A man working in a greenhouse

Cornell-Based Program Cultivates Stability for NY’s Farming Families

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This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Susan Kelley

In 2004, Fred Lee saw no other option but to sell off half his farm equipment—trucks, pipe, tractors, cultivators—an event that usually signals a farm is about to collapse. “Most farms, when they experience an auction, it means the end of the business,” says Lee.

He and his then-wife couldn’t afford the lease payments for most of the 142 acres of land they farmed in Peconic, Long Island, where they grew Chinese cabbage, bok choi, and other Asian vegetables wholesale for NYC restaurants. At the same time, fierce competition had tanked their markets.

“I was really sort of at wit’s end,” says Lee, who grew up working on the family farm with his father and uncles, leveraging Long Island’s famous loamy soil and temperate climate. “I had to figure out, with what we had left, was it enough to keep going?”

He called New York FarmNet. The free, confidential Cornell program provides farmers with two consultants—one specializing in ag finances, the other in the social and emotional dynamics of running a family farm. Cornell is the only land-grant university in the U.S. to offer the service.

The FarmNet consultants visited the farm, listened to the Lees, brainstormed solutions, and suggested a plan of action.

“It was very instrumental,” Lee says. “They said, ‘You need X amount to really cover your expenses and move forward.’ And so I focused on that number.”

The Lees pivoted. They began selling directly to local customers by starting up a CSA (community supported agriculture), an unusual model at the time. “While we didn’t earn exactly the number that they had suggested,” Lee says, “it was the beginning of opening the door to see the light at the end of the hallway.”

Lee is one of the thousands of farmers across New York State who have relied on FarmNet for help with everything from financial analysis to anxiety and depression.

It’s important to support farmers because they play a crucial role in the state culture and economy, says Greg Mruk, executive director and a former financial consultant for the organization. “New York is an incredibly rural state, which surprises a lot of people. And a lot of that rural culture centers around the farm, and the family farm,” he says.

New York State is home to nearly 33,500 family farms, which make important economic contributions.

In 2021, New York agriculture overall produced roughly $3.3 billion in gross domestic product and paid close to $1 billion in wages, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the job comes with stress, from financial pressures outside families’ control like the high land values the Lees experienced, to the emotional complications of a multigenerational business.

A map showing farmland as a percentage of land by county in NY state

For some, the stress can become untenable. Male farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers in the U.S. have a significantly higher rate of suicide deaths—43.2 per 100,000—compared to the average across all other occupations of 27.4 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rising interest rates are the main financial concern facing New York farmers, says Wayne Knoblauch, faculty director of FarmNet and professor in the Dyson School.

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“That’s one of the current issues, helping individuals who are either applying for new loans or having adjustable-rate mortgages, getting lines of credit to buy feed, seed, fertilizer,” says Knoblauch, who is also a farmer.

New York is an incredibly rural state, which surprises a lot of people.

Greg Mruk, NY FarmNet executive director

High interest rates were one of the factors that prompted Cornell to found FarmNet in 1986. During the 1980s farm crisis, milk prices dropped precipitously due to low grain prices, leaving New York dairy farmers struggling to pay their mortgages and creditors.

“Interest rates were rising, energy costs were rising, commodity prices were falling. And the underlying asset values were also falling,” Knoblauch says. “That combination of factors put a tremendous financial strain on the rural economy.”

CALS and Cornell Cooperative Extension charged a faculty committee with determining Cornell’s response. “Our thought was that we needed a program beyond what the normal Cornell and cooperative extension programs could offer,” he says.

CALS authorized funds to start the program, which is now housed and operated at Dyson and is funded primarily by Cornell and the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets and Office of Mental Health.

Faculty members continue to play a key role: they educate FarmNet’s 50 consultants, who are often farmers themselves and have deep ties to the ag community, three times per year on current ag-related topics.

“That has been critical,” Knoblauch says.

Almost 20 years after Lee first sought help from FarmNet, Sang Lee Farms is thriving.

An overhead view of farm buildings and fields.
A bird’s-eye view of Sang Lee Farms on the North Fork of Long Island.

Lee and his family now grow more than 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on about 100 acres, specializing in heirloom tomatoes, and orange and yellow seedless watermelons. They sell their harvest at their retail store, at two farmers markets, and to 650 CSA members from Southampton to Queens.

They also make value-added products, like orange rosemary scones, and run workshops for children and home gardeners. The farm employs nearly 50 people each summer, 20 in the winter.

In 2019, 15 years after they nearly auctioned off their equipment, the Lees were named Farmers of the Year by the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

“FarmNet to me has almost been like a fairy godmother sitting over my shoulder,” says Lee, who has turned to FarmNet several times in his career. “I wish I didn’t have to call on them for the time periods that I did. It was at very tough junctures in my life. … I was grateful that FarmNet was there to rely on and to look to for help.”

FarmNet has helped the Lees navigate both emotional and financial obstacles, says Fred’s son Will Lee, who helps run the farm as a part owner.

“Having FarmNet as an adviser has given my father the capability to feel secure and sound in the decisions that he’s making,” Will Lee says. “FarmNet was there for him when he needed it the most.”

Top: Will Lee checks on lacinto kale at Sang Lee Farms. Images by Ryan Young, video by Noël Heaney, infographic by Caitlin Cook (all / Cornell University).

Published June 23, 2023

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