Countryside Exchange – The Catskill Region
The Countryside Exchange brings together international teams of volunteer professionals to work with communities on their most important issues. The Exchange is a catalyst. It uses a visit by an objective team of “outsiders” to identify a wide range of potential solutions, create diverse coalitions, spur the emergence of new leaders and inspire collaborative action. The community also benefits from new ideas, networks and information that it can use to help shape its future.
Since 1987, 110 communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan have hosted a Countryside Exchange. Over 800 professionals from England, Scotland, Wales, the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have participated as team members.
How Does the Exchange Work?
The Exchange in the Catskill Region, New York
A Sample Itinerary
The Catskill Region Exchange Team
Issue 1 – Strategies for protecting agricultural land and resources in the Catskills
Issue 2– Farm Diversification
Issue 3 – Processing and Distribution
Issue 4: Developing Marketing Initiatives
How Does the Exchange Work? Top of Page
Communities are selected to participate in the Countryside Exchange through a competitive application process. Applications are evaluated based on such criteria as the depth of interest within the community, existing leadership and leadership skills and the strength and diversity of community members supporting the application. Applicants must also demonstrate flexibility, a willingness to learn new skills and processes, show commitment to working as a team and to developing a community based implementation strategy after the Exchange.
Once a community is selected, a Local Organizing Committee (LOC) is formed. The LOC is crucial to the success of the Exchange and must include a representative cross section of the community – business owners, farmers, developers, elected officials, conservationists and “average citizens.” The LOC identifies and refines the questions that the Exchange team will address. It also plans the Exchange week itinerary, takes care of logistics and handles publicity. After the Exchange, the LOC helps initiate implementation efforts.
The Exchange Team
Glynwood Center draws upon its extensive international network to form teams consisting of six to eight experienced professionals. Each team is international and interdisciplinary in its makeup. Team members are selected by matching a candidate’s expertise with the issues identified by the community. In order to ensure that teams are objective, participants must have had no previous connection to the host community.
The team spends a very intense week in the community. A full itinerary of issue oriented roundtables, presentations, tours, panel discussions and community gatherings gives the team an opportunity to speak with many residents, officials and organizations. The week culminates with the team presenting its observations and ideas at a public forum. A summary report is also published to assist the community with implementation.
After the Exchange week, the team report is distributed throughout the community as a first step toward developing an implementation strategy. Most Exchange reports include some forty recommendations and determining priorities is one of the most important tasks facing the community. Glynwood maintains contact with its “Family of Exchange Communities” through its web site, www.glynwood.org, Update Newsletter, database and ongoing personal contact.
Just as communities vary, so do the results of each Exchange. Some team recommendations may be broad, others very specific. Some may be small-scale projects that can be implemented quickly. Others may be larger, requiring a policy change, a significant philosophical shift – and time. In some cases, the Exchange may trigger a change that the community widely acknowledged was needed. The report may articulate an issue that leads to community discussion and an alternate solution. What most Exchange communities share in common is that the new and strengthened partnerships, expanded leadership base and collaborative action cultivated through the Exchange pay dividends long into the future.
The Exchange in the Catskill Region, New York Top of Page
The Catskill Mountains are approximately 100 miles northwest of New York City. Encompassing greater than six counties and over 6,000 square miles of mountains, forests, rivers, and farmland, the Catskills are often referred to as America’s First Wilderness because scholars trace the beginnings of the environmental conservation movement to this beautiful area. With almost three dozen mountain peaks over 3,500 feet in elevation and six major river systems, the Catskills are an ecological resource of significant importance.
Pure air and water, rich farmland, parks and forests, clear-flowing streams, cascading waterfalls, grand panoramic views, and historic villages characterize the Catskills. Long renowned as a prime vacation destination, the Catskills offer a variety of recreational opportunities including hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, camping, biking, rock and ice climbing, canoeing, fishing, hunting and bird-watching.
Two of the most prominent geographic features of the Catskill region are the Catskill Park and the New York City Watershed. The Catskill Park is a mosaic of over 700,000 acres of public and private lands, including nearly 300,000 acres of Forest Preserve protected by the “forever wild” clause in the New York State constitution.
New York City’s 1,584 square mile Catskill/Delaware drinking water supply area is massive in both size and significance. The watershed and its six reservoirs, supply over nine million people in New York City and other downstate communities with 1.2 billion gallons of clean, unfiltered drinking water every day. Unprecedented funding has been committed in the watershed to maintain the continuing quality and abundance of the drinking water supply while supporting the livelihood of the people living in the watershed.
With regard to land use, farmland accounts for approximately 12% of the land base in the Catskills, and forestland for approximately 72%. However, farming contributes significantly to the rural economy. Within Delaware, Schoharie, Greene, Ulster and Sullivan Counties (all with some land in the NYC Watershed), annual receipts from agriculture in 2001 totaled over $171 million. Approximately 500,000 acres of land in these counties is identified as agricultural land.
Livestock and crops for livestock make up the bulk of farming revenues in the Catskills, particularly from dairy farms in Delaware, Sullivan and Schoharie counties.
The economic and social challenges to the Catskills are endemic to rural America. Depressed agricultural prices, insufficient labor, rising agricultural land values that are not supported by product revenues, and the lack of key private and shared processing facilities are issues that have resisted easy, replicable and government initiated solutions. The region also has the added challenges of integrating the second home owner and tourism demands into the available social and economic infrastructure and balancing its agricultural and commercial development with the need to protect the NYC water supply.
