Once I Built A Railroad (And The Family Farm) - Catskills Dairy Farms Dying In The Depression
08/31/2010 - 06:06
Jonathan Mark

As another summer comes to an end, what is also coming to an end is dairy farming in the Catskills. There was once a time when a trip on Route 17 was one in which the mom or dad would tell the city child, "Look at the cows!" Those days are almost over, killed by a combination of thoughtless legislation, poor regional leadership, and economic deflation that has forced one farmer after another in the region to sell the family farm, or relocate.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is the first New Yorker on the Senate's agriculture committee in four decades, but she's hardly done for New York what recently departed senators, such as Robert Byrd and Ted Stevens, were able to do for West Virginia and Alaska.

Any drive through Monticello reveals the sad truth that this hollow-cheeked part of America saw next to nothing from the stimulus bill or the agricultural supports from Congress that stronger representatives in Washington could have brought home. It is almost useless to add that our leaders in Albany have not done what they could have done, either.

That's OK, nearly $6 million in Obama's stimulus funds went to Hillary Clinton's pollsters. A grand total of three jobs were saved by that stimulus grant of $5.97 million. Do you think Hillary's rich friends needed those millions as much as did the stalled economy of the Catskills? If you want to know why so many Americans are turning to the economic protests of the Tea Party, and losing faith in the Obama administration, we can start right there. There are people in serious economic crisis who deserve sympathy and a real stimulus, not partisan scolding.

Once gone, the family farms will not return. And gone will be a sense of a drive on Route 17 being a time to heal and feel -- within an hour -- that we were "going to the country," not just driving or flying to another suburb. It was that sense of being in the "country" that was as much a part of our vacations as the Jewish hotels and everything else associated with the Catskills, a sense of "country" that other resorts and slick getaways never could match.

One suggestion for the farmers? Open up rooms as bed-and-breakfasts and build relatively cheap bungalows, along with a few Adirondack chairs, on open land for visitors from the city. This would be particularly successful in Orange County because it is only an hour's drive from Manhattan, an hour closer than County Sullivan, and that hour makes a big difference when commuting on Fridays -- or on weekdays. As the farms are disappeaing there is only one bungalow colony -- Rosmarins Cottages -- remaining in Orange County. There's room for more.

It was an earlier generation of Catskill farmers, in economic hard times, whose boarding rooms evolved into the hotels and bungalows of the boom years. This, of course, would need some government assistance -- primarily the passive assistance of not overly regulating  -- instead of what is happening now, when some localities, in a nanny-like effort to make sure everyone lives as politicians want you to live (and with what smells like an effort to get rid of the Jewish vacationers), have proposed or passed laws demanding that all housing must be weatherized for year-round living, a death sentence for the humble wooden cabins and unheated bungalows suitable only for July and August that worked perfectly fine for hundreds of thousands of summer folk, while  providing a nice extra income for the farmer.  

The economy of the Catskills is in tatters, particularly in Sullivan. Big business, offices and industry are not moving in. The gambling casinos aren't coming. The grand hotels have never been rebuilt and no one has the guts of simplicity to build simple, not so grand hotels. (For the appeal of the simple Catskills life as opposed to the grand hotels, read these pieces by Lenore Skenazy and Shira Dicker.) The land has proven suitable for not much else but bungalows, conversation, falling in love (with everything) and dairy farms. There were hundreds of farms here not so long ago.  

The fight to save the dairy farms is in the bottom of the ninth. Look at the scoreboard. (The numbers are from the Times Herald-Record, a terrific upstate paper out of Middletown.)

Number of dairy farms by county

Year         Orange   Sullivan   Ulster
1987         166          115          24
1993         130            74          16
2000         102            50            8
2007           57            36            5
2010           41            n/a           3

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to make the Upstate Farms work again, NY State needs to kick most of the slackers off welfare, and send them to farms to work. that would make the farms economic again. Also welfare and entitlement programs should mean one is entitled to be a servant or nanny or fruit picker to work for money, and not entitled to pop out welfare kids and get $60,000 a year of freebies as most welfare laz-a-bout mommas get (between value of Medicaid, Sect. VIII Housing Vouchers...etc.)

"Stronger representatives in Washington" - in actuality -- translates to representatives who have served for a long time. Seniority is the thing that enables our representatives to bring home the bacon. It is -- therefore -- ridiculous, unreasonable and unfair to compare the accomplishments of Gillibrand, who has served for less than two years, with those of Byrd and Stevens, who served for decades.
OK, let's expand the net to include Sen. Chuck Schumer, elected in 1998, and our previous senator, Hillary. What have they done while the dairy farms have been closing by the dozens? What have they done for the Catskills? Where is the stimulus showing itself in severely depressed Sullivan County? They sure came through for Hillary's buddies in Mark Penn's office. We have two Democrat senators and numerous Democrat congressmen from New York, and what have they done for the upstate farmer or to bring home some of the stimulus? I singled out Gillibrand because she sits with the majority on the agriculture committee. If she can't get it done there and come through for the farmer now, she never will. Byrd and Stevens, and other senators of stature, were already far more of a presence in the senate after two years than Gillibrand is, and to suggest that her lack of seniority is her only deficit is just silly. Why do I have a hunch that she won't turn out to be Daniel Webster or Pat  Moynihan? Two years will soon be one-third of Gillibrand's term, and one-half of Obama's term. John F. Kennedy's entire time in the White House was just slightly more than that. Franklin Roosevelt was making history after 100 days. At what point, after how many years, can we start discussing the economic facts on the ground in New York State and what our senators and politicians have done about it? You seem to have more sympathy for the senator than you do for the farmers who are going out of business and the farmland that is disappearing.   . 
People who refer to the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Party" reveal their deeply ingrained prejudices and are therefore not capable of carrying on a reasonable discussion. Readers who want to know what Gillibrand -- who is New York's first Senator to sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee in forty years -- has done for our farmers can simply Google "Gillibrand" and "farmers." Again, to compare her tenure with FDR's first hundred days is a nonsense. You are becoming more and more absurd.

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