The demise of the small dairy farm in the Hudson Valley has created opportunities for more diverse farming entities.
The learning curve for new grain farmers is a longer one than for traditional produce farmers.
Successful farmers must be hard-nosed businesspersons, cautious risk takers, and keen observers of other's mistakes.
TALKING WITH Chris Cashen of the Farm at Miller’s Crossing
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
“It’s hard to go anywhere in this county without knowing someone,” reports Chris Cashen, co-owner with his wife, Katie, of the Farm at Miller’s Crossing. Operating a successful farming business, raising a family, and enjoying the pleasures and responsibilities of community life in Columbia County, Chris reports, “makes us part of the machinery and infrastructure of this place.”
Chris grew up immersed in Columbia County’s distinctive culture—educated in his early years at the private Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School in Ghent and later attending the Taconic Hills Public Schools. Today, as he serves on the local Little League board, coaches skiing and soccer, and volunteers for several organizations including as a board member of the Columbia Land Conservancy, Chris is a discerning observer of how Columbia County is transforming in ways both concerning and exciting. “I love all of it,” he shares, “meeting great people who have been here for generations and the new people coming into the county. To find that the place you have called home all these years is suddenly a place where everyone wants to live is both terrifying and exciting.”
What’s terrifying is the pace at which former farm properties are being sold off to developers as urbanites convert farmland into weekend retreats from which they venture forth to enjoy the delights of the county’s burgeoning food and agriculture scene. At the same time, it’s indeed exciting to witness a growing cohort of pioneering farmers operating on this shrinking canvas of increasingly unaffordable farmland, pushing the boundaries of regenerative agriculture practice.
THE FARM'S EVOLUTION
The Farm at Miller’s Crossing’s growth trajectory was shaped in part by the decline of Columbia County’s dairy industry. While four family dairy farms operated within two miles of Chris’s home during his childhood years, not a single one remains in business today. “There are a few left in the county,” Chris reports, “and most of those have consolidated. They’ve either gotten bigger or gotten out. You no longer have 50 head on a farm, you have 500, 700, 800.”
For Chris and Katie the demise of the county’s small dairy farms held a silver lining, enabling them to expand their own acreage over time. “We kept saying yes to the opportunities,” Chris reports, “and bought more tractors and brought on more people and farmed more land.”
The Cashen’s continually remind themselves of their good fortune to have cut their teeth as farmers in the 1990s when public support for the local food movement was just kicking in. “We had the opportunity to learn how to grow without a ton of competition,” Chris reflects. The other critical advantage was having been born into a family that owned 180-acres of prime farmland. “Now there are people coming up from New York City and looking for a farm here, and that is a tough thing to do,” Chris shares.
Born in 1975 the youngest of 9 children, Chris was raised on the farm in Claverack his grandparents purchased in the 1940s. Returning to the county after graduating from college with degrees in political science and philosophy, he became the first generation of his family to be a practicing farmer, starting first in Chatham on the 4-acre organic vegetable garden where he and Katie first farmed together. Five years later, in 2000, the couple moved their operation to Chris’s family farm. They have been growing and diversifying their business ever since, as they raise four children with the support of Chris’s parents and five siblings who live on contiguous properties.
The Farm at Miller’s Crossing now has 12 employees, grows organic vegetables and plants, produces maple syrup, and raises a small herd of grass-fed beef on 100 acres, both leased and owned. The Cashens sell their produce through a diversity of outlets including a 700-plus member CSA, farmer’s markets, and wholesale and retail outlets throughout the greater Hudson Valley and New York City. In 2018 the Cashens also entered into a unique partnership with a group of impact investors to manage an organic grain business on property contiguous to the Farm at Miller’s Crossing. “We now have a lot of irons in the fire,” says Chris.
Chris attributes the success of The Farm at Miller’s Crossing to both hard work and a hard-nosed commitment to business planning. “We borrowed money from the bank, leveraged our assets, executed a crop plan based on business meetings, grew stuff, made money and paid our bills,” he reports. “We had to get better at it every year. We were always being conservative, planning our way through each season as best we could.”