Farmland in the Catskills has appreciated significantly since 2000, reflecting the value of land for non-farm uses and affecting the ability of farmers to make a reasonable return on new investments in land. Part-time residents now own about 35% of the private land being farmed in Delaware County. Between 1978 and 1997 Delaware County lost 428 farms, or 37% of all farms in the county. The transition from mostly owner-occupied family farms to a high proportion of rented farms has disadvantages and advantages for local farming. While some non-resident farms are taken out of production, most second homeowners seek to maintain lower property tax assessments through five-year leases to neighboring farmers, typically at no cost to the farmers. Managing non-resident farms has become a significant share of farmer’s income in the Catskills.
COMMUNITY ISSUES Top of Page
- What strategies can be implemented to protect the agricultural land resources in the Catskills?
- What incentives are needed to encourage landowners including part-time residents to keep their land in agricultural production?
- How can we keep prime agricultural land from development?
- How can we influence the tourism industry to support agricultural land protection?
- What policies or incentives can be adopted by local, county and regional governments to protect agricultural land?
- What can be done to assist farmers in diversifying their farm businesses to keep a working productive landscape and provide economic viability?
- What products can farmers in the Catskills produce that are economically viable and environmentally responsible?
- What incentives could help farmers make these changes?
- What opportunities exist for adding value to farms (such as agritourism) and farm products.
- How can we enhance or create processing and distribution infrastructures that will support family farms?
- How can we create a cost effective transportation and distribution system to pick up and deliver Catskill grown and made products to markets?
- How do we develop marketing initiatives that return additional profits to the farmers?
- What infrastructure needs to be in place?
- How do we create a cohesive identity for agricultural products and services from the region?
- What marketing initiatives could return additional profits to dairy farmers?
- What initiatives are needed for non-dairy farms?
A SAMPLE ITINERARY:
THREE DAYS FROM THE CATSKILL REGION EXCHANGE Top of Page
Saturday, October 18
8:00 a.m. Breakfast Meeting with Land Owners
9:30 a.m. Tour of Dairy Farms
6:00 p.m. Ham Dinner with Town Supervisors and Planners
Monday, October 20
9:30 a.m. Panel Discussion with Farmers and students at Stamford High School
Noon Roundtable Discussion with Land Preservation Organizations
5:00 p.m. Chamber of Commerce Tourism and Business Reception
Tuesday, October 21
10:00 a.m. Discussion about processing needs with livestock producers and representatives of State University of New York at Cobleskill Meat Lab
2:00 p.m. Economic Development Roundtable Discussion
4:00 p.m. Tour Lucky Dog Organic Farm and Farm Store
The Catskill Region Exchange Team Top of Page
Blaise Berger is a rural Development Officer for Association Mene Initiative Rurales, located in Brittany, France. The Association works with citizen groups to resolve various land use and development issues, such as protection of the quality of the local water supply and preservation of the rural character and the working farm landscapes of northern France.
Blaise created, managed and continues to oversee projects such as the Mene Energy initiative, which, together with local farmers, is studying the feasibility of building a $10 million bio-gas plant that would use energy to transform manure and other organic waste, produced by both industry and communities, into water and solid fertilizer. With the Renewable Energy Project, Blaise helps farmers develop alternative, but complementary revenue to supplement their farming income, such as the use of renewable energy, using wind and waste wood for the benefit of the local community.
Peter Bowden is a Senior Adviser within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Before joining DEFRA, he was a sheep and beef farmer and later managed a dairy farm in Cornwall. His current work involves putting together farm diversification plans for farmers and other agri-environment work. This involves researching markets, clarifying objectives, planning finance and working within planning and taxation programs.
His work includes developing specialist seed programs; establishing co-operatives to supply local supermarkets; developing tourism accommodation by renovating farm buildings; identifying niche markets and adding value through projects such as tea rooms, restaurants and specialist meats and cheeses. One particularly innovative project carried out by Peter’s team involved producing Mozzarella cheese for pizzas, which required the farmer to amass a herd of Water Buffaloes to provide the milk.
Grant Dehart is an architect and certified planner with extensive experience in land preservation, historic preservation, regional land use planning and design. He provides policy analysis and advice to the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the Open Space, Rural Legacy, Waterway Improvement and Shore Erosion Programs and for the administration of federal land conservation funds. He served DNR for nine years as Director of Program Open Space, and led the design and implementation of the Rural Legacy Program. These programs preserved over 130,000 acres during his administration. He acquired property for the State’s parks, forests, wildlife management areas, scenic rivers, greenways and Chesapeake Bay access, and protected farmland, forests, Civil War and other historic sites with conservation easements.
Grant previously served as Director of the Maryland Environmental Trust, a state wide land trust, and as Executive Director of the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage, where he helped develop a preservation strategy for downtown San Francisco that preserved over 400 buildings and five conservation districts.
Roger Owen is Team Manager for the Rural Development Service, a part of the UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He manages a team of 50 staff delivering agricultural diversification advice to farm businesses across a large part of central England. This work requires both an understanding of policy development and implementation and the ability to work with farmers to assess options for agricultural/rural businesses, investigating such areas as new income sources, productive use of all assets, part time employment and many others.
Roger has over 20 years experience in the agricultural sector involving projects such as developing farm tourism on a historic estate including farm catering and interpretation facilities for 20,000 visitors; providing marketing advice to farmers; forming a dairy farmers’ discussion group and giving potato marketing advice to farmers on the Island of Jersey.
Simon Michaels is one of the founding directors of F3, a not for profit cooperative company comprised of leading experts in local food systems and social entrepreneurship. His role is as project manager and marketing director with specific expertise in business planning, collaboration and communications. He is also an internet consultant specializing in strategies for environmental organizations, including learning networks. He has developed promotional materials for the National Association of Farmers’ Markets in the UK. On a voluntary basis, he helps to manage a farmers’ market and community food enterprise in Cardiff, Wales which has recently won awards for community and environmental re-generation. His background is as an environmental planner, urban designer and landscape architect, working on urban and rural regeneration projects.
