Farming conference sees hopeful signs for future

CRARYVILLE–Some 300 people turned out for the third annual Farming Our Future conference Saturday, February 22 at the Taconic Hills Central School, concerned for the future of local farmers, the environment and our children. By the time they left, many appeared to share a sense of excitement about growing and consuming locally grown food.

Over 130 organizations were reportedly represented at the event, with proceeds going to the Taconic Hills HARVEST (Healthy Agricultural Resources by Volunteers & Educators in Science & Technology) Club.

Farmers have struggled in recent years with the drop in wholesale prices, and rise in energy, land and labor costs. Increasingly volatile weather has damaged or ruined crops and the number of farms has dropped. But Saturday’s message was, with people working together, this trend can be reversed.

Richard Ball, the state commissioner of Agriculture and Markets and a successful vegetable farmer from Schoharie, spoke about the Chinese character for the word “crisis,” which is expressed by the symbols for danger and opportunity. “We are on the edge of very great things,” he said.

Congressman Chris Gibson (R-19th) said that the new federal farm bill reflects ideas he got from talking with farmers in his district. These ideas have had a national impact, he said. “We stopped direct payments for farmers not farming. We tilted the balance back to the Northeast.”

The bill allows for insurance to cover fruit crop damage and livestock feed costs in times of drought. The measure also has farm-to-school pilot programs that can bring local farm products into school cafeterias plus sections that address marketing, wider availability of broadband Internet service and more money for research, including research into Lyme disease. Mr. Gibson called food and energy independence national security issues.

The congressman said he is optimistic about the future of agriculture due to a growing network of support that includes investment in biomass energy projects and a state program for leasing solar panels to farmers, land conservancy programs under which farmers receive cash for the sale of development rights, micro-loan programs, farm insurance discounts and local projects like wood pellet fuel made from fallen trees and a food transportation hub here.

Mr. Gibson said he has co-authored a bill to start a beginning farmer program.

Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) also spoke at the event. “Agriculture is at the nexus of everything we care about,” she said. She praised the public for organizing to oppose the plans for new, high voltage power lines through parts of the county. saying the plans threaten both agriculture and tourism.

Assemblyman Peter Lopez (R-102nd) stressed the need for safe, local food. “The family farm can support these things,” he said. “They need to be able to make a living.”

The average age of farmers today is 57 to 58 years old, said farm business consultant Don Rogers, the keynote speaker at the conference. Before he retired from Farm Credit East, he helped farmers figure out who would inherit their farm.

He spoke enthusiastically about “the new agriculture,” value added products like farm crafted cider, beer, wine and spirits, and about community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, technology and accounting can boost farm income.

During his years at Farm Credit East, Mr. Rogers was involved in developing the Farm Start program, which helped start 125 farms, 65% of which are still in operation.

A host of exhibitors filled the school cafeteria. Modern Farmer Magazine representative Molly Birnbaum said the magazine, which is based in Hudson but focuses on innovative farming all over the world, is gaining advertising and subscriptions because “people are interested in knowing where their food comes from.”

The Carrot Project was promoting its agricultural loan program designed to help producers and processors survive. Camphill Village’s Turtle Tree Seed Company displayed packages of open-pollinated, non-hybrid vegetable, flower and herb seeds. Farm On!’s Tessa Edick explained how her organization had provided financial support so that Taconic Hills could provide locally raised Hudson Valley Fresh milk in its cafeteria.

The Copake Agriculture Center leases acreage to beginning farmers and preserves agricultural land and open space in the center of town.

Each farm feeds 155 people, said the Farm Bureau sign. The organization says 99% of New York farms are family owned and operated, and they are top producers nationwide of cottage cheese, sour cream, apples, cabbage, maple syrup, corn silage, grapes, cauliflower and pumpkins to name a few.

“In New York a farm is lost to development every 3 days. Losing this land threatens our ability to grow local food, protect our drinking water and keep local economies strong. America’s farms produce so much more than food.” says the American Farmland Trust brochure.

It makes one wonder why human society can’t be more like bees, said Maggie Browne, who taught a workshop on bee keeping at the conference. Bees are so well organized, she said, that no one individual needs to be in charge and every member of the society works toward what is most important, the health of the colony.

But bees like farmers are now challenged by powerful forces. For bees it’s the huge numbers that have succumbed to what are called hive die offs–which science has not yet found a cure. Without bees to do the work for them, farmers might have to pollinate their own crops. This is already happening in China, said Ms. Browne and she fears this less effective approach could lead to future food shortages.

But the message of Farming Our Future that came through strongly on Saturday was that there’s help from political, financial and energy sectors, from activists, marketers, educators and consumers, and from young people interested in farming.

The event was sponsored by local and regional entities, including Ginsberg’s, Berkshire Farm & Table, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Columbia-Greene Media, Farm Credit East, Farm On! Foundation and Valley Energy.

 

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