Earlier this month, on an idyllic fall morning in New York's Hudson River Valley, Northwind Farms in rural Red Hook was the site of an important announcement for this agricultural community. Ten farmers, leaders of the town and the directors of regional land trustsDutchess Land Conservancy and Scenic Hudsongathered to hear an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service announce a $1.8-million grant that would support the preservation of nearly 700 acres of productive land on 10 valley farms.
The funding was a great cause for celebration. It's the final piece in a dynamic public-private partnership instigated by the farmers themselves, who had petitioned the Town of Red Hook to help them preserve their land. In response to their request, Scenic Hudson, the Dutchess Land Conservancy and the town worked together to come up with the funds and preservation plans to ensure these family-owned farms would continue supplying healthy food for generations to come by purchasing the development rights on these lands. Scenic Hudson provided $1.2 million, the town $600,000 and Dutchess Land Conservancy raised funds to cover the crucial transaction costs. This approach provides a direct infusion of capital to the farmers involved, enabling them to invest in the productive capacity of their farms. In several instances, the easements will allow young tenant farmers to acquire the land, offering more stability to their livelihood.
Preserving farmland in a place like the Hudson Valley, the breadbasket of New York City, is of critical importance. Today nearly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and our largest cities are increasing in population faster than the rest of the nation. Providing safe, secure and healthy food sources for all of these people depends on local farms and their high-quality soils. Yet in too many places, including the Hudson Valley, these "working landscapes" are severely threatened by sprawling development or, just as acute, a shortage of young farmers who can afford high land prices.
Recent data from the USDA shows that American agriculture is at a critical crossroads. Between 1982 and 2007, all of the contiguous 48 states lost agricultural land, 23 million acres in all. Making matters worse, what the USDA labels as "prime agricultural land"whose soils are best suited for growing fooddisappeared to development at a faster rate than non-prime agricultural land. Despite this, the most recent Farm Bill, enacted in 2008, allocated a meager $148 million per year for farmland conservation via the USDA's Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. (That's less than half of one percent of the total bill's funding.) In the meantime, people have begun to recognize the importance of creating regional "foodsheds" to meet growing dietary demands.
What's the advantage of a local "foodshed?" For starters, strawberries and broccoli grown down the road insulate us from global food emergencies and transportation disruptions. They also decrease the likelihood of food contamination. The federal Food and Drug Administration inspects less than one percent of foods entering the country. Even more compelling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that of all the food-borne illnesses that afflict 48 million Americans annually, none have been traced back to small, family farms. Why? Local farmers know their livelihoods depend on ensuring their food is safe to eat. As a result, they're more reliant on best-management practices in the cultivation of produce and the care, feeding and processing of livestock.
Locally produced food also is better for us. Studies show that fruits and vegetables lose 40 percent of their nutritional value within three days of being harvested. At the same time, the greater our access to fresh produce, the less likely we are to suffer from diet-related illnesses such as obesity and diabetesand the more likely our tastebuds are to be wowed. There's no flavor comparison between munching an apple just plucked from a tree and one flown in from Chile.
Now you know why the ranks of people interested in consuming locally sourced food have been swelling. Also on the upswing is the number of grow-it-yourselfers. The National Gardening Association estimated that between 2008 and 2009 seven million more households cultivated their own produce, either in backyards or community gardens, marking a 19-percent increase. (Perhaps the most unique of these new at-home gardeners is the author of batteryrooftopgarden.org, who happens to be a Scenic Hudson board member. His "farm" sits 35 stories above Manhattan, on a terrace outside his apartment. He created it in 2010 to show that a green roof is capable of producing an astonishing diversity and amount of food.)
So if you want to ensure your family eats healthy food, you have a stake in keeping local farms in business. Frequent farmers' markets, community supported agriculture operations and farm stands. Contact your legislators in Washington and urge them to back an increase in FRPP funding under the next Farm Bill, currently under negotiation. New York has three federal legislators on agricultural committeesSen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Chris Gibson (who attended the USDA announcement in Red Hook) and Rep. Bill Owens. You also can urge your governor to boost funding for state farmland protection programs.
The American Farmland Trust has coined the phrase "No farms, no food." But the key to retaining our farms is halting farmland's vanishing act.
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