Mike Smith is a Rural Development Adviser with the Rural Development Service, part of the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He has over 10 years experience in community and economic development, particularly in project development, appraisal and advisory work in relation to farm diversification, food sector, agri-tourism and wider rural development.
He is currently working with the Regional Development Agency for the West Midlands as manager of the Farming and Food team. The team is working with farmers, food businesses and others in rural areas to develop practical, collaborative solutions to direct marketing, processing, niche markets, etc.
Team Report Top of Page
The Catskills face problems that are common to many other rural communities across the United States and Europe. Changing patterns of wealth, property, transportation and taxes, and the global food system are becoming powerful agents of land use change.
The unique character of the area is generated by its scenic quality, the farming practices that shape the landscape, the proximity to urban populations, the pressure for development, and the nature of the people and the communities that live there. All these things are changing. When the Team asked what people most valued, the answers focused on three issues:
- Economy – the need for stability in the underlying drivers of farming and tourism; the diversity of recreation opportunities; jobs and affordable housing;
- People and quality of life – the quiet, less stressed, safe and neighborly attitude;
- Landscape – the scenic beauty of the hills and forests; the patchwork of farms and pasture; clean air and water.
Communities in the Catskills are at a threshold between significant loss of these assets, or a future that sees these assets protected and less vulnerable to change. For some farms, the challenges are great while others will adapt and change. These issues affect everyone, not just farmers. It includes all people with an interest in the future of the Catskills.
The core issue is land use change, particularly with respect to the future of farming. If farms sell out for housing development as land prices increase, the landscape will change, as will the structure of the community. At its worst, there will be a suburban landscape of just hills, trees and houses. The effect on the rest of the economy could be significant and tourism in particular would suffer. In parallel, water quality may be threatened.
Change is inevitable; the task now is to steer the process of change, building on recent recommendations, refocusing and prioritizing efforts where most needed, and taking action locally where it can be most effective. With effective action, farming will survive and prosper, landscape character will be protected, communities will thrive, and family farms will be retained.
Farmers, local communities and support agencies need to work together with a sense of urgency to craft a viable future, which safeguards the distinctive qualities of the area, and that will directly benefit the economy.
There is a need to move on from recommendations into action. New businesses and pilot projects need to be initiated, some risks taken, and lessons learned. Farmers must play a key role in these new ventures.
Issue 1 – Strategies for protecting agricultural land and resources in the Catskills Top of Page
Many state, regional and local jurisdictions throughout the United States and Europe protect farms, forests, natural and cultural resources with land use regulations alone. Others, particularly in the US, combine regulations (“sticks”) with voluntary techniques and incentives (“carrots”) to preserve land. Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages. With home rule under New York’s form of government, townships have nearly total authority over comprehensive planning, zoning and land use decisions. Decisions affecting future changes in the use of farms and forestlands in the Catskills are in their hands. The Team observed that while many townships have proposed or adopted comprehensive plans, some have not and less than half have adopted zoning ordinances, their primary tool for controlling land use in accordance with local priorities.
Comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances in the Catskill townships generally do not protect farmland or forests; they permit residential uses on existing farm and forestlands at suburban densities (e.g. one dwelling per one to five acres). Some are considering “conservation design” ordinances, which require clustering of residential units and preservation of a portion of the overall development lot, but this technique may only be suitable for expansion of existing towns and villages, and does not protect farmland or prevent the inevitable conflicts that occur between new residents and farmers over farm operations.
In the absence of effective plans and zoning, many new residences are being permitted on prime agricultural lands, in scenic valleys and on hillsides, a pattern that consumes farmland and is beginning to threaten the scenic character of the Catskills. There is little cooperation or coordination between townships in the Catskills regarding land use, planning or zoning policy. There is little evidence that planning and zoning alone will protect the future scenic and historic character of the Catskills, or its agricultural and forestry resources.
For working farmers who own their land, the best insurance that their farm will be kept in agricultural production is a profitable farm. For older farmers beginning to consider retirement or passing their farm on to the next generation, the value of the farm is often their only major asset and selling for its highest value becomes a key consideration. If the farm is not profitable and is zoned to allow residential use, the likely buyer of the farm will offer more money for housing use than another farmer can offer for continued agricultural use.
A purchased conservation easement can significantly help farmers pay off mortgage and other debt on the farm, reducing carrying costs and increasing net farm income, in many cases allowing them to keep the farm in agricultural use. An easement will also reduce the value of the farm for estate tax purposes, and allow the next generation of farmers to acquire the property and make an adequate return on their land investment. Current farm prices in much of the Catskills cannot be justified by the return on investment in farm uses alone.
Part-time residents who work in one of the nearby major metropolitan areas now own a significant proportion of all farms in the Catskills. These owners are faced with high property taxes unless they continue active farm operations under a five-year agreement. Many of them rent their land to neighboring farmers under five year leases that allow the farmers to harvest their land with low or no rental payments. Such arrangements appear to be an important contribution to farming viable land areas.
Many permanent residents, particularly farmers (dairy and non dairy) cited a lack of understanding shown by non-farming landowners and second homeowners of the realities of farming and a working landscape. Examples were given of complaints being made by members of the non-farming community including manure spreading, spraying, and grazing of livestock close to residences, cutting hay or hauling corn on weekends, even of mud. This has led to bad feeling and in at least one case, the breakdown of an arrangement to graze on rented land.
The “right to farm” laws are enacted in the Agricultural Districts of the region. However, the unanimous view encountered was that simply relying on realtors to inform buyers that they are planning to move to an Agricultural District is not enough. This is meaningless to those with no agricultural experience and often the information is not offered until the deal is closed. It is not in the realtor’s interest to do more than this.
