Ballston Spa: More people find a niche in small farming

BALLSTON SPA A growing number of middle-age people and seniors are putting vacant property to use, with start-up farms, raising everything from organic vegetables to grass-fed beef.

More than a dozen agricultural entrepreneurs from four counties turned out recently for a “Small Beginning Farmer Funding and Loan Seminar” hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Officials from private and government agencies identified various funding sources and told farmers how to access them and other business services such as record keeping, tax preparation and payroll processing.

“You don’t need a ton of acreage,” said Kirk Shoen, a Rensselaer County extension agent. “Instead of just growing your own food you can make a business out of it, generate income and qualify for agricultural assessment tax breaks. Plus, a lot of people just like the lifestyle. It can be a good second career.”

Young people might have more energy, but slightly older residents usually have more business experience and savvy, which they can apply to fledgling farm operations.

“We do these classes to teach people how to market and sell products, how to find a niche,” Shoen said. “There are lots of growers out there. How are you going to be different?”

Encouraging agricultural ventures helps preserve and protect farmland, too, said Jennifer Stevens, a Saratoga County extension agent.

“Every agency has something for beginning farmers,” she said.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) has a new microloan program designed specifically for new operations. Loans of up to $35,000 are available for operational expenses such as feed, fertilizer, livestock purchases, tools and irrigation.

Applicants only have to provide limited financial background information. The approval process is shorter and involves less paperwork than larger loans.

FSA even has a Youth Loan program for aspiring 10- to 20-year-old farmers. Loans up to $5,000 are available to help modest, income-generating projects get off the ground that can give young people invaluable experience.

Herb and Robin Borchers, of Petersburgh, moved from rural Alvord, Texas, to Rensselaer County three years ago. They have 26 head of grass-fed beef cattle and plan to diversify with turkeys, pork and a limited number of dairy cows.

In Texas, they raised hay for the Lone Star State’s huge horse population, so they aren’t newcomers to farming.

However, at 62 and 57, respectively, they’re expanding a business at an age when many people are thinking about retirement.

This week’s class gave them insight they might not have considered otherwise.

“We go to a lot of Cooperative Extension programs, as much as possible,” said Robin Borchers, an East Greenbush native.

“It’s a perfect time of year because we’re done cutting hay,” Herb said.

The couple moved North to be closer to her side of the family, which suits him just fine.

Texas had so much drought the past couple of years that their hay quality suffered and they had to buy some from other sources in bulk, before selling it again.

“I love it here,” Herb said, smiling. “It rains.”