By Elizabeth Henderson
The working landscapes of its many farms complement the natural beauty of the Town of Arcadia. Farming and associated businesses also form a major sector of the town’s economy. The town has zoned 25, 463 acres as agricultural, amounting to close to 1/10th of the agricultural land in Wayne County. While the town has experienced a small increase in population, development pressure on farmland does not threaten its rural character. As in the county as a whole, agriculture in Arcadia is very diverse, including fruit, vegetables, dairies, livestock, nurseries, horses and field crops. An important resource for farms of all kinds, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wayne County is conveniently located in Arcadia. The growing popularity among New York citizens of buying locally grown food has had a positive economic effect on town farms that are finding good markets for direct sales through farm stands, farmers markets, the freezer trade for beef and other meats, and Community Supported Agriculture.
The sector of Arcadia agriculture that has seen the greatest change over the past 20-years has been dairy farming. Fifty years ago, dairies dotted the back roads. Today, only about fourteen remain. The downward trend in the price of milk, combined with the drastic fluctuation in the price paid to farmers, has made it difficult for smaller dairies to remain in business. In 2008, although milk prices are higher than last year, the price of fertilizers has risen even faster than the price of fossil fuels. The rising price of field crops is also a matter of concern to dairies that purchase soybeans or other protein sources to supplement the feed grown on the farm. El-Vi Farms, the town’s largest dairy, has expanded to 900 cows and 18 full time employees. Like many other farms in the town, El-Vi rents 60% of the land on which they grow crops. Some of the manure from their cows goes into an anaerobic digester, which generates methane. The rest of the manure goes into an NRCS designed lagoon, and then is piped underground to the field edges and spread by a tanker truck before immediate incorporation into the soil. The anaerobic digester and lagoon system are a good example of the methods that Arcadia farmers are using to reduce the odors and other negative environmental impacts of their farms. More farmers are planting winter cover crops and leaving heavy crop residues to prevent erosion from rough winter weather and to add organic matter to the soil.
Farms that grow field crops – soybeans, corn, wheat, oats – are enjoying higher prices this year, though the price of inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and fuel) is also much higher. Only if weather conditions are favorable will yields of corn, soybeans and wheat be high enough to cover the increasing costs of inputs. Worldwide, the supply of grains in storage is at an all time low and the use of crops to produce ethanol has thrown food into price competition with fuel placing an upward pressure on prices for the first time in decades. Arcadia farmers sell soybeans to Sheppard Grain Inc. for processing into oil and other products, and corn to J.D. Rugenstein and Sons Inc. both in Phelps. They also sell to other farmers for livestock feed. Several town field crop farmers also raise livestock. Beef is most common, but John and Evelyn Ramph have a herd of Bison bison (buffalo). Visiting their herd is a must for all tourists passing through Arcadia. The Ramphs are also developing a state-inspected butchering facility on their farm where they intend to process their own animals as well as doing jobs for other farmers.
In addition to large acreage of prime mineral soils, Arcadia also includes a few areas of muck, former swampland that is very high in organic matter and with proper ditching can support high yields of vegetable crops. On their separate operations, Russell and Robert Bodine produce a total of 50 acres of onions and 70 acres of potatoes. In the dry season of 2007, they had their highest yields ever. They sell most of their crops to packers, such as Delyser Produce in Williamson, that perform the final packaging and market to stores. Like the field crop farmers, the produce farmers face the rising cost of fertilizers and fuel with concern.
The past decade has seen a small but definite increase in the number of organic farms in the town. There is one tree farm, two vegetable farms, a grass fed livestock operation and a dairy farm that is in transition to organic. Most of these farms market directly to customers, rather than selling wholesale or through brokers. Peacework Farm provides weekly shares of its vegetables and herbs for the oldest Community Supported Agriculture project in Western New York, the Genesee Valley Organic CSA, in its 20th year in 2008.
While nurseries and greenhouses were once a thriving part of the local agricultural scene, only two remain in the town. Parker’s is the only locally owned operation and Lloyd Parker reports that he no longer grows the ten acres of nursery stock he once did. His greenhouse business runs from spring through fall, providing geraniums and hanging baskets. Kurt Weiss Greenhouse Company, the largest greenhouse operator in the country with 17 locations in the East, recently purchased the former Newark Florist greenhouse complex, first constructed in 1967. These days, they employ 40 people and produce bulbs, mums and other flowering plants for the wholesale market. Dittmar’s, the only other nursery remaining in Arcadia, has closed.
By contrast, the Apple Shed farm stand continues to attract many customers from the surrounding area and even bus excursions from farther away. The Apple Shed combines sales of fruit from the home farm with vegetables and value added items (jams, salsa, etc.) from other farms with attractions for families, such as a petting zoo, a playground, hayrides and a haunted barn. Jessica Wells, who helps run the stand, believes that educating the non-farm public and providing this contact with a farm is an important community service. Four members of the Wells family work year round on the stand and the hundred-acre fruit farm with two other family members and 3 full time year round employees helping out. At the height of the apple harvest, their crew swells to 70.
The number of farms in Arcadia has remained fairly stable over the past decade, however the percentage of farmers who make their full living from farming continues to shrink. As they get older, farmers do not give up, but stop trying to make farming their sole source of income. Under pressure from shrinking margins, the largest farms are becoming even larger, though much of the acreage they use is rented. A small, but steady flow of new people are buying land or expanding gardens or livestock hobbies to part time commercial operations. In recent years, intense U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raids on farms and other places where illegal migrants might be found have made it difficult for fruit farms and other farms that require hired labor to find enough skilled workers. There is no doubt that for the future food security of New York State Arcadia farms will play a vital role, but the immediate future is fraught with challenges.