A NEW CHAPTER WITH BREATHE DEEP FARM
Chris and Katie had been leasing 40 acres on a 420-acre former dairy farm abutting Miller’s Crossing when the owner informed them in February 2015 that he was putting the land up for sale. “The farms were then and are now being sold to the highest bidder,” Chris reports. “I knew it was probably going to get sold and chopped up into pieces and sold as houses.” Knowing time would be of the essence, Chris contacted Equity Trust, Scenic Hudson Land Trust, and the Columbia Land Conservancy (the latter holds a conservation easement on 200 acres of the Farm at Miller’s Crossing donated by Chris’s family in the early 1990’s). A conversation began with the landowner, asking if he could hang on a bit longer before putting the property on the market while an attempt could be made to find buyers who would be interested in continuing to farm the property.
He agreed, and by June of that year a group of impact investors committed to supporting regenerative agriculture in the Hudson Valley had purchased the farm and renamed it Breathe Deep. In May of 2016 Scenic Hudson and Columbia Land Conservancy secured funds from New York State to purchase a conservation easement on the Breathe Deep property. Equity Trust committed to a grant under its Hudson Valley Farm Affordability Program to purchase a permanent affordability restriction on the property on the Cashen’s portion of the farm. These mechanisms eventually enabled the Cashens to purchase a 70-acre portion of Breathe Deep from the investor/owners in December 2018, including a barn and farmland, at a price they could afford.
The Cashen’s relationship with Breathe Deep’s investors has since become an even more collaborative one. Although Breathe Deep’s small grain business was initially managed by Hudson-based Stone House Grain, the logistical challenge of moving the latter’s machinery up a six-mile stretch of busy state highway became rapidly apparent. Meanwhile Chris had been assisting Stone House in farming the Breathe Deep land. So in early 2018 Chris assumed management of Breathe Deep, creating an independent grain farm on the newly acquired land.
Chris is grateful to be partnering with investors with the resources to start up a new grain business, and is quickly settling into what he calls “a reality-based approach.” As Chris and Kasper Meier (the son of Hawthorne Valley Farm’s first biodynamic farmer), head into their second season with Breathe Deep, Chris reports, “we are trying to make it something that is economically sustainable, that can be used as a model for other organic and BioDynamic grain businesses in the region.”
Working with deeply regenerative-purposed investors who have relatively little farming experience has required a high degree of trust and transparency on both sides. “Kasper and I are doing the work and at the same time we are aware of our investors’ loftier goals.” Chris shares. “Their intellectual vision is more esoteric and broader, with a lot of different aspects in the food system. It is in some ways distinct from the business capital and farming aspect of what we are doing. My job has been to guide them in what the practical baseline of what a farm has to be. So that puts me a little bit in both worlds.”
While the regenerative vision for Breathe Deep is unique and not always easy to articulate, Chris believes that by virtue of living in his community and growing a business that supports the local economy he has become an agent for fulfilling his investors’ mission.
And while he admits the Breathe Deep business model is not necessarily replicable—“You can’t say to a young person, ‘find a group of impact investors and start farming,'”— he believes the farm is blazing a trail for other new grain farmers in the region. “We will over time have the legitimacy and lessons to share with the community, about this type of dryer, this kind of combine, this kind of tractor, these markets.” Chris asserts. “Maybe in two or three years, we can bring aspiring grain farmers up here and show them our methods.”
At the moment Breathe Deep has access to a reliable market to sell its grain for feed and seed and is looking to sell to the barley malting market, which offers better returns and a chance for people to engage directly with the grain business. "If we can grow good barley and we can sell it to craft breweries and they can advertise that all the grains in their beer are grown in the Hudson Valley, and they are grown organically and Biodynamically, I think that is a worthy pursuit that I can hang my hat on as a business plan into the future.”
Breathe Deep is not yet ready to market its grain to regional bakers. “You can’t just grow wheat for bread unless you know what you are doing,” Chris says. “You can bring turnips to market in 30 days but wheat is a big deal, it takes six months to grow. You only get one crop a year and a million things can go wrong with it. There are molds and toxins associated with growing the grains we need to grow in the Northeast and with our climate it is very challenging. We still have a lot of homework to do!”
The Cashen’s now hope to begin to focus inward rather than expanding into more acreage. Their goals are to perfect their Biodynamic practice on the Farm at Miller’s Crossing and with the Breathe Deep grain business. Chris reports: “We have taken the bite we need to take and now we want to settle in.”