The Team visited with the primary conservation organizations that are qualified to hold donated conservation easements in the Catskills, and found that no one organization was taking the lead to solicit and acquire donated conservation easements and none had a proactive mission or plan to do so.
Voluntary land conservation that depends on payments to landowners for permanent conservation easements is very expensive. The New York State Purchase of Development Rights program does not give high priority to acquiring easements on farms in the Catskills because they are not as threatened by development as farms nearer to metropolitan areas.
While significant funds are available from New York City for acquiring agricultural conservation and other easements within the watershed, the funds allocated for working farms in the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC) area cannot keep pace with the need, or with the number of working farmers that are willing to sell easements, in order to keep farming. WAC receives three offers to sell easements in the watershed for every one that they have funds to buy.
WAC has been authorized to spend $20 million to acquire conservation easements in the watershed. They have identified about 58,000 acres of large farms as high-priority for easements, and 50,000 acres of smaller farms as secondary priority. At current easement prices this amount of protection would cost more than $100 million just within the watershed. To date, WAC has protected over 5,000 acres through easements or contracts for easements. Even within the watershed, these voluntary tools may not be sufficient.
Farmers with land of equal environmental, agricultural, historic and scenic values lying outside of the New York City watershed have few options other than donated easements. Many of these are not motivated by tax benefits because of their limited incomes, existing mortgages that cannot be subordinated to the easement, or the limited value of their overall estates and higher federal estate tax thresholds.
Surveys of local people, visitors and farmers have reinforced the Team’s view that the unique resource in the Catskills is its landscape. The distinctive components include the hills and forests, the patchwork of farmland and open pasture, clear streams and the wooden clad farmhouses and barns. Other features have been almost lost, such as the stone walls that once defined open fields, but are now absorbed into the woodland, ghosts of former times. The landscape is the backdrop to all activities and the guardian of local culture. It shapes the people and the communities, who in turn shape the land.
If this resource slowly drains away, the loss will not just be about scenic quality. The diversity of natural and human culture and all activities will be greatly reduced.
In the UK in 2001, Foot and Mouth disease largely shut down the countryside. Farmers suffered, but as tourism collapsed and service industries of rural and urban areas were affected, it illustrated how our rural areas are a bedrock of economic activity. Perhaps as important, the plight of the countryside made Britons aware of how much we take for granted the heritage embodied in the fields, woods and villages.
- Conduct a professional landscape assessment of the Catskills Region to form a key reference point and guidance for landowners and other interested parties. Landscape assessment helps define precisely what makes rural areas distinctive. It helps in the evaluation of the component parts of the landscape and activities from farming to transportation. Results of the assessment can be used to develop management plans, grant systems for land stewardship and planning controls.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of local planning, zoning and land use regulations for protecting farms, forests, and the scenic and historic character of similar regions in other States.
- Give voluntary preservation techniques top priority in local and regional strategies for protecting the agricultural land resources in the Catskills until townships embrace effective planning and zoning as a technique for preserving agricultural land,. Counties and townships should cooperate and collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries to implement common objectives for preservation of the scenic rural character and agricultural land in the Catskills.
- Continue and enhance the level of funding from New York City for easement purchases within the watershed to allow purchase of every qualified easement from willing sellers. The initial $20 million authorized for WAC easement purchases are nearly committed. Of the $50 million in new funds to be authorized for land conservation in the near future, WAC should be allocated a significant share. Purchased conservation easements are about half the cost of fee simple purchases, and do not require public maintenance costs, other than annual visits to the land.
- Increase State allocations of purchase of development rights (PDR) funds to the Scenic Areas of Statewide Significance that also address agricultural preservation goals, such as the Catskills.
- Select a lead organization from the existing qualified land trusts to focus and accelerate solicitation of donated conservation easements, with priority given to:
- Part-time farm owners who are more likely to benefit from the tax benefits of donated easements, and who are willing to commit to continued farming by renting to local farmers.
- Farm and forest owners outside of the WAC watershed where applications to the New York PDR program have not ranked high.
- The NY State Legislature should authorize:
- A state real estate transfer tax or bond fund for the acquisition of easements outside of the WAC watershed in the Catskills, a designated Scenic Area of Statewide Concern;
- Enabling legislation to allow Counties to enact real estate transfer taxes dedicated to land preservation; and
- Changes in the recapture provisions of the agricultural land assessment laws, to ensure and audit recapture of property taxes avoided, when specially assessed farmland is converted to non-farm use. The changes should provide that these recaptured revenues be dedicated to purchases of conservation easements in the area where the land is converted.
- When authorized by the New York Legislature, each County in the Catskills should enact real estate transfer taxes dedicated to land preservation. They should also authorize property tax credits for unimproved land subject to conservation easements donated to one of the eligible conservation organizations in the Catskills.
- Establish voluntary stewardship agreements to conserve the characteristics of the landscape that protect the scenic, historic and environmental qualities of the land.
- The land trusts and realtors in the area should prepare a standard handout for buyers that summarizes the tax and other benefits of donated conservation easements, to be distributed to the buyers together with a list of area farmers willing to keep farms in active production.
- Whenever farms are sold in an agricultural preservation district, the seller or agent must advise the buyer of State and local ‘right to farm’ laws and the potential for odors and other nuisances from farm operations.
- Develop education programs for prospective non-farming and second home owners that build on the work that is already underway in some areas, such as farmer and homeowner workshops and the provisions of the “right to farm” laws.
- Develop an advertising campaign targeted at those who are most likely to be considering buying property in an Agricultural District and those who already have second homes. This might consist of a short video demonstrating and explaining agricultural practices coupled with a leaflet and may be a feature article with case studies etc. placed in “New York” magazine or similar lifestyle publications.
- A central message in any such educational material should be awareness and advice on the benefits and importance of donating conservation easements.
