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Farmers helping farmers in the Catskills: New York NOW

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To the rest of the world New York is a city, an urban jungle of towering skyscrapers and international culture. But north of the city, New York, the state, is a vast array agricultural enterprises. Farming is and has always been integral to the state economy and a group of young farmers in Catskills are working together to help each other sustain their new businesses.

Chicken farming may not be most people’s dream but, Nathan Forster says he gets a kick out of providing organic, farm raised food.  

“A lot of people will taste it and will be like, ‘that’s what chicken tastes like!” so it’s pretty unique.”

This isn’t exactly where Nathan Forster saw his career going. He started out in the community gardens of New York City as a site manager for Grow NYC and still works as a farming consultant for business development in the local food industry. The chickens are a part time venture.

“I wanted to start looking for an opportunity to essentially put my money where my mouth is when it comes to local food both in the sense that I love to eat it but also, if I’m going to be advising on models and business structures and so forth I wanted some real experience myself through doing that.”

So he got involved with CRAFT, that’s the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farming Training, an educational networking group for beginning and experienced farmers. The program began in the Hudson Valley in 1994 and has regional programs throughout the country including the Catskills, where Forster met Eleanor Blakeslee.

She and her husband Patrick Henneberry own Berry Brook Farm, deep in the hills of the Delaware River watershed, and through networking discovered Forster’s dream of chicken farming can benefit their vegetable farm. He was eager to get on board.

“I’d been thinking about chickens and it just kinda of came up, oh yeah you know we have this extra area of land, we’d love to raise chickens on there but we don’t have the money to put towards it this year. And I was like, ‘what if somebody raised chickens on your land and the conversation just kinda went from there.”

Six months ago, Forster bought 90 birds, 2 thirds are meat chickens and the rest ‘layers.’ You won’t find coops here. Forster’s birds live in ‘chicken tractors’ and they help work the land. The birds heat bugs and grub and surprisingly a lot of weeds. The talons on their feet help turn the top soil, and their waste is filled with nutrient rich nitrates. Forster moves the chicken tractor around the Berry Brook farm to prepare the land that is not being farmed on for the next year’s planting.

The chicken tractors actually improve the quality of vegetables Berry Brook Farm produces, is also allows them to add fresh eggs and chicken to their customers CSA farm share.

Its simple connections like these that CRAFT network provides new farmers something Berry Brook Farm

Eleanor Blakeslee relies on.

“Everybody has the same sort of problems, like you have to figure out your soil, you have to figure out water, you have to figure out all the nuisances of your location and it’s so fascinating to see how people solve that puzzle on their particular land because there’s so many specific nuances to everybody’s situation.”

Blakeslee and her husband have been working their 4 acre Delancy farm for just over 3 years and rely heavily on their community for support.

“We’re really making do with what we have which is very little. Our tractor implements are not what we want them to be, we want much more infrastructure, things like that and so knowing people in the area being able to borrow from neighbors, hopefully not over borrowing to the point of frustration but it’s incredible. We could not have done what we’ve done without help.”

Berry Brook is just one of New York’s 36-thousand farms, most of which are family owned. According to the New York Farm Bureau, the state has actually seen an increase in younger farmers more than any other state, but when the failure rate is about 100 farms a year and many of them struggling to gross enough to sustain themselves as small businesses pooling resources is essential.   

“It’s the two expressed purposes of the CRAFT program and I can’t really decide which one’s more important. But they are social networking and technical skill sharing and maybe the social networking is more important because once you meet people you can further pick their brain about more nuanced things you couldn’t get at the visit.”

23 different farms participate in the Catskill CRAFT program. From April through October 6 of them will hold informal training sessions where farmer-to-farmer share technical tricks of the trade culminating in a monthly pot luck dinner at each host farm.

This month, Majestic Farm in Sullivan County’s Mountain Dale will provide some very practical tips for their farming interns.

“Well I think the best way to learn is by showing people what not to do, so we’re really good at that here.”

Majestic specializes in pasture raised lamb, Thanksgiving Turkey’s and pigs.

The key, Lipari says, for any new farmer is not only knowing how to farm but knowing your market. She says Majestic Farms chose to raise Heritage breed pigs because there wasn’t anything else like it in the local pork market.

“If you look at any pork in the supermarket it’s kinda pink almost pale type so when you look at the meat of this pig its red kinda like beef, so it adds more earthy flavor and its really really delicious.”

5 years ago when Lipari started Majestic Farm with co-owners Sara and Brett Budd, she says they didn’t know what to expect. Their 500-pound hogs kept breaking through fences and there were problems with grazing.

“You’ll come into a lot of problems if you just have all your animals in one plot of land, things like worms, other diseases would pop up because they’re eating so close to the ground, and then you run out of grass. And then what do you do? So we graze them until the grass gets to be about 4 inches or so and until they graze it down and then we move them so that grass can grow again and keep rotating.”

Farmers participating in Catskill CRAFT will likely continue to increase as the Catskill Pure brand grows in popularity and as Forster speculates, more people discover the region.

“In the Catskills it’s so beautiful and land is still relatively affordable and there’s these beautiful river valleys, this is the east branch of the Delaware River right here excuse me WEST branch of the Delaware River, the soil’s great, weather’s great in the summer it’s gorgeous, I really like it and I think there’s are really strong community developing.”

In the Catskills, I’m Jenna Flanagan for New York NOW.

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