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A farm grows to beat the odds

Hooked on organics 

A farm grows to beat the odds

Genesee County's northern tier, a zone of rich soils well-positioned between the Lake Ontario plains and the hill country to the south, has that touch of bigness. Open fields stretch hundreds or thousands of yards back from the road. A Montana-style "Big Sky" draws the eyes to infinity. "Big" weather rolls in day and night, often with tall, imposing, even intimidating cloud formations.

            With this kind of atmosphere, it's no surprise that Porter Farms, a family-owned operation just north of Batavia, is not small. The Porters --- father Jack, sons Steve and Mike, other family members, and maybe a dozen migrant workers and local employees during the growing season --- cultivate 550 acres. That's more than 20 percent bigger than Monroe County's Ellison Park.

            As a wag might say: With family farming, everything is relative. Next door to the Porters is one of New York State's largest farms: 10,000 acres and counting.

            But Porter Farms --- which produces mountains of organic green beans, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, onions, peas, turnips, potatoes, grains, beans, and other foods --- stands out on its merits. Not for size, as such, but for the type of farming in relation to size, and for the basic business arrangements that keep the farm going.

By melding three strategies, the Porters have resisted a tide that's engulfing all but the largest farms today.

            First, they've increased their acreage to become more competitive in an era of agricultural consolidation.

            Second, they've opted for organic farming, a method too often associated in the US only with "boutique" operations and gardens.

            Third, they're growing a particular social relationship between farmers and consumers: a form of "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA for short) in which the farmer makes direct weekly deliveries of produce to mostly urban and suburban customers who've paid up front.

            All the Porter land is "certified organic" by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, says Steve Porter. The certification process, regulated by the federal Department of Agriculture and conducted by independent groups, assures the land is free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides and is cultivated with "chemical-free" methods. (Organic, though, doesn't mean only what's not there: It means using natural ways of adding organic matter to the soil and encouraging beneficial micro-organisms. "It's just as important to feed the soil as to feed the people," goes a saying common in the trade.)

            Jack Porter, now 73, founded the farm around 1950; he pioneered the organic side of the operation, too. Now the whole extended family is involved. You can still find Jack running some of the farm's heavy equipment. He devotes a great deal of time to public presentations, as well, like a recent one in Brighton with the Rochester Area Vegetarian Society.

            The farm's first organic field was certified in 1990. A brochure shows the transition to organic methods was largely a matter of philosophy --- a commitment to grow and distribute "wholesome, fresh, and safe food in a socially and environmentally responsible fashion."

            The farm is actually a collection of contiguous farms the family acquired over the years. But --- reflecting another trend in agriculture today --- the Porters also rent land miles from their home base. Some of this acreage is located a bit further north in Orleans County, where temperature-sensitive crops can thrive near the moderating influence of Lake Ontario.

It's certainly unusual that the Porters are farming 500-plus acres organically. It's remarkable, too, that the Porters sell far and wide; some of their organic soybeans, for example, have gone to Japan for tofu-making.

            But things might not fly so smoothly without the CSA. Why? Basically, the CSA assures a stream of income. "People pay us a set fee, $290 for 23 weeks" from late June to November, says Steve Porter. In return, the customers/members get weekly deliveries of whatever the farm is harvesting at the time. "Signing up for a full share entitles you to an average 10-12 pounds of produce per week," a Porter Farms brochure explains. Two-dozen types of vegetables are in the mix. (The farm mixes a little animal husbandry into its operations, too, apart from the CSA. There's a small flock of sheep --- attested not only by the pens but by a mountain of backpacker-tent-sized plastic bags, each stuffed with unsold wool.)

            The Porters make the deliveries themselves. They don't deliver to individual members' addresses, however, but to designated drop-off locations in Buffalo and Rochester and their respective suburbs. The CSA began mostly with Buffalonians, says Steve Porter, but it's expanding eastward, especially in Monroe County. Last year, 200 households took part, he says. That's up from 100 in 1996, the first year of the "subscription service," as the brochure calls it.

