The number of farms in Saratoga County increased by 8 percent over the past five years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census released Wednesday, Feb. 4.
That’s a considerably faster expansion than the nationwide average of 4 percent growth. The county had 641 farms in 2007, up from 592 in 2002, the last year the census was conducted. At the same time, the average farm size has decreased 7 percent, from 127 acres to 118 acres. That data points to several agricultural trends, including a move toward locally produced food.
We do have a resurgence of smaller people brought on by the fact that there’s nothing better than growing your own food, said Richard Smith, dairy and farm management educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County. `In tough economic times, when you’re spending precious dollars, it seems better to spend it amongst your own people who need it as well.`
It’s not only the local food movement, but also the county’s unique horse population (the largest in the state) that contributed to the growth.
`Saratoga County was one of the few counties that actually saw an increase in the number of farms that’s most attributable to the growth of the equine industry,` said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau.
On the whole, New York saw its number of farms decline by 2 percent, and also saw the size of the average farm decrease.
Neighboring counties saw numbers that more closely reflected the statewide census results. In Washington County, the number of farms fell by 5 percent; in Rensselaer, 8 percent; and in Hamilton County, there was a marked 17 percent decline.
Warren County grew significantly, on the other hand, with a 19 percent jump in the number of farms and large increases in farm acreage, as well.
Albany County saw a three percent jump in farm numbers, but a significant 12 percent decline in the overall acreage of the county’s farms.
Decreasing acreage across the state hints at a phenomenon that Saratoga County farmers continue to contend with: the escalating price and shrinking supply of land.
The census only covers through 2007, though, and numbers for recent and coming months might not be as promising. The economic recession has hit farmers just as hard as anyone else, said Smith.
`Right now is one of the tougher economic periods for farmers to exist,` he said.
That can also cause a distinct ripple effect in an economy. If farmers scale back, it means less feed or seed will be sold, fewer drivers will be needed to transport the product and less product on store shelves.
Dairy farmers, who produce 60 percent of the county’s agricultural sales, are already feeling the pinch.
`Right now, we’re looking at a very poor marketplace for dairy. Dairy farmers are feeling a lot of pressure right now because milk prices are very, very low,` said Gregg.
Those trends can force dairy farmers to grow to get bigger or risk perishing.
`In this area, dairy farms have had to get bigger for several reasons,` said Smith. Firstly, dairy farms are expensive to operate, making smaller farms a losing proposition. Most are also family operated, and as families grow, so must the number of cows.
`The number of animals that kept grandpa in this lifestyle, it takes that many more to let his son join the farm,` said Smith.
Increasingly, those sons might be choosing to locate in Midwest states that have more available land and offer farmers incentives, he continued. Many of those states saw an average increase in farms of over five percent.
`It’s not the easiest place, it’s not the most lucrative place, so some of the younger generations are saying, ‘I don’t want to work as hard as grandpa,’` said Smith.“