Enthusiasm for the environmental, health, and quality advantages of food produced locally has seeded rooftop and vertical farms from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Newark. But more than retrofits and raised beds, local agriculture for New York City means farming in Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as upstate. Year-round, trucks bear bounty south to New York’s 54 farmers’ markets from the Hudson Valley, where unusually fertile, mineral-rich “black dirt” blankets what remains of a 12,000-year-old glacial lake bed. The regional yield is destined for more than gourmet kitchens: Food stamps purchase more than $1 million in local produce in New York City annually, and Hudson Valley farms supply food pantries and school and hospital lunch rooms, too. But while the locavore movement booms (and a $1 billion demand for fresh, local produce reportedly goes unmet) the farms that feed it buckle under real estate pressures. Farmers age while land values escalate, making it harder for young farmers to make a start.
One proposal suggests that to save the food system, we should protect the land. There’s precedent in the watershed: Since 1997, New York City has acquired and monitored the lands that the city’s tap water passes through, in order to protect its long-term quality. Protecting the regional food system in the same way could bolster the regional economy, increase access to healthy food, and even mitigate climate change. Public support is building for a Hudson Valley Foodshed Conservation Plan, with a $20 million “down-payment” from the state signifying seriousness, and 20 City Council members rallying in favor of an initial outlay — $5 million per year over ten years for the permanent conservation of regional farmland — from the New York City budget. Here, Steve Rosenberg of Scenic Hudson, the plan’s author, tells us why it’s now or never and what needs to happen to secure the city’s local food system.
How did Scenic Hudson get involved in food policy?
A major part of what we do is conserve land for the public. Along the way, we realized that almost 20 percent of the land base in the Hudson Valley is agricultural. As a regional organization, we had to focus on that and how it contributes to what the Hudson Valley is. We began our farmland protection work around 1998.
There must have been some significant changes in the Hudson Valley over the last 20 years.
It’s night and day in a lot of respects. 20 years ago many active farmers who were reaching the middle or later parts of their career were looking back and not looking forward. They didn’t see a bright future for agriculture in the Hudson Valley. There was rampant suburban sprawl; property values were rising, taxes were rising. A local food movement in New York City and the surrounding region really didn’t exist at the time. When Scenic Hudson first got involved in farmland protection, we had to ask ourselves, “Is this just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or are we really going to be able to fight the tide?” From the perspective of the incubation and growth of the local and regional food movement, our efforts were timed perfectly.
What exactly is meant by the Hudson Valley foodshed?
There are more than 5,000 farms in the Hudson Valley. The foodshed plan is a prioritized strategic framework to conserve and revitalize those Hudson Valley farms that New York City and the region depend on for its continued supply of fresh, local food. You have to have a sustainable land base for the regional food system to continue to thrive.
In our early conversations with various food policy advocates, just about every issue important to creating a sustainable regional food system was being talked about: supportive public policy, making sure we had the right delivery infrastructure, making sure that the tax system wasn’t detrimental, that marketing efforts were in place. Everything under the sun, but nobody was talking about the land. When push comes to shove, real estate development and property tax policy and business as usual will outcompete agriculture as a land use. The only way to ensure that the limited resource of agricultural land is secure for food production is to make sure that it’s permanently conserved.
How do you do that?
When we first launched our efforts, we realized we couldn’t respond to every ad hoc call that might come in from a community member saying, “You’ve got to save the farm across the street, it’s about to be subdivided.” It’s essential that land conservation of any type be done strategically.
We started with what we call the “critical mass approach” to farmland protection. We identified five communities where farming was still active and a vital part of the local economy, and started conversations with the farmers there. Our first project was in the town of Red Hook in northern Dutchess County. Instead of just protecting one farm, we conserved about twelve percent of the active farmland all at once, working with seven different farmers. The idea was that by conserving that land as an assemblage, individual farmers had greater assurance that their land wasn’t an isolated protected parcel, but part of an agricultural economic ecosystem. The people who lent money to farmers, or sold equipment and supplies to them, would feel more secure. The local officials who are in charge of things like zoning and planning would know that this was a large part of their local economy, and that landowners had made a commitment to it.
Over time, as we replicated and grew the project, it became increasingly clear that it was necessary to think regionally, not just in terms of individual enclaves. We also gained a better understanding of the relationship of farms to the city, with the growth of the local and regional food movement. The largest single stakeholder in agriculture in the Hudson Valley, outside of the farmers themselves, is New York City. One can’t help but think about the city’s efforts to protect its watershed lands, in order to have a secure supply of clean water. To secure a supply of fresh local food, the city needs to make sure that the land where the farms are is still intact.