            Many CSAs --- like Wayne County's Peacework Organic Farm, associated with Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture --- have a work requirement for membership. That is, they ask you to come down to the farm a certain number of days or hours through the season to pitch in with chores, planting, and harvesting. The requirement has a basis in social philosophy: It gets people young and old to work together as almost a larger "family." It also teaches basic ecology and forges links, even mutual dependencies, between rural and urban dwellers.

            The Porter CSA has no work requirement, however. This feature, or lack of one, may attract people who are testing the waters; or those whose interest in a CSA doesn't go beyond having a supply of first-rate food; or those who simply don't have the time for trekking out to the farm.

            Perinton resident Mark Sandler is one veteran local member. He and his wife, Carrie Gaynor, run the Yoga Wellness Center in Perinton and the city; the couple's been connected to the CSA since 1997, and their home serves as a drop-off point. The CSA, says Sandler, "fits well with us, because we're interested in the health of the community." Scheduling plays a role, too: Sandler says he works six days a week with his yoga group and thus doesn't have any time to spare. Nonetheless, he has more than a casual interest in the farm, though he says he's never actually been there. (The Porters say members are welcome to come out and visit.)

            One more local connection: The Porters have occasionally given a hand --- practical advice and some crops --- to Greater Rochester Urban Bounty, a project with a mini-farm and CSA in the city's northeast quadrant. GRUB's specialty is bringing locally grown foods to people in low-income neighborhoods.

As he gives a tour of the farm, Steve Porter doesn't dwell on attitude or economics. He talks about land itself.

            "Not all farmland is created equal," he says. He explains that some of his fields have low, wet spots and other features that moved previous owners to keep them out of production. But this turned out to be a virtue. The fields that hadn't been worked in many years were free of synthetic chemical residues.

            Moreover, new methods --- or rather, truly traditional ones now enjoying a renaissance --- helped things along. Like crop rotation.

            Porter scans one field near his barns. "When we plant this," he says, "we'll grow clover as a cover crop." The clover will be cut and baled and fed to the sheep, he says. That will produce manure, which will be composted and spread. The clover has its own "direct-distribution system," too: Through nitrogen fixation, it draws natural fertilizer from the air down into the soil. In due time, the field of clover may be converted to vegetables. Or a grain like barley could pop up some year. Here variety is more than a spice.

            Above all, the land isn't stressed by overproduction. "Vegetables are grown on only about 20 percent of our ground," says Porter.

            Rotations like these are as old as the hills. But Porter says the method is less common than it used to be. He points out that the famous Elba muckland --- a zone of deep black soil from former wetlands --- produces bumper crops of onions year in and year out. But the muckland farmers can do this, he says, only with intensive use of synthetics to control pests and diseases that thrive in an unbroken "monoculture."

            Mike Porter makes an appearance, on the run between the barns and some lambs that have slipped through a fence. He does a reality check. "You can have all the social issues you want," he says, "but you have to make it as a business." How about large-scale organic farming in this respect? "You're not going to find much of it where we live," he says, referring to Genesee County's surfeit of large, highly mechanized operations.

            Brother Steve has another perspective, though. He first acknowledges that organic farming isn't all gravy. For one thing, it's labor-intensive. Rotations, non-chemical weed control, planting, and tilling: all require many more days of work than some "traditional" methods.

            But there's a pay-off here, too.

            Steve recalls a conversation with a fellow farmer. The man told him it's a lot easier to do corn the modern industrial way: plant, spray, sit back till harvest time. (The point was maybe too reductive; every kind of farming requires lots of hard work.) Porter answered that, yes, organic means more time on the tractor. But switching from industrial to natural "inputs" --- fertilizer, etc. --- brings costs down. And the crop can fetch two or three times the ordinary wholesale price.

            There's more. Add in the direct sales to CSA members, says Porter, "and you're getting closer to a retail dollar." This, he says, is a better deal than even farmers' markets. Yes, the farmer gets the "retail dollar" at the farmstand. But sales there can plummet when, for example, wet weather keeps customers home in front of the TV. That sort of thing, says Porter, made his dad stop putting in time at farmstands near Rochester.

