Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
Sandy and Mary Ellen Gordon were early entries into pasture-raised beef farming, in1986.
A Conversation with
“There are three ways to get into farming,” quips Sandy Gordon, quoting James Herriot’s twist on an old adage: “through the womb, the tomb, or as a groom.” For Sandy it was by way of the womb, on a 780-acre, diversified farm in New York’s Schoharie County, where his parents managed a 400-acre timber forest and raised Dorset ewes and dairy cows. His mother, a Cornell University graduate, also bred German shorthaired pointers—among them the 1956 Pan American champion featured on the cover of Dog World magazine that year—and Morgan Stallions, a pair of which marched with the New York State police in President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade in 1977.
Growing up on a pristine mountaintop farm, Sandy was born into a love of the land. On the first Earth Day in 1970, he and a few high school classmates founded the Protect Your Environment Club. He left home shortly thereafter, in 1972, with the intention never to return to the family farm. Instead, he started up a business buying, selling and transporting hay throughout the Mid-Atlantic while studying at SUNY College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill. In 1982 he earned his undergraduate degree in public affairs from SUNY Albany.
Sandy and Mary Ellen were working partners on their farm in northwest Albany County.
As life sometimes has a way of returning us to our roots, Sandy found himself returning to the land in 1983 when he and his wife, Mary Ellen, bought a 30-acre hay farm in northwest Albany County in the town of Knox. Soon thereafter Sandy began reading about the health benefits of pasture-raised beef and, betting they could get ahead of a trend, he and Mary Ellen purchased 6 brood cows in 1986 and converted a portion of the farm’s least productive hay fields to pasture. Both knew they were taking a risk by moving into the pasture-raised beef business before the market was demanding the product, but, Sandy reports, “My wife had a master's degree in accounting, and we were really very careful to think through the numbers.”
To manage the transition, they sold the hay trucking business in 1995, and both took off-farm employment to have the wherewithal to buy more cows while they converted more hay fields to grazing. (In 2010, at its peak, the herd numbered 128 after calving.) In 2006, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, touting the health and environmental benefits of pastured versus Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFO)-raised beef, became a national bestseller. By 2012 Gordon Farms was enjoying sufficient demand to establish the first meat CSA in the State of New York, with the help of daughter Sarah. “It was the smartest thing we ever did,” Sandy recalls. “Grass-fed beef was just breaking out of the rest of the market and there was no shortage of young families looking for healthy food. So we were in a sweet spot. Our goal was to provide healthy food to young families at an affordable price and in a quantity that didn’t require the purchase of a large freezer.”
How Climate Change Showed Up on Gordon Farms
Sandy has attempted to live his life and make his living in right relationship to the natural world. Barns he built on his farm were constructed with south facing rooflines for future solar application, and in 2009 a geothermal system was installed on Gordon Farms, heating 100 percent of the farm’s water without added energy.
Sandy reports that the impacts of changing weather patterns on farmland in the region were not noticeably discernible until the early 2000s. Beginning in those years, however, his neighbors were no longer able to ignore the ravages of flooding and soil erosion on their land, the result of extended periods of drought followed by severe storms. Gordon Farms, having by that time converted much of its acreage to year-round pasture, proved more resilient than most to these weather events. “The erosion piece really fell into the column of something avoidable with a grass-based farm,” Sandy reports, “You're not leaving those soils open, you are not doing tillage that tears up the soil structures and releasing the soil's bound carbon. At the same time you're developing a healthier microbial base.”
Although Gordon Farms pastures were natural soil-erosion mitigators, other aspects of the farm’s operations were not immune to climate change impacts. Sandy reports that as frost dates became more and more unpredictable due to changes in Jet Stream patterns—a phenomenon he calls “the fourth quarter winter”— he began delaying calving from March to April. With snow now a common occurrence as late as Mother’s Day, he reports, more local beef farmers are contemplating an even later start date for calving, which means they will run into fly season and its attendant risks. “When calves are born their navels are wet,” Sandy reports. “Flies can get on them so quickly and then you get maggots.”