Issue 2– Farm Diversification Top of Page
The Catskills region is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Visitors value the regions’ farmlands, forestlands, rivers, valleys and mountains. Increasing numbers of visitors come to the area on day visits, weekend or longer vacations since the events of September 11, 2001 influenced decisions on taking holidays abroad.
It was widely recognized by the Team that farmers play a key role in maintaining the scenic quality of the Catskills. The region has physical and cultural attributes that are highly desirable for tourism, but the economic links between agriculture, tourism, the environment and local food rarely seem to be made.
Where links are made, however, through the “Schoharie County’s Farms and Food Producers” Farm Passport, they are largely being used for direct marketing of local products, rather than as income generating tourism.
Farm attractions could offer visitors an insight into agriculture, its heritage and food links. The Team accepts that there may be issues over public access, privacy and liability, but farmers should consider the options carefully. Visitors are not only willing to pay to visit farms, but if the first experience is positive they will return and recommend the experience to others. In England, experience has shown that many local people will also visit open farms on a regular basis.
Successful farm visitor attractions include:
- Interpreting current agricultural practices;
- Farm heritage;
- On-farm food production, such as cheese ;
- Animal petting;
- Circular walks; and
- Country tea room facilities.
The Catskills area also offers huge potential for ecotourism. Documents provided to the Team state that “natural beauty and cultural heritage represent a competitive advantage in attracting tourist dollars.” Eco-tourism expenditures are increasing.
Tourist attractions in the Catskills that celebrate the cultural heritage of the area could be developed. Often the introduction of one attraction can act as a catalyst to bring in other related ones. The Anti-Rent War of the summer of 1845 involving John Burroughs and the “Calico Indians,” though depicted on the post office wall in Delhi deserves to be brought to the attention of a wider audience.
For dairy farmers in the region, one of the biggest problems affecting their economic viability is the depressed price of milk. Many farmers blame the government and the purchaser of the milk, often a very large cooperative. These have become very large institutions and their responsibilities lie with their shareholders and not always the farmers. Generally, these appear no longer to be considered farmer owned or farmer run.
In essence, without a choice of outlets to sell their milk, farmers have become price-takers. This has led in some cases to having to sell the milk at a price which is lower than the cost of production.
Farmland and woodland can also offer opportunities for a range of commercial activities, supplementing or forming the focus of farm businesses. Products include maple syrup, lumber, mushrooms and wild foods such as ginseng, Christmas trees, berries, trout, deer, boar and honey. Secondary processing, on or off farm, may add value to these products, such as maple flavored foods, or timber flooring. Despite these opportunities, only 30% of farms in Delaware County have woodland management plans.
- Create a vital agri-tourism plan in the Catskills that is linked with other rural tourism activities. Beyond the farm gate, cultural and historic heritage, forestry and environmental stewardship can all be packaged to attract a variety of tourists to the region and promote longer stays, thereby increasing local spending.
- Establish an agri-tourism roundtable consisting of a number of interested farmers, tourism providers and members of the economic development section of each of the Counties. This group needs to meet regularly to identify how farms can become involved and be integral to the region’s tourism.
- Develop accommodations on farms where people can stay and generate income for the farmer. The agri-tourism group should promote these accommodations and assist in helping visitors get in touch with farmers offering accommodations.
- Farmers interested in offering accommodations should set their own quality standards, branding and marketing strategy such as “Catskills Farm Stay”.
- Appoint a regional farm tourism specialist to work closely with the roundtable and individual farmers to improve the marketability of these assets through workshops, farmer forums or other venues. In the event that funds are not available for the farm tourist specialist, the County Tourism Directors should take the lead for the agri-tourism initiative and development of the roundtable.
- Where visitor trails are being planned, farming, heritage, and eco-tourism sites should be flagged and integrated with these trails. Specific heritage trails combining accommodations and local food could directly benefit farms. The link of local produce to tourism should be made; a strong cross sector regional brand is critical here.
- Develop wildlife trails that provide opportunities for watching birds and mammal life from strategically placed sites. These sites could also provide locations for interpretation boards explaining the wildlife.
- The range of farm events that already exist in the region, such as Meredith Dairy Fest and the Delaware County Fair, should be linked into the regional tourism strategy and encouraged to promote the local agri-tourism plan and local specialty foods.
- The Anti – Rent War, which led to the abolishment of the system of feudal land tenures in 1847, should be celebrated and the opportunity to bring people to the area should be exploited.
- Dairy farmers should explore the idea for setting up their own outlet and forming their own cooperative or a separate partnership. Initially, perhaps a group of around 20 farmers selling high quality, branded milk.
- Encourage farmers and other landowners to explore opportunities for exploiting the natural resources of woodland and open areas, within the context of a management plan strictly informed by conservation objectives. In most cases, the harvesting or wild-crafting of these products will help conserve the natural environment, offering a fine example of conservation and farm business working hand in hand. Links with recreational and tourism activities such as hunting, fishing and hiking are also strong, offering opportunities for diverse and integrated farm business development.
- Diversification into these products may be focused on winter work, when other farming activities are less demanding.
Issue 3 – Processing and Distribution Top of Page
The Team met with several producers who are either planning to, or currently add value by some form of processing. For example, maple syrup production is common.
There does not seem to be, as yet, a large demand for secondary processing such as bakery products, ready meals, preserves, etc. although some of this is happening. Experience elsewhere suggests that this will become a more important part of the product range in the future particularly if the farmers’ market season is extended.
There are also clear market opportunities for ethnic food products, meat and dairy. In the UK this is one of the few growth areas in manufactured food products. At present the extent to which these markets are being exploited in the Catskills appears to be limited to a few ethnic minority customers “cold calling” at farms and conducting their own processing. This certainly seems to provide a good opportunity for customer contact and is clearly an important route to market for a handful of producers.
