CEW-MR-1-Grazing mediansby Troy Bishopp, The Grass Whisperer

I’m pleased The New York Times released an op-ed piece titled, Keep Farmland for Farmers, poignantly written by Hudson Valley Farmers, Lindsey Lusher Shute and Benjamin Shute which chronicles the plight of finding land and making a go of it beyond the boroughs of New York City. In it they reveal that one-quarter of the land trusts that oversee conservation easements have seen protected land go out of production. Why? A non-farmer had bought it.

They go on to say, “Most landlords offer only short-term leases. They want peace and quiet; they don’t want vegetable or livestock operations that bring traffic, workers, noise and fences. But long-term land tenure is essential for vegetable and livestock growers, who need years to build soil fertility, improve pasture and add infrastructure. Only farms that grow low-value animal feed crops like hay, corn or beans are attracted to these one-year leases.”

Their passions came across loud and clear as I traveled to “The Hickories” Farm in Ridgefield, CT, via the picturesque, 104 mile, Taconic State Parkway to teach grazing management. It always seems when I cross the Hudson River and look down at the resting place for the water that comes off my farm, I get an epiphany. It took about 30 miles of the parkway, Shinedown’s rendition of Simple Man and the pressure of two cups of coffee to force my truck into a gas station, long enough to realize New York State is one of those potential landlords the Shutes were talking about.

Upon returning to the Taconic around Millbrook, NY. I found myself daydreaming about all the “free” grazing opportunities that could take place in the vast grassland medians and roadside shoulders. I was so excited, I’d just pull over at a huge, right-of-way of grass, forbs and silvo-pasture to take pictures of the state sward much to the chagrin of speeding commuters and confused highway workers. I could even envision changing the flashing work zone kiosk to “grazing animals working ahead”.

This crazy idea led me to the rest stop to do some farmer math. Here’s how it went down for me.  Basically, Old Chatham to Hopewell Junction was in the vicinity of 60 miles. Sixty miles is 316,800 feet. I figured very crudely there was an easy 60 foot of grazeable median which was 316,800 feet long times 60 feet wide equaling 19,008,000 square feet divided by 43,560 feet (one acre) with a grand total being over 436 acres of New York State, eco-friendly forage, minus the speeding vehicles.

The grass whisperer was on a roll. Another one of my favorite highway grazing spots is from Belmont to Bath, NY, along Route 17 (Interstate 86) which contains a massive amount of ruminant feed. I figured the same 60 foot width for 50 miles which is a far cry from what is actually grazeable, and came up with over 360 acres. Then I did some figuring for the NYS Thruway medians from Buffalo to Albany which constituted well over 2,100 acres of local opportunity. I didn’t even touch all the other thoroughfares around the state that could help young livestock farmers. It’s got to be in the thousands of acres.

Oh I can hear the safety sheriffs, the fecal police and the DOT union bosses condemning the unthinkable — Really farming the government and its land. This potential cadre of aspiring young farmers and their jovial livestock could be chomping down the budget it takes to maintain a bunch of fertility-starved forage while providing products as close as your nearest rest stop. What would be wrong with a center median CSA share which you could support with your thruway tolls and pick-up when you stop for gas? It’s crazy enough to work.

The median idea to me has no bounds since you could do hops, grapes, veggies, flowers, tree crops and even biomass proliferation. They say cellulosic ethanol is going to be the next boon, so why not think about a one pass, natural fuel harvest starting in Buffalo and finishing up in New York City, creating some green collar jobs along the way. Besides, if I happen to stray off the road, landing in a 4 foot sward of biomass might be gentler on a vehicle and its occupants. I wonder if we could also garner some cap and trade dollars and use them to lessen the thruway tolls. Could this idea include other roadways and other states? I know, I know, I’m out there.

Since I’m a livestock guy and abhor tilling the soil, I think grazing is a better long term fit replacing iron with mowing machines that can reproduce, grow food and fiber, while fertilizing. Profitable grazing would be predicated on having a median grazing plan where you match the land with the needs of the animals, environment and people.

Place signage that indicates mowing ahead and set up the work zone according to DOT standards. Fence the work zone with electric netting and bring in the portable facilities and happy employees to work the area for 8 to 10 hours and then bring them back to a designated staging area for the night, much like construction crews. For me, sheep, goats and pastured poultry would be the employees of choice because of their size and grazing behavior. It’s funny to realize that each mile marker could be a day’s grazing and a local farmer could maintain so many miles from their farm.

The young grazing manager or state shepherd would keep the crew moving leaving the proper residual for maximum re-growth or the potential fuel source to prosper. At the end of the season, each rest stop could feature thruway produced grass-fed meats, eggs, wool mittens and grass pellets that heat the facility. Sound Futuristic or absolutely nuts? Yep, everyone thinks I have totally lost it this time.

Sooo, just to get a reality check, I took this nutty idea on to Connecticut Farmers, Dina Brewster of the Hickories and John Suscovich at FoodCyclist Farm for some practical feedback before I strained my neck looking at the medians on my way home. They both said it might be crazy enough to work if people could keep an open mind, keep it light-hearted and give a small pilot project a chance for a group of young farmers.

I happen to believe in the passion and heart of these two and the thousands of young farmers like the Shutes who know about hard work, thinking outside the box and not afraid to take chances. Heck, I was one of these types back in the distant…80’s. But like this topic of grazing the highways and byways  while building a coalition of entrepreneurial spirits, the song by Paul Simon remains the same: “Still crazy after all these years.”