Dry Spell: New York Faces Worst Drought in Decades

For those of us living in New York City, this summer’s overall lack of rain may not have registered in any major way, beyond, say, fewer impulse buys of cheap bodega umbrellas. But for our neighbors to the east in Long Island, or westward in Central New York, things are starting to get a bit…crispy.

Dust clouds trail tractors as they plow through fields. Pastures, normally lush and green, are spiky and yellow. Corn stalks are stunted, brown. Streams are running dry. Black bears are raiding bird feeders and garbage cans, searching for additional food.

More than 80% of New York State is currently facing some level of abnormal dryness or drought this summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. At least 10% of the state is experiencing what officials have deemed “extreme drought” conditions, complete with major agricultural losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions.

 

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Twenty-four drought-stricken counties in New York have been designated “natural disaster areas” by the USDA. The 13,000+ farms contained within, encompassing some 3.7 million acres, are now eligible for federal assistance.

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Stunted corn crops in Phelps, New York. Photo credit: Finger Lakes Times

Hardest hit crops in New York include corn and other crops that farmers rely on to feed their animals. Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager and associate director of public policy for the New York State Farm Bureau, reported that the corn crop, on average, is a foot shorter than last year, and farmers are reporting losses in yield of 50 to 60 percent.

The drought has also cut into quality. The USDA estimates 40 percent of the crop is fair to poor in quality.

These conditions extend beyond New York’s borders, too: as of September 15th, nearly 40% of the Northeast is experiencing some sort of drought, up from 28% the week before.

Beyond a Lack of Rain

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This picture may look green, but look closer: the summer drought and sustained heat have killed thousands of pine trees at the Hemlock Haven Christmas tree farm in Oswego County. Photo credit: Payne Horning/WRVO News

The cause of New York’s record drought is more complex than a simple lack of rain. Sustained high temperatures this summer, along with a record warm winter (resulting in minimal snowpack), have contributed to the parched conditions.

This past June was the driest in some parts of the state since 1973, and in the parts of the state experiencing “Extreme Drought,” rainfall over the past 6 months has totaled a meager 50 to 60 percent of normal, with most streamflows in the lowest 5th percentile.

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The water level in Fall Creek, the source of Cornell’s water, is low due to the drought. Photo credit: Cornell Chronicle

Long, sunny days and low humidity have continued to dry out plants and soil, so that even when rain does fall, it evaporates quickly and doesn’t make it deep into the soil, where it can help crops and groundwater supplies.

There hasn’t been a long, soaking rainfall in months, David Thomas, a weather service meteorologist in Buffalo, told New York Upstate. Instead, more scattered thunderstorms have been the main source of moisture for much of the state. Thunderstorms dump a lot of rain quickly, so much of it ends up running off rather than soaking in, he said.

The Climate Prediction Center anticipates that the drought is likely to persist through at least the end of the year.

Stamp of Approval: NY Launches Local Food Certification Program

Could one little sticker simplify your search for locally grown, sustainable food? The Cuomo administration believes it just might.

Last week, at a press conference in the Bronx, Governor Cuomo unveiled “New York State Grown & Certified,” a first-of-its-kind program to identify and promote New York food producers who adhere to specific safety and sustainability guidelines.

The multi-faceted program has three goals:

  1. Strengthen consumer confidence in New York products;
  2. Address food product labeling; and
  3. Assist New York farmers in taking advantage of the growing market demand for locally grown foods.
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Farms that qualify for the program will be able to label their produce with a “New York Grown & Certified” sticker. Photo credit: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

The Department of Agriculture and Markets will work with New York State producers to assist them in qualifying for the voluntary certification program. Farmers interested in participating will have their facilities inspected by health and agriculture officials, and those who meet the standards will get to label fruits and vegetables with a special “New York State Grown & Certified” sticker. 

The state will also launch a marketing campaign this fall to promote awareness of the program and highlight participating producers.

More than 100 qualifying farms have already expressed interest in the program.

“New York State agriculture is an essential pillar of our economy, bolstered by the modern market demands for safer and more sustainable food,” Governor Cuomo said. “The New York Grown & Certified Program strengthens the link between producers and consumers and provides new opportunities for agricultural development.”

