HUDSON–One farm expert believes there’s a revolution afoot. And a Columbia County organization, not exactly wild-eyed radicals, has a plan to help it along.
The expert, Jim Slama, founder of familyfarmed.org, was the featured speaker at the Farming Our Future conference at Taconic Hills School February 23. He described how his organization expanded markets for local farmers in his home town of Chicago. And while the Windy City’s not a place that brings to mind farm fields, one of the principles behind his efforts is farmland protection. “That’s what this revolution is all about, family farms using sustainable practices, producing good food as close to home as possible,” he said.
The Columbia County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board has been working on a plan to protect local farmland for three years. A draft–all five chapters and appendices run some 70 pages–is now available online at www.columbiacountyny.com/CCAFPB/plan.html and awaits public comment. It could come before the county Board of Supervisors as early as next month.
Farming in this county generates $65 million annually in product sales, and in recent years consumers have flocked to farmers markets across the county and young farmers are coming to the county to lease land for small scale farming. A local foods movement is flourishing and an active farm-to-school effort has influenced several local school districts to start farming clubs and gardening programs.
The county’s draft plan has four goals:
•Technical assistance for existing and emerging agricultural production, including infrastructure like an indoor an farmers market or a slaughterhouse
•Support for agricultural tourism, like the Hudson Valley Beverage Trail and Hudson Valley Bounty
•Research into farm methods for food processing, storage and distribution
•Farmland protection and way to encourage young farmers.
Representatives from the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation, the Columbia Land Conservancy, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Farm Credit East assisted members of the county Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board in creating the plan. The group held focus groups and conducted surveys to gage the level of farming activity and the challenges facing local farmers and how they view their future here. The resulting draft plan “seeks to open opportunities for the energy that is already here,” said Ellen Jouret Epstein of the Columbia Land Conservancy.
A measure of that energy was evident at the Farming Our Future gathering, where hundreds of farmers and county residents learned how to support local markets for their produce and finance their operations. The topics included how to build a farm friendly municipality, how to lease land to farmers, how food moves to markets and how to attract investors to ag businesses.
State Assembly Member Didi Barrett (D-106th), a member of the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee, explained how farms provide “healthy economic stability.” And Mr. Slama described how his organization expanded markets for farmers in Chicago and lobbied for $2 million worth of locally grown healthy food to go to school children annually. He said they helped streamline the bureaucracy of the food business and linked farmers to food businesses with capital.
A few decades ago the message to farmers was “get big or get out,” he said. But today the majority of Columbia County’s 554 farms are 1 to 49 acres.
The plan will not be issued in a printed format in part to save money, but more importantly to insure that it can be easily revised and will remain a living and meaningful document .
“March is the time for people to read the plan online and submit their comments,” said Ms. Jouret Epstein. Go to http://clctrust.org and click on the “working farms” tab near the top.
“A farm is lost to development every three and a half days in New York,” says an ad for the American Farmland Trust. Since the 1980s farms across the state have been replaced by residential development and planners and state and local officials have realized the need to have a plan in place before developers arrive with different ideas.
Farmland protection tools include farming friendly comprehensive plans and land use regulations that support farming, like the ones in Ancram and Chatham. The draft plan advises the county to conduct a water study and develop a master water plan for county. It suggests a countywide inventory of agricultural operations to help develop a strategy to support them and advises the establishment of a permanent local agricultural advisory committee. The use of mapping software to establish an agricultural overlay zone, and the implementation of a cluster development ordinance that permanently preserves the most arable land for agricultural can also help.
Planning can also identify land less desirable for farming that can be used for development and the placement of infrastructure like sewer systems.
A section of the plan outlines the agricultural history of the county and says that it peaked in 1875 when the county had 40,000 acres planted in rye and 411,840 acres were cultivated by 3,534 farmers. By 1900 hay and grain farming had been surpassed by fruit, vegetable, and dairy farming which peaked in 1950 when 21,000 cows were milked on 715 farms. In 1925 farms raised 187,000 birds. Today we have a mere 31,000 hens laying eggs. Only the beef population has remained stable at around 2,000 head then and now. Currently 140,000 acres are farmed in Columbia County.