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Federal grant will provide training to small St. Lawrence County farms

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The North Country Grown Co-op once has again received a sizable federal grant, which will be used to help small St. Lawrence County farms learn to grow more to turn a bigger profit.

The $109,552 grant comes from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to help farmers in disadvantaged areas get ahead.

The North Country Grown Co-op represents 19 St. Lawrence County farms, mostly small family operations.

This is the third year the co-op has received the grant, which is used primarily for technical assistance and training.

This year the co-op will use the money to face its biggest challenge: production.

“Our biggest problem is having enough product to sell to our customers,” said Susan J. Rau, manager of the North Country Grown Co-op. For example, she said, this year has been terrible for tomatoes. The co-op just received four cases from its growers, but it could easily sell 20.

Most of the growers in the co-op are small farms, and even their combined efforts are not enough to meet demand. Their biggest customers are St. Lawrence County’s four colleges, but growing enough produce to keep them in supply has been difficult.

The co-op will hold workshops and make follow-up visits to farms to help growers learn more about using greenhouses to extend the limited growing season, starting crops earlier or extending them past the end of the season.

Other workshops will take a look at irrigation techniques to help farmers combat droughts like the one that struck the area last summer.

“With climate change, things are going to be getting less and less regular and more and more extreme, so we have to be ready for that,” Ms. Rau said.

These classes will teach the basic skills, and the farm visits will help growers implement them. “It’s not just a workshop and then it goes away. It’s a workshop with follow-up,” Ms. Rau said.

Some of the grant money will be used to perform a feasibility study on creating decentralized food hubs. Some of the co-op’s farmers are Amish, and have trouble getting their crops to the main warehouse.

“They can’t always find a neighbor to bring everything in, and it has to be consistent and reliable,” Ms. Rau said.

A few remote drop-off locations could help the co-op’s partners and enable more farmers to join the group.

The co-op also will look into the possibility of local farmers pooling and sharing equipment. Some crops are very difficult to care for or harvest without the right machinery, but many St. Lawrence County farms are too small to afford all the equipment they could want. “Our friends are small family farms in a real sense of the word,” Ms. Rau said.

Creating an equipment-sharing program could allow more farms to grow more crops and a wider variety, she said.

Finally, the co-op will institute job training, teaching area workers how to work on area farms. Many farms could use some extra help, but untrained workers lack needed skills, Ms. Rau said. The training could help farms while providing employment for St. Lawrence County residents.

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