The State of Local Agriculture: A Growing Business

A farm in Portland, NY, from the Chautauqua County Planning Department archives.

Article Contributed by
Joni Blackman

Chautauqua County’s biggest industry is agriculture. From dairy farms to fruit farms, the County is meeting the challenges of our changing economy, retirements and the declining population. According to the 2017 US Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, Chautauqua County is the 13th largest producer in New York State; $160,967,000 in sales! We are second in the State for fruits and berries at over $42 million in sales. Per the 2017 report, the County had 1,228 farms; 159 are dairy farms and 342 are fruit farms.

Dairy and Grapes

The largest producers are dairy and grape farms. Lisa Kempisty, Extension Educator for Dairy/Livestock at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, said, “While many dairy producers are still experiencing economic challenges, they are continuing to adapt. The price they receive per hundred pounds of milk at the farm gate is less than the cost of producing that hundred pounds of milk.

We have some dairy farms exiting the dairy business due to retirement or economics, while other farms continue to grow to allow additional family members and/or employees to work in the business. Dairy producers are investing in new technologies to improve their efficiencies (such as Robotic Milking Systems and tillage options) and adding manure storage systems to better utilize the nutrients on their farm and to be environmentally responsible.”

The 2017 Agriculture Census listed “New and beginning farmers” at 517 individuals. It also stated that 96% of farms in the County are family farms. Ms. Kempisty added, “We have young people working into their family’s dairy business, through the development of partnerships and LLC’s, allowing the young people to learn labor and management skills while building ownership. Young people are interested in developing small sized livestock farms, such as beef cattle farms while they keep their off farm employment. Those with an interest to start dairy businesses are not doing so mainly because of the economics of the dairy industry at this time.”

According to Jennifer Russo, Viticulturist, from the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program (LERGP), the current Concord grape harvest is still going on. She added, “Other than the challenging windy weather, the harvest has been good. The Concords are testing at a juice soluble sugar content of 16 Brix. The Niagara grapes and other varieties are already done for the season. One farmer told me it was a fast harvest.” Grapes cover almost 17,000 acres in the County, only hay fields are more at 46,000.

Other farms in the County care for over 2,500 sheep and goats that produce wool, mohair and milk to the tune of $434,000 per year in the County. Hogs, pigs, and poultry farms are producing eggs and meat throughout the County. 54% of the sales in the County are from livestock, poultry and their products.
Buying Local

There are many small farms in the County that produce enough for themselves and to sell at a produce stand. A modern take on the produce stand is the farm that sells the produce through a subscription. As a consumer that wants local fresh produce and meat, you would purchase the subscription and receive a collection of whatever that particular farm produces. According to, “Buying local is about enjoying real food, grown yourself or purchased from people you trust. It’s about developing strong local economies and producing food on a human scale. It’s about eating seasonally, practicing the art of cooking, and sitting down to enjoy meals together. It requires ample local and regional producers, processors, and distributors. As we see it, the goal of the local food movement is to create thriving community-based food systems that will make high quality local food available to everyone.” Many of the local farms are listed on the website where one can order meats and produce.

Buying local also means shopping at the many farm markets that pop-up throughout the growing season. Every town has a weekly market for their community.

Hops and Hemp

Hops and hemp are future crops. Tim Weigle, NYSIPM Specialist and LERGP Program leader, has been in charge of the hops yard at the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory. “There are three hop farms in the County that we helped with their harvest. The harvester is a very expensive piece of machinery so we all work together to make it happen.” The hops grown at the Center are used by Ellicottville Brewery for production of one of their signature brews.
The Chautauqua County Industrial Development Association has finished the feasibility study for the Grow Chautauqua initiative. It has confirmed Chautauqua County has potential as a place to grow hops and grains. “An innovative project of this nature is quite extraordinary,” said George Borrello, Chautauqua County Executive. “The opportunity to promote Chautauqua County agriculture, support farmers across the entire region, and create a new processing facility with year-round employment focused on grain-derived products is extremely unique and is certainly worthy of pursuit. We’re thrilled with the opportunity to proceed with the study, which will inform the development of the strategic business plan and cost estimates.” The goal is to have a beverage operation up and running in the next few years using the hops grown on local farms.

Hemp production is a future crop for the County. It is being grown in Cattaraugus County, but not in Chautauqua County. The Cornell Cooperative Extension has held workshops recently to encourage the crop production. Industrial hemp has over 25,000 applications as agricultural products, textiles, fiber, construction items, and more. Recent legislation has made the production of hemp in NYS possible, and additional research and outreach is being done by Cornell University to assist producers interested in growing hemp.

Planning for the future.

The Chautauqua County Planning Department is currently starting to update the Farmland Protection Plan. Led by Melissa Keller, Planning Technician, the project will “update information on agriculture in the County and identify new challenges and solutions to protect agricultural lands and support the economic viability of agriculture and its related businesses.” If the farmers can make enough money, they will keep the land farmland.

There are many supports for farmers looking for information about managing their farms; from the governmental agencies to the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Farming is our County’s past and plays a significant part in our future.