‘I gotta get back on the farm’: Interest surges in raising crops, animals

Todd Gallup, of Berne, pours slop for his pigs.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Todd Gallup, of Berne, pours slop for his pigs.

ALBANY COUNTY — Starting a farm from scratch is one of life’s standard fantasies, and one that’s become more common in the last decade, according to Beginning Farmer and Market Development expert Stephen Hadcock.

In the last five to 10 years, if not longer, Haddock has seen a rise in interest in farm ownership. 

Hadcock works for Cornell Cooperative Extension, helping new farmers establish themselves by guiding them through the process of market research, land acquisition, business-plan development, and the other procedures that go into the genesis of a productive and long-lasting farm. 

“My opinion,” Hadcock told The Enterprise, “would be that, regardless of age, there’s been a renewed sense of some sort of desire or passion to connect with the land once again. Some of the people that I’ve talked to who have started farms see it almost as a life’s mission that they want to provide good, healthy food for their community.”

One such farmer is Todd Gallup, of Berne, who incorporated his farm earlier this year and began selling produce professionally for the first time, encountering success despite the hardships he faced. 

“I have always had a passion for growing vegetables,” Gallup, 49, told The Enterprise. “I did it as a kid and I would even go down to the end of the road and sell a few things that I’d grow in my little garden. I also worked on a farm from the time I was 8 until 14, and I always loved it. But then I moved off the Hill to start my adult life and got a job but I had the itch. I said ‘You know what, I gotta get back on the farm.’”

Gallup has three-quarters of an acre of growing space on Boercher Lane, which produces “anything you can find at a grocery store with very little exception,” he said, listing cantaloupe, watermelon, green beans, tomatoes, and various lettuces as examples, all of which he sells at local markets, like Berne’s new farmers’ market.

Gallup said that this year’s incorporation followed five years of testing composting methods and learning more about his various products. 

“I was doing it on a part-time basis,” Gallup said, “really more of a hobby. But this year we really kicked it into gear and we incorporated and decided we were going to sell stuff. The plan was to keep getting bigger each year but it’s hard to start a farm from scratch. It’s not something I would ever recommend to somebody unless they already had a full-time job or had a spouse that had a full-time job.”

Gallup still has his day job at Prodigy Surgical, a medical equipment supplier, and he has help with farm chores from his father and girlfriend, because, he said, even a farm as small as his “really does” require full-time maintenance. 

“Just the picking of produce for the Berne market takes myself and my girlfriend about two hours,” Gallup said. “So that’s four man-hours just to prepare for a two-and-a-half hour event.” 

Though the balancing of two jobs is “very difficult,” Gallup said, he hopes to retire early and farm full-time, a goal he’ll achieve gradually as he expands the farm each year.

Next year, Gallup will triple the size of his growing area, he said, and he’s currently raising pigs and cattle with the intention of slaughtering them later in the year, which he says will require some regulatory research ahead of time.


Primer for new farmers

Though he pursued his operation more or less independently, Gallup largely followed the format laid out by Hadcock when asked by The Enterprise what advice he gives to beginning farmers. 

“If it’s somebody that doesn’t have any land,” Hadcock said, “then they have to seek and find some land, and the key word that I’d insert in there is suitable land, which depends on what kind of agricultural enterprise they want to go after. That will determine what kind of land that they should be seeking.”

Beyond arability and other agricultural factors, farmers should be aware of local zoning ordinances, which define what lands can be used for various purposes. In Knox, for instance, which defines farms as 10 or more acres of agriculturally productive land, land zoned as “residential” still allows for continued existing agricultural use. 

“The next thing that strongly and closely follows [land acquisition],” Hadcock said, “is to identify and do some market research and see, ‘Is the market large enough or is there enough room for me to enter this market as an additional supplier or provider and to be able to make money doing it?’”

This market research will be useful in developing a business plan, which Hadcock encourages both as a personal tool and a means of securing financing from a bank or other source.

“It’s a good thing for [farmers] to be able to walk into a lending institution with a business plan and show them,” Hadcock said.

“Usually what I tell people,” Hadcock said, “… is start small, in your first year especially. In an ideal world, start working on and developing a business plan or idea for your farm because the market channels or the streams in which you can sell your products through, especially starting out on a small scale, are going to be on the local level.”

Speaking of community-supported agriculture, Haddock went on, “So, how many CSAs are in your area? What are they charging? Is there room for more CSAs in your area? If you’re up in the Hilltowns, are there CSAs in Guilderland, some of the suburban areas? How many are going into that area of Albany County and/or Schenectady?”

Hadcock said that with the coronavirus pandemic interrupting the operations of some distribution channels, like farmers’ markets and restaurants, it’s wise to figure out what the landscape will look like next year as much as possible.

“There’s still some time for someone interested in farming next year to visit some farmers’ markets in the area to see how they’re operating, if they’re full, and look to see what’s there this year. Is there something missing that I could produce next year? And looking at how the market is going to operate next year.

“The restaurant industry has taken a severe hit since the pandemic has hit. They may not be — not saying never — but they’re not going to be looking for new supply chains, potentially, as much as they might have been before the pandemic disruption.”

The market disruption Hadcock described was felt by Gallup, who said that, in the early summer period, he lost five or six bushels of produce because he had no means to sell it, estimating the monetary loss at about $200. 

Some farmers, though, benefitted from the pandemic, Hadcock said. 

“One of the good things [for farmers],” Hadcock said, “hearing anecdotally from my colleagues and others, is that the pandemic has focused people more on sourcing foods locally. And since people aren’t able to eat out they’re cooking more at home. 

“At the beginning of the shutdown,” Haddock went on, “egg farmers, for example, couldn’t keep up with demand. I’m not sure about it now but there are some potentially good things happening from it.”

Also important to a farmer, Hadcock said, is being willing to engage in lifelong learning, adapting to the various challenges of a farm that may not be anticipated even by those who have a strong background in agriculture.

“I would say that they tend to be much stronger on their production skills than their farm-management skills,” Hadcock said of farmers. “That doesn’t mean that they can’t balance a checkbook or whatever. But that’s historically been what I’ve observed in farming, is that farmers want to farm. There are those that are quite business savvy and watch the financial management  but it tends to be that the production side of things is their stronger suit.”

Gallup said that the first five years of testing and casual farming he did taught him a lot about the process that he didn’t know.

“I certainly learned a lot about different kinds of produce and how to grow them … I watched a lot of videos on YouTube about compost and what to use in your compost and I’ve got a really good method now. That took a long time to perfect.

“You don’t have to compost,” Gallup explained, “but, when you do, you’re adding all these tremendous nutrients to the soil and the plants just do better. They produce more, they grow more, they grow faster, and the quality is better too.”

“So,” Hadcock summarized, “in your first year or even before your first year of production, you really need to do a lot of homework.”

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