The New York Times recently reported how Manhattan residents satisfy their growing appetite for fresh produce with weekly visits to greenmarkets stocked primarily by farms in the Hudson Valley, to the north of the city. As more and more urbanites have purchased weekend homes in the valley's tranquil communities, they've brought along their yen for just-picked fruits and vegetables, which in turn has led to an exponential rise in local farmers' markets.
One of the farmers quoted in the article was Ken Migliorelli, one of the first Hudson Valley farmers to begin trucking his produce to New York City's greenmarkets. Scenic Hudson, the organization I head, purchased a conservation easement on one of Mr. Migliorelli's farms, allowing him to expand his operations. While noting that three-quarters of his income derives from farmers' markets, he added that "our upstate operations are now a bigger part of our business." This is a win for everyone, particularly in times when climate change reduction strategies include lessening the "carbon miles" -- more than 1,200 miles for the average American meal -- our food has to travel.
The environmental, health and food-safety benefits of buying homegrown produce are well-known, but during this recession let's not overlook the economic impact. Seventy percent of America's farms are family-owned. This means the $5 you pay for strawberries at your local farmstand down the road is a direct investment in your community. It contributes to farm workers' salaries, helps purchase fertilizer in the local supply store, pays the tractor mechanic in town and supports property taxes. The latter is a real boon to municipalities. Studies show farmland delivers much more in tax revenues than it requires in services such as snowplowing and firefighting. Conversely, your funds don't have to pay for the berries' airfare from Mexico.
Obviously, the key to keeping farms in business is making it profitable for farmers to stay on their land. At a minimum, it's crucial to ease the perennial challenges farmers must overcome -- weather, insects, fickle demand and competition from producers as far away as China. The slumping economy has given environmental organizations an excellent opportunity to help farmers. At the same time developers are scaling back on projects that threaten to replace working farms with sprawling subdivisions, falling land prices are enabling groups like Scenic Hudson to purchase easements that restrict future development while providing farmers with funds to increase their acreage, purchase new equipment or secure a nest egg for their families. While there are many important strategies that can be employed to keep farming viable, all is lost if the farmland has been paved over.
But there's a rub. Safeguarding farms requires government support. Unfortunately, many states faced with escalating deficits are slashing and in some cases virtually eliminating programs that fund farmland protection. This shortsighted approach ignores how much our economies depend on sustaining agriculture. Take New York: Despite its vaunted reputation as the world's financial capital, farming remains the state's third-leading industry. Its vineyards and pick-your-own orchards also contribute substantially to tourism, the state's leading income generator. Yet to close recent budget gaps, New York's dedicated account for preserving farmland and achieving other equally worthwhile environmental initiatives has been cut by tens of millions of dollars each year. Ironically, this account was established during an economic slump in the 1990s to ensure a stable source of funds always would be available for improving the environment in good times and bad.
Conserving farmland is not a luxury, but a necessity that enhances our health, our planet and our pocketbook. If we let our local farmers fail, the environmental and financial obstacles to a sustainable future will be insurmountable to future generations. Is that the legacy we wish to leave for our children and grandchildren?
Think about this the next time you reach for an apple.
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