NYC Big Businesses Now Required to Compost Food Waste

New York City’s slow march towards zero waste has reached yet another milestone: as of July 19, certain large businesses are required by law to separate and recycle organic waste. The law applies to about 350 establishments, including stadiums, hotels, food manufacturers, and wholesalers.

Businesses that must comply are those who meet the following criteria:

  • All food service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms
  • All food service vendors in arenas and stadiums with seating capacity of at least 15,000 people
  • Food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet
  • Food wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet

These businesses are given the option to arrange for collection by a private carter, transport organic waste themselves, or process the material on site.

If handling the waste themselves, businesses can use a machine called an ORCA, which can “digest” more than a ton of food waste per day. Using continuous motion, a proprietary “natural Microorganism solution” and “recycled plastic Bio Chips,” the ORCA turns food waste into “environmentally safe water” that can be disposed of into the municipal sewage system.

See an ORCA in action here.

Part of a Larger Picture

New York City’s organics collection plays a key role in Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious OneNYC plan, which sets forth a goal of “Zero Waste” by 2030.

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DSNY organic collection bins. Photo credit: BioHitech

Organic waste (food scraps, yard waste, and soiled paper not suitable for recycling) comprises nearly one-third of all waste NYC residents discard at the curb—approximately 1.1 million tons per year. In landfills, this organic material decomposes, releasing methane gas, a greenhouse gas six times more potent than carbon dioxide.

If composted, however, this material can be converted into a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer that can replenish our city’s soil. It can also be processed through anaerobic digestion, releasing methane gas that can be captured and used as an alternative to natural gas.

Since the launch of a pilot program in 2013, curbside organics collection has expanded include approximately 50,000 households and 700,000 residents across the city. By the end of 2016, DSNY plans to serve more than a million New Yorkers.

The goal is to make curbside or drop-off programs available to all residents by the end of 2018.

In April 2016, DSNY reported collecting more than 55 tons of organic material across the five boroughs—a 50% increase over the amount collected in April 2015.

 

New Rooftop Farm in Queens Will Grow 5 Million Heads of Lettuce Every Year

No more excuses, New York—it’s time to eat your veggies. A massive new rooftop farm has opened in Queens, and the facility could produce up to 5 million heads of leafy greens every year.

According to a press release issued by Governor Cuomo’s office, local farming outfit Gotham Greens has opened its third New York City-based facility, this time atop the Ideal Toy Company factory complex in the Hollis section of Queens. Gotham Greens also operates rooftop farms in the Greenpoint and Gowanus neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

The new 60,000-square foot facility is a climate-controlled greenhouse that will employ automated technologies and ecologically sustainable methods to grow a range of vegetables, including lettuce, kale, bok choy, basil, and tomatoes.

The massive facility nearly triples the amount of local produce Gotham Greens can provide to New York Tri-State area consumers.

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An aerial view of the new facility in Queens. Photo credit: Gotham Greens.

Gotham Greens CEO Viraj Puri said:

“Opening this new state-of-the-art greenhouse facility in the middle of winter underscores the innovative story of Gotham Greens. Never before have consumers in our marketplace been able to get locally grown produce this fresh at this time of year. After the recent record breaking blizzard, our freshly harvested produce was on supermarket shelves the very next day.”

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A Gotham Greens employee harvesting basil. Photo credit: Gotham Greens.

Funding for the new rooftop farm was provided by The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. According to the press release:

These funds helped pay for the installation of high-efficiency lighting, cooling and automated crop production systems. Energy efficiency is a major component of Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) to build a clean, resilient and affordable energy system for all New Yorkers, as the State works to reduce energy use in buildings by 23 percent by 2030.

Gotham Greens facilities are 100% powered by renewable energy. Computer control systems ensure that climate control equipment operates efficiently, reducing heating demand and fossil fuel use. Combined with highly efficient production techniques, the farms are capable of producing 50% more crop than conventional greenhouses while using 25% less energy per pound of crop produced.

