Back to the farm with a hand from state government

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Eye from Albany
June/July 2004

Back to the farm with a hand from state government
by Paul M. Bray

We may not have the paternalistic government of FDR’s time, but who says an activist government doesn’t still exist? Check out what is happening with agriculture in New York State and you will see proactive government at work under a Republican administration.

Last time I paid much attention to the agriculture industry in the State was in the 1980’s when it truly was almost all industry or commodity production agriculture. Dairy was and still is the king commodity produced in the State. Commodity driven agriculture is large and fairly basic. The farmer sells in large quantities to the processors and so on until the product ends up on the supermarket shelf or on the restaurant table. It is a tough business for the farmer who does most of the work, faces rising production costs but gets a relatively small piece of the financial return. The Farm Bureau, the farmer’s lobby group, was known back then primarily for trying to protect farmers from environmental regulation and ultimately the farmer’s ability to sell the farm for home sites when the time to retire came. Government did not have a large role to play. Things are changing. Production agriculture continues to have the largest share of the agricultural activity in the State. Dairy brings in about 60% of the State’s agriculture revenue. Farmers are under siege from the effects of globalization including the consolidation of the food distribution system. The economic pressures of globalization of markets are great on local producers. On a recent trip to Italy, my friend Alesandro kept exclaiming with a sense of disbelief that tomatoes are being imported into Italy from China. How could the world go on for Italians if they did not have locally grown tomatoes? Yet, as the globalization and consolidation squeezes production agriculture, an increasing awareness of the benefits of local food is taking hold. Small-scale entrepreneurialism on the farm is taking hold and government is a key facilitator for economic viability.

Let’s look at the reasons local food is on the rise beginning with the flavour and taste of what we eat. Former Assemblyman Ed Sullivan from Manhattan remarked to me that the apples he could purchase in Albany were smaller than the large red apples sold in Manhattan, which despite looking better tasted like cotton.

I heard an agriculture scientist from Cornell explain that the reason tomatoes found in the super market are so tasteless is that the development of new strains of tomatoes was exclusively for the purposes of durability for shipping long distances and appearance. He said, “no one was concerned about taste” when the industrial strength tomato was developed. Albeit slowly, a place in the market is developing for locally grown foods, ripened on the vine possessing good flavour. Americans are increasingly appreciating and willing to pay more for artisanal cheese and breads, grass fed beef and heirloom fruits and vegetables. Local production of food creates a working landscape that conserves open space. Efforts to preserve open space from suburban sprawl focus on preserving farmland. With tax benefits to the farmer and funding from the State’s Environmental Protection Fund to acquire agriculture development rights by local land trusts, the community at large is supporting farming, in part, because of its value in maintaining the rural agricultural landscape the community desires.

Local production is also contributing to the viability of urban areas through the growing number of farmer’s markets in cities and villages across the State. Farmer’s markets like New York City’s Greenmarkets are revitalizing urban areas not only economically but also by creating attractive social space that cities lost when retail activity moved from the city to the suburban mall.

Concerns about healthy eating and food security are additional drivers of local production and direct marketing by the farmer. A recent article in the Times Union of Albany told of the increased sales by local natural and organic producers of meat in the Albany area as a result of mad cow fears.

The increase of local food production is being assisted by a synergy between a proactive government, private entrepreneurship by farmers and nonprofit conservation and education entities. At a time when leading political forces in the State and nation are anti-government, State government in New York is a leader and active partner in development, maintenance and marketing of food production.

Look at the material put out by the State’s Department of Agriculture and you will see how wide ranging the role of State government has become.

The “right to farm” law the State is protecting farmers from nuisance suits if a farmer is using good farm practices.

Purchase of agriculture development rights often with State funds guarantees the availability of farmland against the threat of suburban sprawl.

The State’s agriculture district law allows farmland to be assessed on its agriculture rather than development value.

Through grants and technical assistance, the State supports agriculture workforce development from worker training to caring for the children of farm workers. It offers grants to agriculture producers and food processors for expanding their businesses, administers programs for direct, domestic and international marketing for food products including low-income assistance for at-risk families to purchase fresh produce at farmer’s markets statewide, provides third party verification services assuring that food products are produced and/or packed under the safest means practicable and fosters training programs and offers grants to protect water quality through nonpoint source abatement efforts.

The State also provides financial assistance for farmers to build wind turbines and dairy farmers to build methane digesters to generate electricity while managing manure.

The success of New York’s agriculture depends on proactive innovative and collaborative governance. What State government is doing to support agriculture does not seem to be driven by political notions of whether government should be big or small, but rather by what needs to be done to protect farmland and successful farming.

State government has responded by touching all the bases of support from farmland preservation, marketing enhancement, and quality assurance to environmental stewardship. Joining the State’s efforts is a large network of nonprofit and educational institutions like Cornell, nonprofits like Scenic Hudson and the American Farmland Trust and organizations like the NYS Social & Water Conservation Committee.

Urbanites and suburbanites are often well shielded from farms producing quality food and food products in their own backyard. Many people might see government in a more favorable light if they were familiar with the full dimension of what State government is doing to protect and support agriculture in our State.