The Team was also told of several possibilities for utilizing excess processing capacity for existing milk plants. These opportunities need further exploration as part of any moves to establish alternative milk marketing from the Catskills.
As interest in specialty or niche cheese production develops, there will be a need to innovate with new cheeses and other milk-based products (yogurts, milk-based drinks, etc.). This may also involve incorporating other products from the region such as maple syrup, fruit and berries.
Red meat slaughtering capacity is an issue that was raised with the Team and there are proposals to develop the existing facilities at SUNY Cobelskill, which could continue to offer educational and commercial processing. Other possibilities in other counties were also discussed. As slaughter and processing facilities are so expensive to create, it is essential that Counties adopt a clear strategy for the type, volume, location and specification needed before creating further capacity.
Throughout the Exchange, it was also obvious that transporting and distributing farm products both regionally and locally are critical issues for the farmers. As one farmer noted, “We can grow almost anything up here. But the situation is like an hourglass. We have plenty of scope to grow crops and there is a market for the produce in New York, but there is a problem in the middle trying to get the product through”.
The Team learned of several instances where farmers and groups of farmers had sufficient business that could make it viable for them to either handle their own distribution or contract with another distribution network. However, it was also clear that time spent on distribution by producers is a distraction from the production and should not displace time spent on marketing.
It is essential to ensure that the customer gets what they want, when they want it. Therefore, there will need to be several solutions. For some, shipping UPS will always be the answer. For groups or producers with a bulk product (Catskill Family Farms and fingerling potatoes, for example) this will not be possible.
At the local level, many of the obstacles to direct marketing also relate to the issue of distribution. Easy access to local produce is a prerequisite for many other initiatives. It will:
- enable homeowners and holiday makers to get deliveries;
- provide a means for restaurants and shops to be able to serve and sell;
- allow food processors to source local ingredients; and
- provide a conduit for larger catering contracts.
Individuals and businesses in all these sectors indicated that they are keen to source locally, but find it difficult.
- The Counties need to agree on clear priorities and a strategy for developing a future processing infrastructure that will support the primary sectors of specialty or niche cheese production (both from cow and goat/sheep milk); large scale fluid milk bottling for branding under a Catskills logo; and red meat slaughter, cutting and maturation facilities. These facilities could be provided privately through an existing producer or entrepreneur enlarging or constructing facilities with a view to rental, sharing or partnership. Alternatively, there may be an opportunity to site a test facility at a SUNY Delhi offering both an educational and product development opportunity.
- Agencies need to be prepared to assist potential producers with technical assistance relating to processing and compliance with regulations.
- An Agriculture Economic Development specialist needs to work on developing the cross-county distribution infrastructure. The issues of continuity of supply, appropriate mechanism for shipping and coordination and communication of demand need to be considered together. Ensuring that there is a sufficient volume of product will be necessary.
- Research the interest in a local delivery hub with both customers and producers. Match these and prepare a business plan. Seek out the entrepreneurs. Pilot the scheme with a grant for seed funding requirements. There are several components to making a local delivery hub work. They include:
- a central point for storage (mostly for just a few days) including a cold store, where orders for multiple products can be fulfilled;
- a delivery van to take small orders to customers (and possibly also to pick up produce from farms if drop off by the producer is not possible) – larger orders should be brokered by the administrators;
- an efficient administration system, which takes orders (mostly by phone), matches demand to supply, and deals with all invoicing (cash flow is a critical factor); and
- a simple catalog for customers, updated perhaps weekly – this may need to be backed up by a database, which could be accessed through a website (likely to be later stage of development).
This model is beginning to work well for 30 producers delivering to 100 customers in a ten mile radius in Somerset in the UK. (See Appendix for more detail.)
A model of this type could be funded either as a producer-owned business, or be independent, funded by a delivery fee. If the local hubs are linked to the regional distribution centre, a franchise model may work well. It may benefit an existing shop or other food business to locate the central point on their premises.
Capital set up costs will include the store, office and van, and seed revenue funding for administration costs and cash flow while the enterprise is developing.
- It is apparent that consideration is being given to developing a central distribution facilities (in Sullivan County at least). These ideas need to be shared with producers in other counties as soon as possible. If a central location could be found and funded, this may act as a location for shared packing and cold storage facilities as well as a location for the “transportation broker.”
- Consider funding a “transportation broker” to work across County boundaries. This will make it possible to maximize the use of existing carriers, ensure that opportunities for sharing are maximized (no half empty trucks) and explore the possibilities of back hauling on trucks that bring produce up-state and travel down partially empty. Consider allowing the transport broker to derive some income from a charge per shipment. This would give them a stake in the success of the venture and help to build sustainability.
- Explore further the possibilities for separate “Green Market” sites in New York City that allow cooperatives and other groups to market produce direct to the consumer. This will be important if direct selling at markets is to benefit a wider section of producers.
- Establish codes of practice and production standards for farmers participating in the groups that sell direct to consumers. This information must be made available for the consumers at point of sale.
- Encourage the development of “restaurant buying groups” through which chefs can place orders. Part of the problem for small producers looking to direct-market is that the consumer base is fragmented. This is as true for business buyers (restaurants and hotels) as it is for individual consumers.
- If work to develop a regional brand identity progresses, distribution could adopt this and carry a portfolio of individual labels in the long term when a sufficient range of products is available. Onward distribution might be franchised. The option of running franchises could allow the distribution operations to off-load the complexities of organizing and servicing multiple consumers while maintaining a strong “Catskills” brand presence at the point of sale.
- Research the business model of Somerset Farmers Markets Direct.
