding and discovered kindred spirits.
“I saw really bright people running this meeting and thought I could help,” she recalls. “I wanted to make sure things looked like the way we wanted to present ourselves.”
In that spirit, she’s helped guide the marketing efforts, designing outreach publications and currently working on a road map of local farms.
“I love these women,” she affirms with a smile.
• Jennifer Diehl and her husband Tom are two of the best-known members of the famous farming family, since plenty of visitors have gotten their first introduction to the county’s fresh goods at their farm market off Route 52A near Kenoza Lake.
Though “relatively new” to agriculture, according to Gieger, Diehl provides the necessary online marketing smarts to the Network.
“She works on our Facebook page and website,” Gieger says, in concert with the Network’s tech/web guy, Donald Brent.
She got involved, Gieger adds, because “she had attempted to expand her operation two years ago and found the grant process was very difficult and involved.
“She felt she needed assistance, and she could see why farmers couldn’t expand or diversify,” Gieger explains.
• Local farmers Maryanne Dirie and Mary Tonjes helped found the Network, as well, Gieger relates, and continue to support its efforts.