30 minutes south of Syracuse lies the town of LaFayette, home to Beak and Skiff Apple Orchards, a fifth generation orchard that has remained viable for over a century. What started as a partnership in capitalizing on the emerging apple business has turned into “Upstate New York’s Premier Apple Orchard” offering everything from apple picking experiences to their branded 1911 ciders and spirits. Beak and Skiff’s history in relation to the shifting apple production in New York can actually tell us quite a lot about New York’s general agricultural trends. Attributing their success to both quality and innovation, there is a lot more to the orchard’s business strategy than simply growing apples, particularly in a declining industry. Despite continually ranking as the nation’s second largest apple producer, “for many farmers it is becoming less cost-effective to grow apples” in New York, Central New York in particular. In the past, production lead to prosperity. As we have entered the modern era of farming, that simple equation has become more and more antiquated.
“Our success is driven by 2 key factors, quality and innovation…If you read through our history you’ll see we began as a wholesale apple orchard and over the years,and generations, continued to add to our business.”
-Danielle of Beak and Skiff Apple Orchard
New York has always had a significant agriculture industry, important for both the state itself and the nation (agriculture to this day is still New York’s largest industry), but national trends towards farm consolidation have hit the industry hard. As one of the most fertile and agriculturally concentrated areas in the Northeast, Central New York has experienced difficulties as the amount of farms began to decrease significantly between the 1950s and 1970s. Local newspaper articles from the time period paint a picture of farmer protests, unemployment, plummeting dairy prices and a general disappearance of the quintessential American family farm. These trends were due in large part to the increasing competition from the global market as well as increased specialization and the dropping of government-set prices. While it is clear that this consolidation has made the remaining farms more efficient producers, the prominence of regional produce has nevertheless declined.
As farms have grown in size, so has the disconnect between regional producers and consumers.
Despite the broad trend towards a more commoditized farm industry, there is also a recent history of local organic production in Central New York. As early as 1994, the nationwide market for organic products was $2.8 billion, and CSAs like Grindstone farms have been around for decades. CSAs and alternative food networks have only somewhat recently received national attention, but they are an important piece in understanding historical agricultural trends, and a topic that we will approach with more depth in our analysis of current production.
Whether you’re looking at apples, dairy, or any of the other products that Central New York is known for, it is clear that the agricultural landscape of the region has changed dramatically in the last half century alone. The devaluing of the traditional farm of yesteryear has greatly impacted our current realities, with massive industrial farms and small scale, alternative farms becoming increasingly prominent parts of the narrative. It is clear that the dominant forces have been taking agriculture in a direction away from the importance of regional producers, and as we look at the present we must find a way to properly analyze and reintegrate the benefits of regional production, to bridge the gap that has formed between regional producers and regional population.