Technical assistance

Farms remain the county’s economic engine | News, Sports, Jobs

Most people don’t give much thought to where their food was grown. They’d probably be surprised to learn that over 90% of the fresh strawberries they enjoy year-round didn’t come from the local farmer, but were grown in Mexico.

Recently, many of us have also been surprised to see empty shelves that once held foods that we regularly consume. The causes are many and some, such as the war in Ukraine, have an impact on food supplies around the world. However, these issues have brought to the fore the need to produce more food that we consume closer to home.

Unlike many counties, Chautauqua is lucky because agriculture is one of the biggest industries here, but it cannot thrive without help. Therefore, the county regularly develops an agriculture and farmland protection plan. The latest update is called Chautauqua County Agricultural Development & Enhancement Strategy. Designed to support local farmers and improve the profitability of farming, it requires an assessment of farmland and local agricultural resources every five years. After research, interviews, focus groups, and surveys with farmers and the general public, planning and investment recommendations are made for the county and its municipalities.

The increasing loss of farms and agricultural land in Chautauqua County is one of today’s most significant concerns. Over the past 20 years, there has been a 29% drop in the number of farms here. There were 1,734 farms in 2002. This fell to just 1,228 farms in 2017. Farm area also fell by 13%, from 255,896 to 223,634 acres. It is probably safe to assume that there have been even more reductions over the past five years, but these statistics are not yet available.

One of the reasons for the decline of farms and agricultural acreage is the aging of our local farmers. The average Chautauqua County farmer is 58 years old. Many are retiring and fewer young farmers are replacing them. There were 2603 farmers in 2002 but only 2156 in 2017. There are several reasons for this.

Farming is hard work. It requires a lot of specific skills. Depending on what they are growing, most farmers need a vast store of knowledge about management, food safety and pest control. They need to know how to produce efficiently and where to market their products.

Agriculture is also expensive. The value of farmland has increased by 89% since 2002. This colossal increase makes it very difficult to buy or expand a farm. Farmers who need skilled workers are struggling to find them, and rising wages are making it even harder to afford to pay them. Many farmers also face substantial costs for feed storage, transportation, equipment operation and repair.

Farmers know that to stay profitable, they need to increase their efficiency. This could require the adoption of new technologies, including automation and robotics. Most will need technical assistance. At the same time, they want to reduce negative impacts on the environment and participate in conservation and farmland protection programs. It’s a heavy load.

The latest update to the Chautauqua County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan recommends supporting entrepreneurs and startups in food processing, manufacturing and marketing. It also suggests the creation of supportive market infrastructure for farmers and food businesses to increase available warehousing and cold storage options. Also, it encompasses agritourism as some farms earn a lot by participating in farm tours and events such as agricultural festivals and wine trails. Between 2002 and 2017, revenue generated from these events in the county increased by 531%, from $42,000 to $265,000. Sometimes it pays to try new things.

Modern agriculture needs a new standard definition that includes tourism, value chain activities, and the right to farm that reduces confusion, streamlines processes, and improves economies across communities and regions. To achieve this, farmers need to participate in policy-making, while the general public and local authorities need to understand, appreciate and support agriculture. The Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation’s Local Economic Development Committee supports efforts to sustain and develop agriculture. It is a key economic driver for Chautauqua County.

Patty Hammond is the Economic Development Coordinator at the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation. The Local Economic Development (LED) Initiative is a standing committee of the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation. Send your comments or suggestions to Patty Hammond at [email protected]

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