Sandy Gordon with the pumpkin the farm acutioned off to benefit victims of Hurricane Irene.
Seeking Help From Technical Experts PAYS OFF
Sandy encourages young farmers to reach out to technical service providers for guidance: “There are good resources out there to help you,” he advises. “You can't be afraid to use them.” In 2012 Sandy worked with Elizabeth Marks, then with the Mohawk Hudson Resource Conservation and Development Council and now an NRCS biologist, on a comprehensive nutrient management plan for the farm. “She is one of the best and really knows her stuff,” Sandy reports.
In 2014 he then worked with Mick Bessire, a veteran Greene County Cooperative Extension agent, on a holistic grazing plan for Gordon Farms. “He was an old hand,” he recalls. “He could feel your microbial action in the soil by how the grounds were spongy underneath you. I learned lots of tricks from him, like how to figure out where I had compaction and how to address it.”
After implementing his grazing plan Sandy continued reducing his cattle’s annual days on feed to an average of 85 to100, and increased grazing days to 260 to 280. “I did what I call grass banking,” he explains. “These were places where I wouldn't do a second cutting of hay, and that preserved a large grazing resource for winter feed. I was moving the cattle around a lot on a trailer, from pasture to pasture.”
West Wind Acres Farm, formerly Gordon Farms. Photo credit West Wind Acres Farm.
As the wear and tear on his body after decades of hard physical labor began to take its toll, and honoring a promise he made to his wife before her death in 2007, Sandy accelerated plans to transition his farm to new ownership in 2017. “My wife didn't want me to die an angry old farmer,” he says. “She was scared by what she saw in my dad, who didn't have a farm succession plan. If somebody didn't show up on a hay-baling day, he was a cranky guy. She didn’t want that for me.”
Earlier, in 2012, in preparation for putting his farm on the market, Sandy had obtained organic certification for 306 acres of land—a combination of property he owned and leased. “I thought as long as you walk the walk, you might as well talk the talk,” he shares. “I thought it would add value to the farm, but more importantly it would differentiate the farm from the bulk of conventional farms that were under pressure to sell.”
He was one of the first farmers to post a profile on the new Hudson Valley Farm Finder Farmlink website, an American Farmland Trust project that connects new farmers with retiring landowners. “I advertised it as a Hudson Valley organic farm,” he reflects, “But I was more active than that. Every time somebody signed up as looking for a farm of over a hundred acres with fencing and water for livestock, I would send them an email. That was pretty effective and it brought me quite a few people. But then I had to figure out who was a dreamer and who was serious.”
He had also listed his farm on Craig's list, thinking that there might be farmers in West Texas or Wyoming who would want to reduce their herd to their best breeding stock and come East in search of better water resources when the Federal government declared drought areas out West. Instead he was getting responses from "investors" as far-flung as London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Miami Dade, Boston, DC, and San Francisco. In those speculators he was not interested; he wanted to sell to a serious farmer.
It didn’t take long after they met for Sandy to decide that Josh Rockwood was the match he was looking for. “He knew how to sell his products, and he knew how to handle animals,” Sandy reports. “He had a young family, and to see another young family have the kind of positive experience our family enjoyed with the farm was important to me. We walked out to look at the cows and I saw that Josh knew how to step over an electric fence. He walked in to my pasture and my cows started sniffing him. The first thing he said was, ‘I like your cows.’ He had a whole bunch of boxes checked from the start.”
The Local Farms Fund purchased 103 acres including a house and 3 barns from Sandy Gordon and leased it to Josh Rockwood's West Wind Acres Farm with an option to purchase at a future date. Photo credit: West Wind Acres Farm.
Josh brought in the Local Farms Fund to help him close the deal. The Fund represents a group of impact investors who purchase Hudson Valley organic farms under threat of development with the goal of transitioning ownership to new farmers. The Fund purchased 103 acres including a house and 3 barns from Sandy and leased it back to Josh with an option to purchase at a future date. Sandy in turn issued a promissory note on the cattle and machinery to Josh, at the expiration of which Josh will own these assets outright.
