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Main Street Farms finds success through partnership

Slideshow: Working with other farms has been crucial to this Cortland, N.Y., farm’s success.

For a growing farm operation, partnerships can be helpful. Just ask the owners of Main Street Farms and Shared Roots Farm.

During a recent webinar — “Adapting and Collaborating to Grow the Farm” — representatives from both farms talked about their partnership and how it has enabled both to grow and thrive together.

Allan Gandelman founded Main Street Farms in Cortland, N.Y., in 2011 with Robert “Bobcat” Bonagura. They wanted to start an urban aquaponic farm and sell produce to area school districts. Education, both through an apprenticeship and by experience, helped the two grow crops more effectively and grow the operation. They have repeatedly outgrown their plots over the years.  

Each year they have changed their business model, selling through a variety of means including a Community Supported Agriculture operation, wholesale to schools and institutions, at farmers markets, and in food hubs.

“Never has there been one year that has looked the same as the previous 10 years,” Gandelman says. “That can be very stressful.”

Also stressful was running around to five different plots. They eventually consolidated five years ago when they started to buy 200 acres of land from a local farmer who was retiring. Currently, Main Street Farms owns about 65 acres of Reed’s Seeds farm and purchases 20 acres or so annually. 

Currently, 30 to 40 workers grow vegetables and hemp. They continue to sell to 400 CSA members and through a few large farmers markets but have dropped selling wholesale to institutions because of the difficulty in meeting ever-changing customer demands.

Farm Service Agency loans and lines of credit have been the major means of upscaling. Symbiotic partnerships have also helped the farm. For example, using high tunnels at Shared Roots Farm in McGraw, N.Y., enables Main Street to grow crops through the winter.

“We grow a lot of greens and storage crops that store through the winter so we can do winter CSA,” Gandelman says. “It keeps our core crew throughout the winter.”

It also builds continuity with customers, who keep buying year-round.

The farm also works with Food That Ferments, a producer of value-added products, to share warehouse space for stored produce, as well as sell items to Food That Ferments.

Main Street started growing hemp as part of the crop rotation. Gandelman says that he likes that the farm can grow a year’s worth of hemp, harvest it and wait up to 12 months before processing it. That helps the farm focus on the more immediate needs of tending to the vegetables during the growing season.

Working together

Main Street, Shared Roots and Food That Ferments all use the same washing and packing house, helping lower costs for all three farms.

Last year, the owner of Early Morning Farm in Genoa, N.Y., asked Gandelman and Bonagura to buy the farm. Buying Early Morning Farm allowed Gandelman and Bonagura to expand with all the physical and intangible infrastructure in place.

“Once we did that, we realized we needed more farm management,” Gandelman says.

So, they joined forces with Shared Roots, owned by Stephanie Roberts and Brett Morris, at the former Reed’s Seeds farm location. Main Street grows the vegetables for Shared Roots.

“It makes less work for each of us,” Gandelman said. “So far, I think it’s going great.”

Local workers are the bulk of the farm labor, but they also bring in H-2A workers during harvest.

Shared Roots’ CSA has been around for 10 years, but Roberts and Morris have been selling at a farmers market in Binghamton for 11 years. They began farming in 2007 and moved to the former Reed’s Seeds site in 2014.

It seemed a natural fit to collaborate with Main Street since Roberts and Morris also wanted to grow their farm to increase winter production using high tunnels, mostly for winter greens and tomatoes. The farm keeps something growing all the time; as soon as one crop goes out, another is transplanted in from the greenhouse.

To keep costs low, Morris and Roberts heat their high tunnels when it’s only just above freezing to keep their greens growing through winter.

“In the winter, as long as we’re not losing money and not losing customers, we’re winning,” Morris says. “There’s less labor to be done in winter so the cost of production is less.”

Renting the packing shed and warehouse in collaboration with other enterprises helps reduce expenses for Main Street. 

“We’re always trying to find those ways to collaborate that are win-win for everyone involved,” Gandelman says.

Hemp trial and error

Growing hemp has been a struggle for Main Street the past three years.

“We’ve made some mistakes,” Bonagura says. One was planting too late.

They got a state permit to grow hemp as part of a research project with Cornell University. The farm started with 15 acres and now grows 45.5 acres of certified organic hemp. Two varieties are CBD (cannabidiol) hemp and two are CBG (cannabigerol) hemp.

“You need to be really good with cultivation and harvest is a huge pain,” Bonagura says. “You have to be prepared for that. Everyone thinks it’s a miracle crop. It has been good for us, but it takes a lot of work.”

Using 3 tons per acre of chicken manure along with cultivation has proven helpful to grow the crop, Morris says.

“We keep it pretty clean,” he says. “We try to minimize hand work as it’s so many acres.”

They have found that 5-foot spacings between transplants works well for first planting and 3 feet between plants for the second planting.

Bonagura says that it’s all about getting the plants off to a good start. Once the plants reach maturity, they’re harvested with loppers and are dried for two weeks. It takes about 10 to 15 workers to harvest hemp. The farm then shucks them and stores them in large bags for up to 12 months until they’re ready to extract the oil.

The oil supplies Head & Heal, a value-added business co-founded in 2017 by Gandelman and Karli Miller-Hornick. The farm built its own processing plant on-site and makes a line of CBD to sell locally.

Sergeant writes from central New York.

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