How would New York City protect its food supply like its drinking water? And what’s the incentive to do so?
When you protect a watershed, you’re protecting not necessarily the water itself but the places that the water travels through. This means monitoring to make sure that it’s not contaminated, and preventing land uses that are likely to produce contamination, so that reservoirs are ultimately supplied with clean water. Foodshed conservation is more direct than watershed conservation: You’re protecting the farmland where the food is produced.
If the city wants food from local sources — as it does, for a host of environmental, economic, social, and health-related reasons — then there must be productive farms within the region to supply the food.
The idea of taking New York City tax dollars and spending them outside of the city might seem unusual. The facts are that the cost of land and to conserve farms in the Hudson Valley remains very reasonable — on average, around $5,000 per acre. Compare that to Long Island, the most dramatic case, where land values are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. So, an opportunity exists.
New York City’s actually already out in front when it comes to food policy. For instance, we have been working to support a number of transactions involving GrowNYC, local land trusts, Equity Trust (a group that focuses on farmland access), and farmers to permanently protect farmland that consistently produces for NYC Greenmarkets.
A city can’t survive without a safe water supply. How important is the regional food supply to New York City?
When you start to talk to people about local food in New York City, one of the things you hear is: “That’s great if you can afford to eat at Gramercy Tavern,” or “that’s great if you can buy all your food at the Union Square Farmers’ Market.” It’s true, most people in New York City cannot afford to do that.
While places like Gramercy Tavern do benefit, the food produced in the Hudson Valley and other areas is tremendously important in terms of the city’s food and restaurant economy, and increasingly it is going to other people and other places in the city. The city has invested to underwrite the cost of purchasing food in farmers’ markets for New York City residents. There is an informal public/private network of agencies, not-for-profits, farmers, processors, packers, distributors, supported by effective procurement policies, all working toward a common goal. We know that local food is making its way into neighborhoods where fresh food access has been a challenge. Meanwhile, institutions such as food pantries, public schools, community centers, hospitals, and prisons also are striving to provide local food to city residents. The quality of the food that makes up these meals directly impacts the health of those who eat them.
These farms can also be important for food security, particularly in the wake of a disaster. I don’t think anybody would argue that the local farms are going to singlehandedly save the day if there’s a calamity affecting the city. But after Sandy, it was regional farmers who were driving into the city with produce to sell and making it available, when other food outlets weren’t open yet. I don’t think we can minimize the value to the city of ensuring that those farms continue to be in place.
It takes all the stakeholders working together to get the job done. Dutchess County has a program where they set aside money every year to help conserve farms in the county. It’s an economic activity in the county. Those farms also send food to New York City and to other places. Dutchess County doesn’t say, “We’re not going to do this” simply because all of the food produced by the farms there doesn’t serve that county. Likewise, New York State funds the protection of farms because it’s important to the state that New York City has food, that the economic and environmental benefits of agriculture remain in place. But they too are not paying the full freight to protect all of the farms in the Hudson Valley. The federal government, through the Farm Bill, has a program. The state, federal and local programs are all part of the answer, but there just aren’t enough resources available currently.
Involvement by the city could make a tremendous difference and serve the long-term interests of food consumers in the city of all types, before it becomes too late. But it’s important that the approach be regional and systemic, and not be limited to the individual farms that happen to serve the city on any given day.
How are farms selected for conservation within the foodshed?
We started with an analysis of the existing farmland in the Hudson Valley. It became clear that the fundamental data about the foodshed was missing: how many active farms there were, where they were located, how to go about conserving them, how much it would cost, how to prioritize. It’s not inherently obvious what land should be conserved. Even which pieces of land are farms isn’t obvious. Depending on when you drive by, or fly over, or visit a particular place, it may or may not be apparent that it’s in active agricultural production.
For the analysis, we conferred with farmers, people who lend money to farmers, advocacy groups, other organizations serving farmers, and government. Size was one factor we took into account. We had to identify a minimum size for a farm to be considered for inclusion. It takes about as much staff time working with individual farmers to conserve a 50-acre farm as it does a 500-acre farm. At the same time, you don’t want to cut out a whole segment of farms that are tremendously productive in serving markets. Agricultural soils were the second key factor. Looking at the soil maps for all of the parcels that were identified as agricultural, we were able to create a scoring system. The third thing that we looked at was the proximity of one high-priority farm to other high-priority farms. Based on this strategy of critical mass, do these high-priority farms that are larger in size relative to others fall into clusters around the region?