            By contrast, the CSA is dependable. Its contractual sales cover the whole growing season and give the farmer a steady cash flow.

            Based on their success so far, the Porters are now trying to take their CSA to the next level. They've just hired a former New Hampshire couple, Kathy and Dave Rice, to manage the project.

            Kathy Rice seems pleased to be here. "We can actually make a living and farm," she says. Land in New Hampshire, she says, was simply too expensive.

"I think farming is the only business where you pay retail and sell wholesale," says Pat LaPoint, a community educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Batavia who has CSA experience herself. (She and her husband ran one south of Batavia with 47 member households, "mostly teachers and their kids," she says.)

            LaPoint speaks of global developments, too. On a recent "farmer-to-farmer, women-to-women" visit to Ukraine, she found popular resistance to a "mafia" that's trying to take over the food system. "In Kiev," she says, "there are CSAs where farmers are taking produce into the office buildings."

            Why such wide interest? Most farmers, says LaPoint, are forced to pay top dollar for the supplies and equipment they need; then they must take whatever corporate food processors and increasingly globalized markets are paying. Sometimes the payments don't even cover the costs of production.

            The financial calculus is make-or-break for an area like Genesee County. And perhaps more so for a town like Elba, where, according to LaPoint, a single farm is now the top employer. The secondary ag economy is critical to the region, too. As LaPoint says, Genesee County is "processing dominated," with large frozen-foods plants in Bergen and Oakfield.

            The official data for Genesee County point in two directions, however. The county has some of New York State's (and maybe the world's) best soils, but it experienced a loss of almost eight percent of its total farmland between 1987 and 1997. But there's a seemingly contradictory trend: From 1987 to 1997, Genesee County's harvested cropland increased almost 12 percent. A recent study from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets attributes this increase to Genesee County's "agricultural economic successes."

            But other numbers indicate that consolidation is at work. Between 1992 and 1997, the number of Genesee County farmers whose principal occupation was farming dropped from 334 to 300; the total number of farms dropped likewise, from 545 to 516. (Nationally, between 1982 and 1997, the number of Americans whose principal occupation was farming dropped from 1.2 million to 960,000.)

            Given these facts, where should a farmer turn? As we've seem, CSAs have potential. But is there fertile ground in the grocery store, or its modern equivalent?

            Steve Porter --- who, incidentally, sits on the board of the Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation (www.ofrf.org) --- is eyeing the produce departments of supermarket chains. That would open up quite a customer base. Sometimes, he says, it's possible for a farmer to make a deal with an individual store. But chains like Tops, he says, demand that farmers work through the company's distributors, and that puts the independent small farmer at a disadvantage.

            Buffalo-based Tops spokesperson Stefanie Zakowicz says her company's stores are already doing right by local farmers. Throughout the local harvesting season, she says, Tops supermarkets are stocked "100 percent" with New York State produce. The offerings, she says, run from early crops like strawberries to late ones like squash. But she adds that suppliers must be able to supply sufficient quantities and meet in-house "quality standards."

            There's no meeting of the minds on this point, obviously, and the Porters and Tops will probably keep to their different paths. The chain's direction is clear. According to a company backgrounder, Tops began in the 1920s with a "small neighborhood grocery store" in Niagara Falls. Today the chain, owned by Ahold, a Netherlands-based food retail conglomerate, runs 159 supermarkets and 214 smaller stores in three states.

            The Porters could easily have gone a traditional route, too. Steve Porter says the family could have put more time and land into the sheep operation instead of building up the CSA. But that would have meant shearing a human connection. "My biggest worry when I got started was how I was going to deal with 100-plus people," he says.

            "But within a week I was hooked."

For more information: Porter Farms, PO Box 416, 5020 Edgerton Road, Elba, NY, 14058, 585-757-6823 or 757-2475.

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