Adirondack Journal — Farming in the Adirondacks

As the autumn season sets in, images of flaming red leaves and freshly harvested produce rush to mind. While beautiful fall foliage is associated with the Adirondacks, most people do not think of agriculture being important within the Adirondack Park.

Harsh weather, short growing seasons, and rugged terrain have always made cultivation in the Adirondacks difficult. In fact, the earliest European settlers thought this mountainous and swampy region was unsuitable for agriculture.

However, this did not stop resilient, and perhaps stubborn, Adirondack folk from attempting the grueling task of farming the region. Settlers struggled to raise crops in order to feed their families. The hard work required the labor of the entire family in order to cultivate the stony land.

Not surprisingly, agriculture in the area declined as the result of greater productivity elsewhere and improved transportation and preservation methods. However, farming in the region has not completely ceased.

A recent conversation with Marjorie Swift, a member of the Board of Directors of the Adirondack Farmers' Market Cooperative, revealed that despite a steep decline over the years, there is a revival of local farming and farmers' markets within the Adirondacks. Ms. Swift manages the Elizabethtown, Keene, and Willmington, N.Y. markets within the cooperative.

There are seven markets sponsored by the Adirondack Farmers' Market Cooperative, and a number of other markets also listed on the Adirondack Harvest website. The Adirondack Farmers' Market Cooperative works to promote local farming and to provide a profitable and sustainable market place where vendors can sell their goods.

As of this fall, there were eighty-nine members or vendors divided between the seven markets of the cooperative, selling a wide variety of goods. Farmers' markets promote community through economically supporting local producers and craftspeople and creating a fun social environment.

These markets are not only a place to sell local products, they are also a spot for neighbors to meet and enjoy music, eat food, catch up with friends around picnic tables, and even support local non-profit groups.

While there is an increased interest in locally produced food, there are still great hardships that face the contemporary Adirondack farmer. Mother Nature can pose a number of challenges in this region, whether it be longer winters, or as in the case of this summer, too dry of a season.

These factors not only make farming more difficult, but also more expensive, due to higher fuel costs. Many farmers need to start their crops before the snow melts, sometimes as early as February. However, during this time, the ground is frozen solid, and there will be no sign of spring for another couple of months. Farmers must start plants either indoors or in a greenhouse depending on the scale of farming. This requires a heated area, pushing up the cost of production, and ultimately the price of local produce.

High production costs make it difficult for some farmers to compete with supermarket produce prices that tend to be lower. However, as Ms. Swift points out, local produce that has been allowed to properly ripen is far more tasty!

In fact, Adirondack farmers have made great strides in the variety of crops they are able to grow. Outside of the typical root vegetables and leafy greens common to the area, farmers are also able to produce eggplant, melons, peppers, asparagus, and broccoli, just to name a few. Farmers' markets now provide a selection comparable to what you would find at the grocery store but with the added satisfaction of knowing where your food came from.

The majority of farmers within the Adirondack Park are found in low lying areas where the snow tends to melt sooner and the climate is a little less challenging. However, there are still farms such as that of Rob Hastings, located in Keene Valley, New York within the High Peaks region, that are able to produce a large number of crops. Hastings uses green houses, row tunnels, and hoop houses that all protect crops from the harsh elements and allow for an earlier start.

The current Adirondack farmer, much like the historic one, is faced with a number of hardships. Farmers often have to pursue other forms of work in order to support themselves and their families especially through the long winter months. Despite the increased interest in locally produced food, the number of farms has greatly declined since 1880, when nearly 3,000 farms were listed in Essex County alone. However, local farmers' markets have aided in bringing farmers and their community together with the goal of sustaining — and perhaps increasing — local agriculture.