Although Sandy has officially transitioned ownership of what is now West Wind Acres Farm, he continues to make himself available for advice and consultation to Josh when called upon. As a labor of love, he is also rebuilding an old barn on 88 acres of the farm property he retained. “It is tough when you’ve had a lifetime of work —12 plus hours a day – and then you don't have it anymore,” he shares. “I find a good balance is working, four or five days a week, five or six hours a day. It keeps me physically active and, I hope, mentally active too.”
Fixing the Regional Food System: Sandy’s Got a Plan for That
With a lifetime farming under his belt and 16 years as an Albany County legislator who helped enact the county’s Right to Farm bill, Sandy has not given up on advocating for food and farming policies that will sustain the next generation of farmers.
Those farmers, he maintains, face a formidable Catch-22: “Climate change is going to be the biggest dynamic they will have to coexist with,” he says, but, if nothing is done to reverse a troubling trend, farmland will continue to be priced out of the reach of those young farmers who are our best hope for addressing the climate change crisis in agriculture. “It's all about resource management,” he asserts, “and access to capital is the resource that is missing. Until we cure our cheap food policies and put a value on what it truly costs to produce healthy food, we're not going to solve that problem because agriculture as an industry will not be able to compete for financial capital with residential and commercial development.”
Meanwhile, Sandy applauds investor groups like the Local Farms Fund who are willing to take a financial haircut to achieve broader social goals. He continues to advocate strongly for increased government funding for conservation easements, and in particular, for mechanisms that enable the related monetary awards to flow directly to farmers. “In the instance of a new farm purchase,” he elaborates, “there should be a way for the inbound farmer to be granted the easement in cash and it should be brought to the closing." New farmers are often severely cash strapped when they take over a farm, and, he warns: “With the median age of current farmers averaging 58, we need to get in front of this land access crisis.”
Sandy also has a novel plan for channeling private funds to make farmland accessible: “Apple has $200 billion cash offshore,” he reflects. “Why not incentivize them to bring that money back? Let them take, say, half of it tax free and the other half put it out to small farms as low interest mortgages.” Imagine, he says, if every large corporation were given that incentive to repatriate their offshore cash.
Sandy is now actively advocating for another way to activate underutilized assets for the greater good of the regional food system: “The bottleneck for local farmers, particularly organic, direct market farmers, is that everything comes to market at the same time,” he explains. “The fresh market can only absorb so much during that window of time. What I would love to see is a canvass, community by community, of all of the kitchens that already are licensed to process food under New York State Ag and Markets regulations. You could start with the schools, where food service employees contractually have two months off in the summer.” Those workers, he maintains, could work under the provisions of renegotiated union contracts to process foods in school kitchens during the summer and store it in available coolers in schools and other community locations. “These are all assets owned by taxpayers that are underutilized,” he asserts. The strategy could address the constraints of the seasonality of fresh food, provide healthy food to school children year round, and provide additional income and jobs for food service workers while sustaining local farms and farmers.
It didn’t take long for Sandy Gordon (above right) o decide that Josh Rockwood (above left) of West Wind Acres Farm was the match he was looking for. “He knew how to sell his products, and he knew how to handle animals,” Sandy reports.
Sandy explains that through the years they were raising their children, he and Mary Ellen made a conscious effort to impart their values to their daughters. Both were given cows to raise as part of a secondary education in animal welfare and business. “It gave them a really great grounding for their careers and a strong work ethic, even though they both ended up with off farm careers,” Sandy says.
Like Larry Tse of Dig Farms, Sandy would love to see more opportunities for farmers to share their collective wisdom across the generations, beyond their immediate families. “Whatever our age or experience,” he notes, “we all wake up and face the same weather and we all have the same problems when we have a sick animal. We can learn things from the next generation of farmers and they can learn things from us. And sometimes it's okay to say, ‘okay, boomer,’ because sometimes our ideas are passé. If as an older farmer you can't get over that, I don't know how you got to the age you are. I have a lot of faith in these kids. Some of these young folks are just unbelievable in how together they are, and how committed they are to fulfilling their vision.”