Issue 4: Developing Marketing Initiatives Top of Page
A survey carried out in Delaware County indicated that 98% of local people and visitors buy local produce when available. The opportunity for sale of higher quality, niche products is also likely to be high, due to the large numbers of city dwellers who visit or have second homes. One of the cafés the Team visited tries hard to source locally but has found it very difficult to identify local producers.
Our observations and assumptions are that opportunities for direct marketing in the region are significant and could offer local farmers and processors new markets both within the region and to urban populations in the tri-state area. This will be particularly suited to niche and high quality products, but could also include local supply contracts with catering departments of larger public or private institutions.
Direct marketing may not suit all producers. It requires an entrepreneurial and motivated mindset, time to build customer relationships and the flexibility to move between wholesale, retail, farm gate, mail order and internet sales.
There are a number of farmers’ markets operating within the region. These sometimes include craft products alongside food. Typically 8 to 12 food producers attend, with a focus on fruit and vegetables. The markets are seasonal, generally from May to October.
The scope and scale of the farmers’ markets seems very low by UK standards, where a critical mass of at least 20 stallholders appears to be necessary to maintain a strong customer base. Similarly, the seasonality may frustrate opportunities for more direct produce sales. The focus on fruit and vegetables will also define the season, so a more varied produce range including meat, dairy and processed goods, could support an extended season for the markets. Indoor locations may need to be identified for winter months.
Food coupons for low income families are redeemable at farmers’ markets. In some of the New York Greenmarkets, these coupons account for up to 80% of produce sales. This is made easy to operate in some markets by issuing credit cards in place of paper coupons, which can be swiped using wireless card readers operated by stallholders. The benefits of this link between producers and low income families are several: increased sales, low income communities access fresh healthy food and the forging of community links and informal education about farming.
The New York Greenmarkets offer a marketplace for Catskills farmers, and can be a profitable way forward, as well as helping establish a customer base which may then be served by mail order. However, the distance and time involved in attending the markets is a strong disincentive. Additionally, a strict rule applies that the producer must be behind the stall, disallowing representation by others such as neighboring farmers or by co-operative groups. However, the Greenmarkets are considering setting up a separate market for such producer groups.
The volumes of food procured by catering facilities at schools, colleges, hospitals and other public and private institutions are considerable. If direct supplies from local producers can satisfy the catering needs of these establishments, even if only in part, the impact on the local economy could be significant.
The Team’s contact with one school and one college in the area indicated a willingness to test the market in this respect. There have been other examples we have heard of where school vending machines have successfully offered local milk in place of soda drinks (with consequent health benefits).
Of prime importance to most caterers will be price, availability and quality assurance. All these considerations create challenges in terms of local procurement. However, these can be overcome; the school we spoke to has previously purchased lettuce, pizzas and basic vegetables directly from local suppliers within all the normal criteria. The experience of a small number of projects in the UK also supports the case that direct supplies can be made to work.
The landscape, culture and environment of the Catskills offer a strong opportunity to develop a successful branding project to be used across all sectors, from food to tourism, accommodations and manufactured products. A common logo and linked promotion would add value to the component sectors.
A number of branding initiatives have been established in the region, but none appear to have been developed fully. They have included:
- The Taste of the Catskills, a series of events in 2002 promoting Catskills produce, especially to the hospitality sector;
- Meadow Raised Meats, a co-operative of several small farms;
- Catskills Family Farms, branding linked to a co-operative venture for several niche products such as fingerling potatoes; and
- The Catskills region logo (green flash), used on tourism brochures.
None of these initiatives appear to have been carried through into a branding campaign which could strongly link the products from the region, with the image and perceptions of the area.
- Establish a Catskills-wide branding campaign, assisting local produce marketing through the creation of a recognizable logo, linked strongly to PR campaigns for local produce. The branding could act as a form of green labeling, in which case it would only be used on products that fall within defined agricultural and land management practices.
- Develop a cross-sectoral and geographical approach to branding.
- Facilitate a stakeholder group to agree on sectors and geographical coverage, and common goals;
- Design and establish the branding campaign with significant investment in year one, with maintenance levels of funding in subsequent years, which may be supported by a small fee for its use once established (the fee would apply to points of sale as a first priority, then potentially also to producers);
- Work with local producers to agree on use of the brand;
- Agree with producers and other stakeholders, whether the brand is confined to products that fit with a green labeling brand; and
- Work with local shops, restaurants, hotels, farmers’ markets and events organizers, and other points of sale, to explore multiple ways in which the logo would be used and point of sale information made available.
- Aim to establish a community supported agriculture (CSA) project linking home owners to groups of local producers. Ideally this would include meat, dairy, and fruit / vegetables. This would operate optimally year-round, but may be most active from May to October. Consideration should be given to weekly boxes of produce, either delivered directly to the home or collected at central drop off points such as local shops or cafes where additional items would be purchased, thereby benefiting the shop in return for the temporary storage facility.
- Aim to broaden the scope, scale and season of farmers’ markets in the region.
- Seek out new producers and promote attendance at local farmers’ markets, especially in meat, dairy and processed goods.
- Establish a regional farmers’ markets association to ensure co-ordination of efforts and publicity.
- Establish and promote the availability and use of food coupons at farmers’ markets.
- Lobby NY Greenmarkets to accelerate the acceptance of producer groups. The NY Greenmarkets provide an excellent model illustrating the benefit of co-ordination between a number of markets throughout a defined region, acting as a self funding enterprise through stall fees and other grants.
- Build on interest from the identified school and college, and seek out new potential catering partners to establish a market for large local produce in wholesale quantities. Identify their needs in terms of individual commodities and identify how local producers can offer a value added service to compete with open wholesale supplies. One of the ways to move forward is to break down the total supply needs into small lots. For example, a contract might be let for apples from September to April. Local suppliers may be in a strong position to assist caterers by being more responsive and reactive.
