By DUSTEN RADER

The pioneers who quite literally grew America no longer exist today, but there is a path forward to a future illuminated by the past.

Here in Little Falls, there is no escaping the beauty of the Mohawk Valley. Described as a “cultural treasure” by New York state’s Path Through History series, [ https://www.mohawkvalleyhistory.com/about/region ] the Mohawk River corridor played a major role in shaping American history as the most direct route inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, what makes Little Falls truly unique is its position at the foothills of the Adirondack Park. With just enough city and more than enough nature, Little Falls is both a destination and year-round thriving community on the cusp of greatness.

Love for nature is what draws people from all over the world to the Adirondack Park, and the same can be said for the Mohawk Valley and in particular Little Falls. For many, love for nature often translates into small-scale farming, and for a few, into commercial agriculture.

Farmers in the Mohawk Valley benefit from the rich soil quality created by the Mohawk River. According to the Schenectady Digital History Archive, [ www.schenectadyhistory.org ] many historic farmsteads are still in operation by the descendants of pioneering Holland Dutch, Palatine, and British who relocated during the Colonial period. However, despite a history of successful agriculture, the future is in limbo if a new generation of pioneers does not forge their own path.

By and for people

After former President Abraham Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862, he later declared it “the people’s department” in his final address of Congress. Lincoln was, like nearly half of Americans at the time, a pioneer farmer. However, for modern America, people are no longer farming.

The New York Times portrayed a stark future in a November article titled “After 240 Years and 7 Generations, Forced to Sell the Family Farm.” [ https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/nyregion/hull-o-farm-catskills.html ] The story is quite common, aging farmers in New York and across America can no longer continue in their field and neither will their children. This is a story about the deep roots of American farmers that can no longer reach the surface.

Data provided by the USDA National Agricultural Library article “Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture” [ https://growinganation.org/ ] illustrates the differences between 1860 and 2010. In 1860, at least 48 percent of the labor force was dedicated to the stewardship of more than 400 million acres. In 2010, less than 1 percent of the labor force managed more than twice the amount of acreage: 900 million. The department Lincoln created is no longer the people’s.

The problem isn’t just that there are fewer farmers, but also those who are still practicing the lifestyle are aging into oblivion as the tradition of passing on one’s knowledge and land dissipates. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2017 Census, [ https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/index.php ] the average age of a farm owner was older than 58. The issue is even more dire in New York, where according to the Times 1.8 million acres of farmland is owned by people 65 and older. In addition, the Times reports, about 5,000 farms in New York have been sold for development since 1982.

One might ask why a dwindling agricultural labor force is a problem if more acreage than ever is in production and yields are at an all-time high. The answer is not simple, but rather a complex mosaic of questions – both factual and subjective. The truth may be that the path forward may require a few steps back.

According to the USDA “Condensed History of American Agriculture 1776-1999,” [ https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/history-american-agriculture.pdf ] with the invention of farming equipment such as the cotton gin in 1776, a new age of development began. With the availability of modern conveniences of factory-made agricultural machinery and the onset of commercial farming practices such as chemical weed and pest management, the number of laborers in the field dwindled.

Gone are the days of Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act [ https://www.nal.usda.gov/topics/homestead-act ] in which every American could inexpensively acquire a title to public domain lands to be utilized for agricultural purposes. Now, farmers struggle to survive in increasingly competitive markets subject to the pressures of globalization, or drown in debt and are forced to sell their beloved homes to real-estate developers. Lincoln’s words in 1861 are as important today as they were then: “Agriculture, confessedly the largest interest of the nation.”

Where do we go from here?

The virtues associated with agriculture were aptly described by Lincoln in an address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee in 1859: [ https://www.nal.usda.gov/topics/lincolns-milwaukee-speech ]

“To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity, among strangers, as nations, or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization. To this end, our Agricultural Fairs contribute in no small degree. They render more pleasant, and more strong and more durable the bond of social and political union among us.

“Again, if, as Pope declares, ‘happiness is our being’s end and aim,’ our Fairs contribute much to that end and aim, as occasions of recreation – as holidays. Constituted as man is, he has a positive need for occasional recreation; and whatever can give him this, associated with virtue and advantage, and free from vice and disadvantage, is a positive good. Such recreation our Fairs afford. They are a present pleasure, to be followed by no pain, as a consequence; they are a present pleasure, making the future more pleasant.”

The beauty in the simple lifestyle of traditional labor-based farming has many merits that are inherent in the survival of our species. The USDA “Organic Roots Collection” [ https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/organic_roots ] documents a wealth of information pertaining to the era of pre-widespread use of synthetic chemicals that began in 1942. The collection illustrates the best of sustainable agriculture and provides a path forward by embracing the knowledge of our ancestors. We have both the acreage and population to support a massive labor force to rekindle the practices of our forefathers. Combined with modern conveniences, the youth of tomorrow have a unique opportunity to forge their own path to a more pleasant future.

One bad day

In its most basic form, the essence of agriculture is making the choice to live a life in which one creates more than they destroy.

