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Farms remain economic driver for county

Most people don’t give a lot of thought to where their food was grown. They would probably be surprised to learn that more than 90% of the fresh strawberries they enjoy year-round didn’t come from the farmer down the street but were grown in Mexico.

Recently many of us have also been startled to see empty shelves that once held foods we consumed regularly. The causes for this are many, and some, like the war in Ukraine, are impacting food supplies worldwide. However, these issues have brought to the forefront the need to produce more of the food we eat closer to home.

Unlike many counties, Chautauqua is fortunate because agriculture is one of the biggest industries here, but it can’t thrive without help. Consequently, the county regularly develops an Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan. The latest update is called the Chautauqua County Agricultural Development & Enhancement Strategy. Designed to support local farmers and enhance the profitability of agriculture, it requires assessing local farmland and agricultural resources every five years. After research, interviews, focus groups, and surveys of farmers and the general public are conducted, planning and investment recommendations are made for the county and its municipalities.

The growing loss of farms and farmland in Chautauqua County is among today’s most significant concerns. Over the past 20 years, there has been a 29% decline in the number of farms here. There were 1734 farms in 2002. That fell to only 1228 farms in 2017. The amount of farm acreage has declined too, by 13%, from 255,896 to 223,634 acres. It’s probably safe to assume there have been even more reductions over the past five years, but those statistics are not available yet.

One of the reasons for the decline in farms and farm acreage is the aging of our local farmers. The average Chautauqua County farmer is 58 years old. Many are retiring, and not as many young farmers are replacing them. There were 2603 farm operators in 2002 but only 2156 in 2017. There are many reasons for this.

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

Farming is also expensive. Farmland has increased in value by 89% since 2002. This colossal increase makes it very hard to afford to buy or expand a farm. Farmers needing skilled workers are finding it hard to find them, and increasing wages are making it harder yet to afford to pay them. Many farmers also face substantial food storage, transportation, equipment operation, and repair costs.

Farmers know that to remain profitable, they must increase their efficiency. That might require adopting new technology, including automation and robotics. Most will need technical assistance. At the same time, they want to reduce negative environmental impacts and participate in conservation and farmland protection programs. It’s a heavy load.

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

Modern-day farming needs a new standard definition that includes tourism, value-chain activities, and right-to-farm that reduces confusion, streamlines processes, and improves economies across all communities and regions. To achieve this, farmers need to be a part of policymaking, while the general public and local officials need to understand, appreciate, and support agriculture. The Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation’s Local Economic Development committee embraces efforts to support and grow agriculture. It is an essential economic driver for Chautauqua County.

Patty Hammond is 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 comments or suggestions to Patty Hammond at phammond@nccfoundation.org

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