By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
There’s no doubting folks in the Schoharie Valley know Jim Barber, simply judging from the political
signs that line Route 30 from Middleburgh to Fultonham and well beyond.
The family has lived on Barber’s Farm for 163 years, since two brothers bought 38 acres of some of the richest soil in the world.
Today, the family owns 450 acres of cropland, and another 100 of hillside.
And what a family – Jim Barber, 62, Democratic candidate to succeed state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, has five sisters. He and wife Cindy have three children. Add the sister’s children, and there are 22 cousins in that cadre. The next generation, the brother and sisters’ grandchildren – have so far produced 17 offspring.
And, given the grandchildren’s ages, there are more to come, the candidate added, walking past a haywagon full of three generations of Barbers, out Oct. 18 on a sunny Sunday afternoon pumpkin-picking excursion.
At least in Jim Barber’s generation, the siblings stayed, he said. Except for one of the sisters, that is: She moved to Cobleskill, 15 minutes away.
Barbers have been in the U.S. since the 1639. His wife’s family – Carloughs, Palatine Germans – have been here since the early 1700s.
If elected, Jim Barber would be the only farmer in the 63-Senator upper chamber in Albany, where the majority Democrats would benefit from his advice. For instance, the Farm Bill passed last year only addresses the “social justice” piece: limiting work weeks and helping farm labor to unionize.
“Farms are struggling – struggling to survive,” he said. “It (the Farm Bill) only addresses one side of the equation.” The other side is, “How do we help farms be more profitable? If you don’t have the revenue, you can’t pay the expenses.”
“In order to have any impact, you need to be at the table with the Senate leadership.” As a Democrat as well as the rare farmer, he said, he would be there.
New York City’s “tremendous financial activity” needs to be further tapped to generate revenue statewide, he said: For instance, the stock transfer tax – it can now be rebated on application – should be enforced. It would generate an estimated $16 billion.
In an interview, Barber – a Cornell grad; he met wife Cindy there – related how his family’s recent history has paralleled the history of farming in Upstate in the last half-century.
“In high school,” the candidate said, “I knew I was staying,” adding, “I had a farm mortgage” – on a tenant farmer’s plot that went on the market – “before I had a driver’s license.”
His father, J. Roger Barber, Ag & Markets commissioner in the Carey Administration of the 1980s, was particularly interested in improving Holsteins’ milk output, through genetic research and other means.
Still, by the time the Northeast Dairy Compact – it supported milk prices in New York State and New England – expired in 2001, the Barbers were looking beyond dairying.
When Roger Barber died in 2002, “we were the only dairy farm between Middleburgh and Gilboa” – 15 miles, said the son. The family sold the dairy herd in 2006.
By then, 50 years of diversification, beginning with sweet-corn routes in the 1960s – to Amsterdam, Gloversville, Stamford, Oneonta and small-town, family-owned supermarkets – was paying dividends.
In the 1990s, the Barbers set up their first greenhouse. Before long, Cindy was putting together flowers in 1,100 hanging baskets, to sell in the expanding Barber’s Farm roadside market. Before long, “we were growing 100 different vegetable crops,” he said.
The next innovation was “high tunnels,” also known as “hoop houses,” unheated greenhouses that allow even Central New York farms to grow vegetables year ’round – spinach, Swiss chard and kale in the coldest months. Covered, the tunnels keep the plants dry, which minimizes insects, and damage from insects.
When the Oneonta Farmers’ Market opened in the city’s parking deck, the Barbers were there, and joined other farmers’ markets that popped up. They also sell fresh produce from trucks set up in Cobleskill and Albany.
“From the COVID crisis,” Barber added, “people realized how important a local food supply can be.”
The decline of dairying may cloud the picture, but the man who would be the sole farmer in the state Senate is optimistic about farming’s future in New York State.
“We have good soil and plenty of water,” he said. In other parts of the country, “the aquifers are going
to run out.”
Jim and Cindy’s three children are in related fields: Grace in an environmental consultant in Montana; Ford is the Farm Service Agency’s Orange County executive director, and Elias is distiller at 1857 Spirits, an on-farm distillery.
A nephew, Jacob Hooper, is managing the farm.
The father is particularly proud of his younger son’s success in this “value-added” venture. 1857 Potato Vodka – 1857 is the year the Barber brothers arrived here – won a gold medal at international competition in San Francisco. The gin won a triple-gold medal.
And his outlook is reflected in the son’s distillery promotions: “We grow the highest-quality, best tasting potatoes in nine feet of rich ‘Barbour Basher’ alluvial soils of the bottomlands. Our spring water comes from the aquifer directly beneath this soil. From the heart of the Barber Family Farm in the Schoharie Valley to you, 1857 is a naturally gluten-free, farm-to-bottle vodka.”