New York State Empire State Development is also providing Gotham Greens with up to $152,000, in Excelsior Jobs Program Tax Credits in exchange for Gotham Greens’ commitment to create and sustain a minimum of 46 full-time jobs through 2024. They are currently at 40 full time jobs and expect to exceed more than 50 in the next few months.

 

De Blasio Shows Support for Local Food with Hunts Point Investment

Every day, some 13,000 trucks travel into and out of the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, located in the South Bronx. If you purchased or ate food today—and you live in New York City—chances are, most of what you consumed made a stop at this enormous market first.

In fact, a full 60 percent of the city’s produce and about half of the city’s meat and fish passes through Hunts Point for sale and distribution, making it by far the New York region’s largest supplier of wholesale fresh fruits and vegetables to wholesale and retail food businesses.

Needless to say, Hunts Point is a vital component of New York City’s infrastructure—and today, it appears that Mayor Bill de Blasio has acknowledged that.

Speaking at an Association for a Better New York breakfast in Manhattan today, de Blasio announced that his administration will invest $150 million over the next 12 years to revitalize the Hunts Point food distribution center.

Part of these funds would help create a “dedicated space” to better link New York City to upstate food production. This would be beneficial for the economies beyond the five boroughs, he claimed.

It has historically been difficult for small and mid-sized local farms to obtain space at Hunts Point; many are not large enough to afford the commissions at the market but are not small enough.

Details of this program have not yet been released, but clearly there is enormous potential to create jobs and support food that is grown and produced in upstate New York.

De Blasio noted that the funding will also be used to modernize and renovate buildings and other infrastructure, as well as open new space for small businesses. Hunts Point currently supports 115 private wholesalers that employ more than 8,000 people.

Additionally, officials noted that the New Fulton Fish Market will add food manufacturing facilities, and a nearby brownfield site will be remediated to be used as a food processing or manufacturing facility.

“It’s hard to overstate how important Hunts Point is to the future of the city,” said de Blasio. “These are good, decent-paying jobs for New Yorkers at every education level. Our plan protects those jobs and positions the site to create many more jobs for New Yorkers in the future.”

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Hunts Point distribution center. Photo via Google Earth.

New York Ranks High in Apple, Grape Production

If you can find it in your cold, iced-over, Vitamin D-deprived heart, consider this: New York has three other seasons besides winter. And during those seasons, things grow here—things that aren’t blackened snow piles pocked with dog poop and uncollected garbage.

Plants, even!

To remind you of this miracle, and give you something to peruse while it snows (yes, again), the USDA recently released the Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts Summary for 2014, a descriptively-named guide to U.S. fruit production numbers by state.

In typical New York fashion, the Empire State ranks high, coming in second in the country for apple production, and third for grapes. The news comes as New York celebrates a record agricultural sales year in 2013 and a range of other farm-based successes.

Leader of the Pack

According to the report, New York is home to 40,000 acres of apple orchards producing an estimated 1.26 billion pounds of apples in 2014. That puts New York second in the nation, a ranking it has maintained since 1996. Only Washington State produces more.

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Remember spring, summer, and fall? We will see them again. Photo credit: Porsche Brosseau / Creative Commons.

According to the New York Apple Association, there are 694 commercial apple growers in the state, who tend more than 10 million trees. These orchardists coax fruit from more than 20 varieties, from the familiar Fuji, Gala, and Golden Delicious, to the more obscure RubyFrost, Zestar, and Northern Spy. Some of these heirloom types can only be found at roadside stands or at the orchards themselves.

The NYAA estimates that 53 percent of the annual apple harvest is sold as fresh-market fruit, with the remainder being processed into juice, cider, and canned products.

A Bushel and a Peck… and a Bottle

As you might expect in a state with high apple production, New York also has a thriving hard cider industry. That’s thanks in part to a relatively new piece of legislation signed by Governor Cuomo.

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There are more than 50 cider producers in New York State. Photo via NY Cider Week.

The Farm Cidery law took effect in January 2014, creating a new license available to small, craft farm cideries that use crops grown exclusively in New York State. Previously, cider production was allowed only under a brewery or winery license.