This approach to procurement means more work in terms of administration. This must be alleviated by the back up of local a distribution, information and marketing infrastructure.
- Extend educational programs to landowners on potential and specific techniques for land based product development.
- Extend buy local campaigns to encompass woodland and timber products.
- Identify where shared use of a processing plant would enable new business ventures.
- Study visits to organizations in England, especially in the South West, would offer local enablers an insight into the successful range of direct marketing initiatives in this area.
NEXT STEPS Top of Page
Many of the farmers and producers that the team met are keen to explore the possibilities for value added and direct marketing of Catskills produce. However, all of the dairy farmers who expressed this view did not feel that they had the time or skills necessary to explore and develop the opportunities – “We’re farmers not marketing whizzes,” was one view expressed.
Many (particularly dairy) farmers the Team met gave very clear accounts of the barriers they face in getting involved in new or different ventures (time, money, regulations). However, there does appear to be an opportunity to work with a few individual producers both in dairy and non-dairy who are able to invest some time and effort into actually testing the market for their ideas with real products. Other farmers, often those who had moved in and were operating alternative enterprises or those who were returning to dairy farms are more comfortable with the idea of identifying new markets and exploiting them. However, they also expressed a desire for help and action in coordinating efforts, branding products from the region and distribution.
Members of the Team are beginning to find similar challenges in their own work. They are finding that even though the ideas need to come from the businesses themselves, they need agents to help with implementation as well as offering advice.
The Delaware Agricultural Protection Plan recommends the creation of an Agricultural Marketing Specialist post. Similar positions are proving successful in neighboring counties. Due to funding limitations, securing this post has not yet been possible in Delaware County. However, the community will need to decide carefully on the specifics of the job description for this person to ensure that the right balance is obtained between strategic marketing, information gathering, practical engagement and implementation skills.
The recent creation of the Catskill Region Guide to Economic Development Assistance and the Catskills Business Round table are important developments.
The move to list all forms of advice and support available to both farms and non-farms in all five Counties – the “First Stop Shop” – is also a good move. We recognize that it is in the early stages of operation, but the Team has experience with similar support tools. We have found that questions will continue to be made through the agents that individuals in the various business communities are already familiar with.
There are plenty of facts and figures available on the contribution of agriculture to the economy of the region. There are also figures for the contribution of other economic sectors to the overall economy.
There are very different perspectives on the absolute and relative value and place of agriculture in the region. This appears to be the cause of some of the lack of integration in approach to economic development activity as it relates to agriculture.
- Identify the person to fill the proposed Agricultural Economic Development Adviser role in Delaware County. To help overcome restricted funding, consider establishing a part time position for a while (as in Sullivan County) or seek joint funding between agencies and county government.The job description and key competencies required for the post should be carefully drawn up so that the person recruited complements the strengths of neighboring counterparts. It will be important that this person works closely with counterparts in both Schoharie and Sullivan Counties. Regular liaison meetings and communications protocols will be essential.If at all possible, funding for this post should be secured for a longer period than may be usual – at least three years to allow for ideas to be identified and to develop them. The individual identified should be encouraged to focus on just a few priority activities. The emphasis should be on demonstration through practical activity.
Representatives from Delaware County should also consider the different arrangements for employing such specialists that have been adopted elsewhere to maximize the opportunities for integration of advice and support.
- Consider establishing a steering group of farmers, independent of any one organization, to advise on the priorities for this job.
- Consider allocating a project development fund to such key individuals with delegated authority to spend as they see fit under the guidance of the steering group.
- As part of the implementation phase, a cross county working group should be tasked with agreeing lead roles among the key agents working with and for farmers.
- Establish a clear communications protocol to ensure that economic development activity as it relates to the agriculture and land management sector in the Catskills region is moved forward in a coordinated way.
From the discussions the Team had, it appears that the key activities that require focus (almost to the exclusion of anything else) are:
- Exploring through action the possibilities for an alternative marketing channel for branded fluid milk from the Catskills – this is probably priority number one.
- Exploring practical solutions for distribution for those farmers who can or who are already diversified in some way.
- Building to on the “Taste of the Catskills” program to form a multi – annual program of trade development and consumer awareness.
- Continuing to ensure that one person has the charge to manage the database behind the First Stop Shop.
- Continue to raise awareness of the First Stop Shop among support agencies so there is a shared understanding of how the system works and that enquiries are managed through the system to ensure that farmers get the information they need in an understandable format whichever way they choose to access it.
- Conducting regular surveys or “focus group” sessions, perhaps as part of other meetings, to test awareness and “customer satisfaction” to ensure that the right information continues to be provided in a way that suits the recipient and not the provider.
Those involved in both agriculture and mainstream economic development need to consider reviewing and agreeing on why agriculture is important and its place in rural development.
This may mean that thinking needs to move on from merely looking at agriculture’s contribution in straight economic terms. All economic development professionals should try to take account of agriculture’s indirect contributions (and costs) through landscape and environment to the underpinning of other sectors (particularly tourism), its role in supporting social structures, particularly in the more remote areas and its future potential as a value added part of the food chain. This may also mean that alternative indicators need to be developed to better measure and value the contribution of land based industry.
APPENDIX Top of Page
Regional and Local Distribution – A Model to Develop
Regional and local distribution solutions could work hand in hand using a franchised hub model. The features of this are described below, in the order in which the model might be developed:
Pilot one local distribution hub.
Review the pilot, research opportunities throughout the region, prepare a business plan.
Sign up the entrepreneurs to set up further regional hubs.
Prepare a business plan for a regional distribution center. The center, which would be the collection / drop off point for all hubs, would broker transportation beyond the Catskills Region and would adopt all administration functions.
This regional / local hub model is described on the following diagram:
©2002 Glynwood Center