by Julie Cushine-Rigg
More than 100 farmers and others advocating agriculture turned out for this year’s No Farm No Food Rally in Albany on Wednesday, March 13. Sixteen teams met on the third floor terrace of the Legislative Office Building to implore 64 senators and assembly members to seriously consider three priorities during this budget season.
The priorities were pared down from recent years to three and were: Protect Farmland From Development, Encourage State Agencies to Buy Food Grown in New York and Aid a New Generation of Farmers in Securing Farmland. This made for shorter and more meaningful meetings with lawmakers as previously there were up to five or six issues to address.
David Haight, New York State Director of American Farmland Trust began the morning by stating that over the last quarter century, a farm is lost to development about every three days.
“We have an opportunity do more here in New York State and to do better. I like the joke that if the Midwest is the breadbasket of America, then New York perhaps would be the milk jug of America, the vegetable cart of America, the fruit cup of America — that we produce food that people want to eat… that is an economic opportunity, that is a health opportunity and that is an environmental opportunity,” said Haight.
He went on to say many state leaders recognize those opportunities, and introduced Assemblyperson Bill Magee, Chair of the State Assembly Agriculture Committee to share his thoughts on the importance of the gathering.
Magee has long supported agriculture in any way possible and Haight called him “a friend to look to for leadership.” Magee, who has been in the assembly for more than 20 years then spoke at a hearing on the transition of new generation of farmers held by the Ag Committee in December.
“The purpose of (that) discussion was to review and examine policy and programs that could assist new farmers. The problem has also been identified by the Secretary of the USDA who has announced that we need 100,000 farmers to replace those who are retiring or leaving their farm,” said Magee. To that end, he will be introducing legislation that will implement some of the policies to ensure that the state’s farms will remain strong and viable. Details of the legislation were not available.
“It’s going to be a challenge but something that we’ve got to do,” said Magee. He also commended Governor Cuomo’s attention to agriculture in the recent past with such events as a yogurt summit and one dedicated to wine, beer, spirits and hard cider. With that, Magee added he was glad to see a return of hops being grown in the state once again.
Challenges, said Magee include getting more local food into farmers markets, particularly in the New York City area. He also said schools in the state were having difficulty finding farmers to buy local food from and that there are programs in place to support farm viability and helping farmers, including those who are just starting out.
“Today we want to focus on the needs of the next generation, whether they grew up on a farm or are starting fresh. …Let us know how we can do a better job… We need to get more people into farming and make sure that farms are passed on to the next generation,” said Magee.
Magee’s sentiments spoke loud and clear to farmers like Matt Washburn of New Hampton who bought a Black Dirt farm five years ago. Washburn was on Team #7 along with representatives from the New York Farm Bureau, Columbia Land conservancy and Hudson Valley Farm to School.
One of Team #7’s first stops was to visit Senator Martin Malave Dilan’s office. Dilan D-Brooklyn is from the 18th District, which comprises neighborhoods including Bushwick and Greenport. His chief of staff Heath Heinroth was on-hand to listen to the team voice priorities and Washburn shared his story in relaying the importance of the third priority: Aid a New Generation of Farmers in Securing Farmland.
“Black Dirt looks great and is pretty and all that but it’s not easy farming. …I’m working really hard and I have no facilities. …It’s too far from the regular road to get power from the local electric company,” said Washburn.
He went on to say he had envisioned doing all necessary tasks alone, though he discovered that was a naïve outlook and that establishing a business for small diversified farms is very difficult.
“It’s a whole different world… for me and my peers interested in agriculture,” Washburn said. He added a lot of new farmers could be cultivating lands if requirements that fit the more “engrained” way of farming were adjusted to fit the needs of smaller and more diversified farms — the kinds of farms that younger farmers are starting.
Driving the point home, he added, “It’s a good thing to nurture, I think it’s good for society and it would obviously help me but I’m not doing it just because I thought (that), I want to do something socially responsible with my life.”
Heath happens to hail from a farm in Columbia County, and appreciated hearing Washburn’s story, as did all of the other lawmakers the team met with during the rally. It was the connection to what farmers are doing and trying to do that Washburn made with each of them and those connections are what will hopefully make a difference for lawmakers.
According to the USDA, there are five times as many farmers over age 65 than under 35 in New York and farmers over 65 manage more than 1.5 million acres of farmland across the state. The third priority spelled out by American Farmland Trust calls attention to this stating a recommendation to, “Support legislation to amend Agriculture & Markets Law to add ‘aiding in the successful transfer of viable agricultural land to the next generation of farmers’ to the purposes for the state’s Farmland Protection Program and the areas of focus for the Advisory Council on Agriculture.”
Teams speaking on this priority during the rally also called attention to the need for an inventory of state-owned land that could be made available for agriculture. Lawmakers seemed to be very interested in getting that inventory done.
In summary after the first round of meetings, First Deputy Comptroller Pet Grannis of the NYS Office of the State Comptroller pointed out Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli does indeed have agriculture as one of his top priorities and works closely with American Farmland Trust.
“Food is produced and is vital to our very being. It also supports a sector of the economy… When we buy food closer to home the money we spend on food continues circulating locally and improves local economies — and that’s always a good thing,” said Grannis.
He also said unclaimed nickel-back bottles and cans were valued in the billions of dollars, were put in the state’s General Fund and could be used in addressing one or more of the priorities identified at the rally.
by Julie Cushine-Rigg