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Photo: Amy Halloran

Farmers to the Table

The annual Hoosac Valley Farmers Exchange Pancake Day rallies the agricultural community for the coming season and provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of the industry


By Amy Halloran

The road is full of pickup trucks and the tavern is full of flannel. In front of the taps, the bar is crowded with mugs that say Hoosac Valley Farmers Exchange Pancake Day, 2010. Farmers stand in line for pancakes hot off the griddle and sit down to eat them with local sausage and maple syrup. Beer signs are off and the televisions are on, showing sports, hunting shows, and more sports. This is a bar, but no one’s drinking anything but coffee. No one is talking much either—chatty farmers are few and far between.

Main Street dead ends at the Hoosic River in Schaghticoke, where Lewis’ Tavern overlooks big rocks and the river’s falls, and sits across the street from the warehouse, retail store, and grain silos of a farm supply store.

Every spring, the Hoosac Valley Farmers Exchange plants a seed with its customers in the form of a free pancake breakfast that lasts all day long. The pancake breakfast has been running for 45 years, and the business has been open since 1925. The event has traveled up and down Main Street, taking place at the store, the American Legion, Henderson’s Bar and Grill, and now Lewis’ Tavern.

Ray Lewis and his family cook pancakes to order and have plenty of sausages, coffee and half-pint cartons of milk (chocolate and whole, both from Sycaway Creamery) ready. The maple syrup is from Millbrook Dairy Farms Sugarhouse in Valley Falls, and flows very, very freely—anyone who knows the cost of this liquid gold can see from this alone that the Agway store appreciates its customers. Food is available from 7:30 AM until 3 PM, and nearly 300 farmers drop in throughout the day to eat and visit, catching up after the winter.

These farmers come from about a 30-mile radius. Many of the men in the room look old enough to have reached retirement age in other careers, but the room is not filled with a sense of relaxation. This is a pause in the midst of days that begin early and will end late—the sun stays out long, and daylight doesn’t get wasted. Many here are dairy farmers, “or, at least now I am,” says one, alluding to the precipitous state of the industry.

Rensselaer County has long been dairy country, but in keeping with national trends, the number of farms has dropped over the years. Since 1975, according to the USDA, the number of dairy farms has dropped considerably, while herd sizes have significantly increased. Changes in technology and the complicated economics of farming in America are responsible for this shift. A gallon of milk and a gallon of gas cost the consumer about the same three dollars, but at this price, dairy farmers are not meeting their expenses. When milk prices dropped in late 2008 and early 2009, many dairies went into debt. In February 2009, County Executive Kathleen Jimino called for a review of federal pricing structures for milk to help this slice of agriculture, which was especially hard hit by the recession. While some governmental attention is being paid to this plight, such as recent federal antitrust investigations into the milk market, the situation is still grim.

The last few years have been tough not just on farmers, but also on the businesses who supply them.

“If we were a newer facility, we’d be closed,” says John Halford, owner of the Hoosac Valley Farmers Exchange. “Fortunately, we don’t have a mortgage here, so we’re able to survive, and that goes with a lot of farms, too. Those farms that have mortgages, something breaks [and] you’re probably going to be out of business.”

The breakfast is a thank you, and an opportunity for the business to buy and sell spring items quickly. Inside the store, the farmers have found a use for words, and are animatedly discussing tools and solutions, calculating how much to buy.

“I’m going to order a lot today. Seeding supplies, water tubs, plastic to cover hay, salt blocks. Anything we can think of we get,” says Clifford Lewis of Lewcliff Farms in Valley Falls. He is with his son, and this isn’t the only father-son duo. Robert Duncan used to come with his dad, starting 38 years ago, and this year he is here with his family. Dale Cornell, a seasoned farmer despite his youth, stands with his parents, Allen and Edna, outside the store, near the grain silos.

“This is a tradition,” says Allen Cornell, who says of the silos, “When dairy was big they used to be busy all the time. Farmers grew their own feeds and brought them here to mix them.”

The Cornells grow their own grain and mix feed for the 2,500 chickens on their farm in Hoosick Falls. They sell eggs around the region, and vegetables, too, at farmers markets and retail outlets. Late in the morning of Pancake Day, Allen waves their order sheet in the air—a kind of goodbye. Workers fill up their truck with what they brought. Time to get home to work.

“In this community we all have our joys together, and we all have our sorrows together,” reflects Halford. “So basically it’s a way of saying thank you to the people who support the facility and a way to support the community. The community has been good to us.”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


Chianti Ristorante (18 Division St., Saratoga Springs) celebrates the second anniversary of its monthly “Twelve” Program, a fundraising initiative supporting local nonprofits and named for a bronze panel from the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. On the 12th of each month, you can have 30 percent of your guest check donated to the featured nonprofit. On April 12, the beneficiary will be Aspire Programs, a New York State Education Deptartment-approved preschool for children with developmental, learning, and emotional disorders. No reservations are needed, but call 580-0025 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

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