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Family Farms of the Hudson Valley

Who's raising the next generation of farmers?

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Almost all families struggle to find the right balance between work, school, and home life. For those who grew up on family farms however, that balance was never considered.

“We didn’t think about work-life balance growing up,” laughed Gail Hepworth of Hepworth Farms in Milton.  “It was just what we did. We would come home from school and would work. Farm life and work life were the same thing, 24 hours a day.”

Hepworth Farms, established in 1818, is a seventh-generation farm run by Gail and her twin sister Amy. They are two of five siblings who grew up on the farm. Amy and Gail remember their childhood as being happy, free – and busy. Gail said she wouldn’t trade that childhood for all the high school football games she missed because she was doing chores. Even though their childhood chores were more grueling than those of their classmates.                                                                                


hudson valley farms, family farms, hudson valley family farms, upstate new york farms, farms in upstate new york“Farm life is all-consuming,” she said. “During harvest season, it’s 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week. That goes on for six to eight weeks. Then it’s 15 hours a day maybe six months a year. Winter hours are decent!”

Amy and Gail may have taken over the family business, but many children who grow up on farms in the Hudson Valley do not. The current average age of a farmer is 55 years old: The exact age that Amy and Gail are now.

So how are family farms in the Hudson Valley dealing with the economic pressure and brutal schedule that comes with farming in addition to the difficulties of child-rearing? Will they be able to justify a future in farming to their children? And if not, when our own children are grown, will they still be able to enjoy farm fresh local food? Will there be any family farms left for them to support?



An uncertain future

On paper, farms in New York appear to be flourishing.  Agriculture poured $37.6 billion into New York State’s economy in 2012, up 22% from 2007, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a report released earlier this year.

But dig a little deeper and the picture becomes less rosy. More than half of the state’s farms had sales below $10,000. Between the economics of farming and the unforgiving schedule, it's no wonder the profession can seem unappealing to teenagers who are intimately familiar with its hardships.

While all of the Hepworth children were expected and encouraged to join in the farm activity, none were groomed to take over, Gail explains. Yet Amy chose to attend Cornell to study agriculture like her father, grandfathers and uncles. Gail left the farm to become a biomedical engineer, but came back six years ago to help Amy grow the business. The next generation of Hepworths show no interest in joining the family business.


“My mom’s philosophy, and my own philosophy with my daughter, is that you encourage your children to pursue their interests and passions, whatever that may be,” Gail said. “My daughter is the only member of the eighth generation who was raised on the farm. She’s currently pursuing her PhD and has not expressed an interest in taking over the farm. And we’re ok with that.”


While their direct nuclear family isn’t poised to pick up the hoe, the Hepworths maintain that their entire philosophy and paradigm has been shaped with families in mind.


“When Amy took over, she made it her life mission to do everything she could to return the mid-Hudson Valley back to the agricultural mecca it was a century ago,” Gail says. “We lost our footing as a culture and started using too many chemicals, which is bad for children and the earth. We are building our farm back up to its full potential, increasing acreage every year.”


Gail says that she and Amy plan to be farming for “the next 20 years at least.” She admits that not having a Hepworth in line to inherit it has required some careful thinking and planning to ensure a sustainable future for the farm and the employees who depend on it.


“We want to do the right thing for the farm, the earth and our workers,” Gail says. “We haven’t figured out all of the details yet, but the people we’ve been working alongside for years, and who have become extensions of our family, will continue to be able to do what they do.”