Photo by Dave Warner - A cornfield just north of Little Falls along Highway 170.

Photo by Dave Warner – A cornfield just north of Little Falls along Highway 170.

Unsustainable agricultural practices have led to a host of negative impacts on the environment, some of which the soil will take centuries to recover. Commercial agriculture advocates argue that market demands and a growing population are factors contributing to issues of unsustainability. Yet, healthy human population growth has for thousands of years been directly linked to the health of the soil. One needs to look no further than the local farmers market or co-op to find people entrenched in the preservation and enrichment of their most-valued asset: Soil.

For all farmers, maintaining productive soil is key to the survival of their business; whether it is to grow produce, raise feed for livestock, or cultivate ingredients for a product. By simply approaching farming with a mentality that whatever life one is creating should only have one bad day – the day it is harvested – will result in products that need no organic certification.

In Little Falls, consumers are fortunate enough to have options when it comes to one bad day food. Take, for example, the Little Falls Community Co-op at 589 Albany St. that is open year-round and features local produce as well as a variety of other healthy options. A farmers market is also held seasonally on Main Street in which local vendors sell products directly from their small businesses. Another option is to directly support farmers by subscribing to or buying shares in a community-supported agriculture operation.

In most cases, forming a relationship with a farmer makes economical sense for both parties. Such relationships can also form bonds that keep farmers in operation until they are ready to retire and pass their knowledge and assets on to the next generation. The closing of a farm can have major repercussions for communities such as the loss of a vital food source or the development of farmland, which can permanently impact soil quality. It is also a very sad outcome for a family who has dedicated their minds and bodies to creating bounty for themselves and others to enjoy.

Life on the homestead

For about 15 years, Michaela Germond, former owner of Snowwind Farm on State Route 170 outside of Little Falls, worked the land to create a home for her family, which includes: Her partner, 10 children, chickens, sheep, and pigs.

Germond’s love for animal husbandry began when her father asked her to look after his flock of alpaca, and a passion she had never known surfaced.

“When I had my first child I became a stay-at-home mom and I was living on my father’s farm,” Germond said. “He had always wanted to have animals and when he saw an ad for alpacas he asked me if I would help take care of them until he retired. I realized how much I loved it and transitioned to sheep and goats. Number one I love that it forces me to be outside every day. I love all aspects of watching the animals. I always say that if I didn’t do this I’d have to be a midwife because I love birth. The whole cycle of life that’s involved in it is amazing – it’s my favorite thing. I love watching everything grow. I have a huge vegetable garden, a small greenhouse attached to my house – I’m addicted to growing things.”

Photo by Dave Warner – Cows roam the pasture during a warm winter day.

Germond eventually had to sell the property to relocate and recreate her business – now called Sand Hill Farms – to nearby Fort Plain due to increasing land values and rising property taxes. She wanted to stay in the area, but the average price per acre had more than doubled. A transplant from Long Island, Germond fell in love with the rural nature of Little Falls and enjoyed meeting customers at the Main Street farmers market. The area also had much to offer as far as veterinarians, farm supply stores, and a community that supports agriculture.

“I loved Little Falls – it felt like home to me,” Germond said. “I like how much of it has remained agricultural or open. I really enjoy the people here. I feel they are kind, open to talking to you and who taught me for free.”

Homesteading is not without challenges, however, and Germond soon found that long, dark winters with heavy snow can take a toll. Keeping her animals from getting thirsty during the winter months was a challenge that was particularly difficult. Imagine trying to keep water from freezing in the winter or even just having to get the water to where the animals are, which can be very labor-intensive.

Something else Germond found is that the area is primarily comprised of seniors or low-income families, so creating a healthier product worth more than what is available at grocery stores can lead to difficulty finding customers. Germond added that although she is not certified organic, she utilizes traditional farming practices such as rotational pasture grazing, diversification of diet, and minimal confinement that ensure a more healthful product. As a former vegetarian, Germond lived by a philosophy that if she didn’t raise it herself, with the quality of life she felt the animals deserved, she would not eat it or sell it to others.

“What it costs to raise the food and what you have to sell it for, there’s just not as much of a demand here as say two hours south or east,” Germond said. “But, of course, if I wanted to live there I would have to face a much higher cost of living.”

Germond noted that life as a farmer would have been significantly less difficult had her ancestors also been involved in agriculture and passed on knowledge and land.

“It takes decades of time to learn what you can and cannot do with your land,” Germond said. “I felt there was a very steep learning curve having never done any of this. There were mistakes that I made that I would not have had I had grown up on a farm or had people before me. I try to involve my children as much as possible so that even if they never decide to do it at least they know about it and understand it. I’m hoping at least some of them will want to continue with it and inherit the land if that’s what they wanted. Even if they don’t, I have 20 acres that was a dairy farm before I owned it and I want it to stay in agricultural production. I’m surrounded by 157 acres of agricultural land owned by a retired farmer and I hope when he sells it that someone doesn’t pave a road into it and build a bunch of houses on the hill.”