Family hopes preservation program, new business model keep them working the land

Section: Unwind,  Page: UW1

Date: Sunday, April 8, 2012

Chuck Curtiss remembers when there were 17 dairy farms on Hop City Road, in a time when making a living off milk wasn't as hard as it is now. Today, his is the only one, and there have been times it seemed the six-generation farm might vanish, too.

Curtiss, 53, took over managing Willow Marsh Farm from his father, also named Chuck, 12 years ago. The transfer followed a tradition dating back to 1792, when Curtisses first came over from Scotland. The elder Curtiss, 76, still works the farm, but the burden of worry over how to keep it running now lies with his son.

Over the years Curtiss has built up the dairy operation, scaled it down, added beef cows, tried farmers markets, grown vegetables and opened a farm store. Trucking products to the market wasn't worth the effort; neither was growing vegetables, but the beef cows are low-maintenance and the popularity of the farm store confirmed Curtiss' belief yogurt and cheese -- called "value-added products" in the agriculture business -- are a better way to make a living than selling raw milk to wholesalers.

Now, to reduce the costs of making the products, Curtiss plans to build a creamery at the farm, using money he made by selling the development rights to the property. The state manages a preservation program to keep open space from being turned into houses. In addition to the farm's status as 136 acres of uninterrupted countryside in Saratoga County -- where land is in high demand -- a study of the property found prime agricultural soils.

Five years after he agreed to the deal, Curtiss finally got the money last week. Because of the long wait and the sputtering economy, the land lost value. The check Curtiss finally took to the bank represented $5,618 an acre, about half the price he was promised. Instead of more than $1.3 million, the check was for $752,918.

Curtiss is over being angry about it. It's not the first time he's faced hardship.

A generation ago, the farm was like many others in Saratoga County. A handful of milkers supported a family of 11.

"We all had cows, pigs and chickens and we lived off the farm," the elder Curtiss said.

There were more hands to do the work, too. In addition to the family, kids living up and down the road would help out from time to time to earn a couple of bucks. Now, there are fewer kids around, and most of them are in school or doing other jobs.

Of nine brothers and sisters, the elder Curtiss was the only one who stayed on the farm. It wasn't a conscious decision. He was 14 years old and his father, Schuyler Curtiss, was getting older. There was work to do.

"There was always something that needed doing, so I did it," he said.

The younger Chuck Curtiss, one of three children, slipped into farming in much the same way: It was all he knew, and the hard work didn't scare him away. But he was more anxious to be in charge, his father said.

"He was antsy. He had his own ideas."

Harsh economic realities greeted the younger Curtiss. He remembers when a gallon of diesel fuel was less than $1. Now it's $3.50. The other costs -- grain, maintenance, taxes and insurance -- also went up, while at the same time, the market for milk fluctuated wildly. When Curtiss reduced his herd from 50 to 20 milkers, the move cut both ways. It reduced his overhead, but with less milk in production and dwindling prices for it, Curtiss questioned if he could milk through the hard times.

The unpredictability drove other small farms out of business, Curtiss said. In the 12 years since he took over running the farm, he's seen the price per hundredweight float from a low of $11 to a high of $24 and back down again. On the wholesale market, milk is sold by weight. At Willow Marsh, the cows produce about 60 pounds per day, which equals roughly 7 1/2 gallons.

It takes about $20 per hundredweight just to break even, Curtiss said. "A few times when milk prices were dropping, I was borrowing money to stay in business. Things start to go wrong fast and you're scratching your head wondering what to do."

Curtiss is a soft-spoken man, brown-eyed and slender. He wears a small diamond stud in his left ear and looks younger than he is. Just like his father, he is matter-of-fact about the grueling, unpredictable world of dairy farming. He and son Chris, 22, one of Curtiss' six children and stepchildren, joke they stay in farming because they don't know how to do anything else. Chris Curtiss has a 2-year degree in agriculture from SUNY Cobleskill, but he said he learns every day on the job alongside his father and grandfather. Other than an acquaintance who milks the cows one evening a week ("just because she likes doing it," Curtiss said, with an edge of disbelief in his voice) the work around the farm is done by family. Curtiss' mother, Diane Curtiss, and his sister, Donna Shorkey, keep the books. His wife, Darlene, runs the farm store, a small space carved out of the 1864 farmhouse. It is decorated with the family claim to royalty -- a portrait of reigning Saratoga County Dairy Princess Kayla Marois, Chuck Curtiss' stepdaughter.

The property is a postcard from farm country. A traditional white farmhouse stands near the road, flanked by locust trees. Red barns stand in the background with two silos in the backdrop, one painted with an American flag and the family name. Black Angus cows graze the hillside.

The outbuildings date from Schuyler Curtiss' time. The cow barn was built in 1910. A barn that once held carriages and two teams of horses will house the creamery.

Curtiss sends raw milk to R&G Cheese Makers in Cohoes to have it made into cheese and yogurt, which are sold in the farm store. He does some home delivery and supplies a few restaurants and retailers with milk products. He hopes to expand his customer base once the creamery is up and running. Curtiss sells leftover raw milk to wholesalers, but his goal is to have all the raw milk go into value-added products. The yogurt and cheese is more expensive than what you find in a grocery store, but "10 times better," he said. Curtiss said he envisions cheese and yogurt as the farm's main source of income, followed by beef, veal, chicken and eggs.

"It will be like an old-time farm that had some of everything," he said.

Just like the one he grew up on.

lhornbeck@timesunion.com - 518-454-5352 - @leighhornbeck