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  • Writer's pictureIthaca Heritage

Agriculture in Tompkins County – Evolving with the Times

By Monika Roth, Agriculture Extension Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County


Farming has always been a major land use in our county, starting with the Haudenosaunee. After the Revolutionary War, when non-native settlers moved in, the landscape changed dramatically as land was cleared--trees were used for construction, often sent to cities, and open land was planted to crops. In 1875, 297,376 acres out of 314,240 total acres in our county were farmed! At that time, farms were small and spread throughout the landscape. Most had diverse operations, with a few cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and horses and with crops raised to feed the livestock and the people.

Over time, people left the agrarian lifestyle, as opportunities for employment in factories and cities arose, contributing to a steady loss of farms, especially from hilly, less productive sites. In 1875, there were 3,392 farms, and by 1945, the number had been cut in half. Loss of farms was further accelerated after World War II as production efficiency improved (bigger machinery) and highways opened up the flow of food from the West.

In the early days, agriculture was ALL LOCAL: diverse farms raised a variety of products for their families and for sale in their community. By the 1950s, farms had become bigger and more specialized. Retailers began buying products from distant sources at lower prices, squeezing out local farmers. Production for export markets became the push in the 1970s as U.S. farmers were urged to feed the world.

While there are fewer farms, the amount of acreage in farming in our county has not changed as drastically. Today about 1/3 of the county land area is still owned or operated by farms. Agriculture is still a significant land use.

Currently we have about 100 full-time farms and about 450 small part-time farms. Small, diverse farms are making a comeback. Tompkins County is home to a robust local foods movement that started in 1973 with the creation of the Ithaca Farmers’ Market. Since the 1990s, it was kicked up a notch, with the advent of CSAs--Community Supported Agriculture farms, where you buy your produce at the outset of the season and get a weekly harvest share. Now, farm-to-consumer direct marketing is widespread; there are more than 400 direct-market farms in a 30-mile radius of Ithaca. And you can buy most any product year round.

Agriculture has come full circle, to include a healthy mix of small, diverse direct-market farms, along with medium-sized farms that use land for dairy production that is exported to regional milk processing plants. This mix contributes to a healthy agricultural economy in which farmers maintain land in active agricultural production, create jobs on farms, and pay local taxes, and loyal local food shoppers help small farms thrive.

Enjoy visiting Tompkins County farms and hearing about their stories during Ithaca Heritage’s Authentically Rural Weekend, October 5-7, 2018. On Saturday, October 6, explore working farms in Freeville during the Authentically Rural Farm & Village guided bus tour (9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.; $35) and learn the story of a heritage homestead during the Tompkins County Rural Heritage guided bus tour (1:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.; $35). Stroll the grounds of Maryhill Farm and enjoy a catered brunch while learning the history of this Schickel family farm on Sunday, October 7 (10:00 am-1:00 p.m.; $25). For more information about the weekend’s events celebrating Tompkins County’s rural heritage, go to


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