We identified nine different clusters where the greatest concentrations of high-priority farms in terms of size and soil were located. The result is a guide to assist policy-makers, private funders, and others, to know that if they’re committing resources, they’ll be deployed in a strategic and rational way.
What are the mechanics of conserving each farm?
Each conserved farm represents an individual real estate transaction between the farmer-landowner and either a qualified land trust or a unit of government.
If the farmer’s interested, they work with the land trust to create a conservation plan for the property. An easement prevents the subdivision and development of that land, except for a range of uses that’s needed for the production of the agriculture. We identify critical natural resources on the farm, like streams and wetlands and steep slopes that can be buffered and protected from uses that would undermine the natural systems. And then we identify an area we call a “farmstead complex,” the nerve center of a farm where the more intensive development of infrastructure, for production, processing, and housing can be located. Nobody has a crystal ball, so we do it in a way that protects the conservation values, while leaving room for the farm to breathe and evolve over time.
The restrictions are handed over to a real estate appraiser to put a value on what they are worth to this farmer. They basically conduct two appraisals: If the farmer put a “For Sale” sign on their farm, that day, what would they likely get on the open market? Then, what’s the same piece of land worth subject to these restrictions? Typically, a conservation easement on an agricultural parcel in the Hudson Valley is going to be worth between 50 and 60 percent of the full value of the farm. When the real estate transaction closes, the farmer receives that amount. If their farm was worth a million dollars before the easement, and worth a half a million after the easement, according to the appraisal, the farmer would be given a check for $500,000. They can do with that what they will. In practice we have found that most farmers will use it to reinvest in their farm, in their family, in their future.
The other thing that these transactions do is make the land more affordable for young would-be farmers. One of the issues we have in the regional food shed, and all over the country, is the aging of the farmer population. The median age is still above 55. And one of the challenges for young people who want to become farmers, especially in areas surrounding major metropolitan centers, is the price of land. What the easements do, by reducing the cost of the property, is make it easier for them to get in.
How does conserving one farm protect the longevity of others?
There’s a mushrooming effect. Today about two thirds of the active farmland in Red Hook, where we first started our conservation efforts, has been conserved. Social and economic energy has grown dramatically around that land, and in other areas where farms have been protected.
The investment in the protection of these farms puts unrestricted capital into the hands of the farmers. Doing this in an ad hoc way would result in a series of isolated conserved farms, but leveraging the resources that are invested in conserving them in relation to one another creates a bulwark against the things that threaten farming. I would say the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts.
Why is it urgent to take action now?
The urgency comes from a combination of factors. One is the aging farmer population. Another is the increasing pressure on land in the Hudson Valley to become either estates, or hobby farms or transition into other uses altogether. I don’t think in the current climate we’re seeing the same level of large, intensive, suburban sprawl developments. But that doesn’t mean that the forces that are working on land in the Hudson Valley are conducive to agriculture. As farms are cut up maybe not into 100-house lots but into several mini estates, the real estate taxes and the value of property tends to go up. I think that we’ll only see that continue to increase.
From a climate perspective, conventional agriculture is certainly a better land-use than a 100-unit subdivision, because it doesn’t come with the cars and roads and everything that flows from development. Agricultural land also has the potential to be a carbon sink, if farmed in a sustainable way. And increasingly, farmers are transitioning to more climate-resilient farming. In fact, the conservation transactions can help farmers make that transition, giving them access to funds to make the initial investment.
What is the state of progress on the plan currently?
New York State dedicated $20 million to implementing the plan, which was a validation of the concept and which we see as a powerful down payment to get the ball rolling and spur additional investments as the agricultural economic activity of the region and the distribution infrastructure within New York City continues to grow. Meanwhile, public support in the city has grown, and in a recent city budget cycle 20 City Council members supported dedicating $5 million per year over ten years, which would be a meaningful commitment to demonstrate the city’s interest and help to move the needle.
The city needs to define the best form for the partnership, but ideally, the region’s land trusts and farmers would work closely with a city-based group or agency to direct dollars to conserve individual farms and support the growth of the distribution network.
One of the things we’ve learned is the interest in local and regional food is not a fad. Whether it’s about crisis food access in shelters, or ensuring that there’s more sustainable access to healthy food for people: People have changed, and are increasingly changing the way they eat. The demand will be there. Will the farms be there to meet the demand, and at what level? Nobody would argue that all of the food New York City needs is going to be provided by the Hudson Valley. But if the city wants to ensure access to fresh local food in a meaningful way, the Hudson Valley’s farms and agricultural system must remain intact.