The new legislation releases cider-makers from some of the more stringent restrictions placed upon brewers and winemakers, while permitting sales at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer outlets. It also creates a market for “seconds” apples—fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

So far, 11 farm cideries in New York have been granted a license, a number which is expected to grow in coming years.

Additional legislation drafted by Senator Chuck Schumer would decrease the federal tax on hard cider to the same rate as the tax on beer (currently it is taxed at the same rate as wine).

On the Vine

Not to be outdone, New York’s grape growers also ranked high in the USDA report, coming in third in the country, behind California and Washington.

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Grapes in the vine at Benmarl Winery in Marlborough, NY. Photo credit: Young Sok Yun/Creative Commons.

More than 37,000 acres across the state are dedicated to the production of grapes. In the wake of a very harsh winter following the best crop in the state’s history, grape growers produced 5.08 tons per acre of grapes in 2014 with crop production totaling $69.4 million.

As for other fruits, well, the Empire State’s no slouch there either: New York also ranks in the top 10 in the blueberry, peach, pear, strawberry, and sweet/tart cherries industries.

Good News for Nugget Fans

If the thought of a crispy, golden-brown chicken nugget makes your mouth water, rest assured you are not alone. Billions of nuggets are consumed in the United States each year, many of them by kids as part of a school lunch program.

And now, there’s a nugget of good news for the chicken-lovers among us: six of the largest U.S. school districts — including New York City — announced today that they will seek to buy only antibiotic-free chicken for their school lunch programs.

The group — which also includes Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County, and Orlando — makes up a coalition called the Urban School Food Alliance that works to leverage their immense purchasing power in order to “drive quality up and costs down while incorporating sound environmental practices.”

In other words, they push for better, healthier, more sustainable food in schools across the country — and because they represent such a large portion of the school food market, food suppliers tend to listen. Consider this: New York City public schools serve 860,000 meals every day, and together these six districts include 2.6 million kids.

That’s a lot of nuggets.

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Free-range meat chickens. Photo credit: USDA

According to the Alliance, the new standards for the districts require that all chicken products must come from birds that were never fed antibiotics. The requirements also stipulate an all-vegetarian diet for the chickens, as well as humane living conditions.

These changes come at a time of increased awareness about the dangers of antibiotic misuse in livestock production, and concerns about “superbugs,” bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust, up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States go to healthy food animals. This practice often compensates for less-than-ideal living conditions and to make chickens, pigs, and cows grow faster.

According to NRDC, this overuse also “kills off weak bacteria and creates the perfect environment for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to multiply and thrive. When the meat industry routinely misuses and overuses antibiotics in this way, it threatens public health when essential drugs no longer work to treat infections.”

Now if only they could do something about that 40 percent thing.

City Schools Get Scrappy As Compost Collection Expands

In the eternal battle to get kids to eat their greens, the stakes just got a little…lower? Last month, New York City announced a dramatic expansion of its school organics collection program, meaning that what doesn’t feed kids could eventually feed plants instead.

Starting this academic year, 720 schools across the city will be composting food waste, including every public school in Manhattan and Staten Island. That’s an enormous increase from the previous year’s 358 schools, and the Department of Sanitation hopes to have all of the city’s educational facilities on board by 2016-17.

Scooping Up Savings

New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day (that’s 40 million pounds!). A large portion of that is generated by the public school system, which has more than 1,800 buildings spread out through the city.

Forty percent of school waste comes directly from the cafeteria.

Dealing with this output has enormous financial costs — NYC spends approximately $100 per ton to dispose of trash in landfills — and the process of getting it to its final destination is fraught with health, environmental, and social issues.

While there’s no doubt that having kids actually eat their veggies would be the best possible way to reduce school waste, it has become clear that organics collection and composting are also pretty good options.

“We realized that if we could divert that waste, we could not only save the city money, but we could also make an extraordinary environmental impact and make a statement about recycling.” says John Shea, chief executive officer at the New York City Department of Education.

Depending on where the participating school is located, the organic material is picked up by city sanitation trucks and taken to compost facilities in Staten Island, upstate New York or Delaware. From there, the waste decomposes into nutrient-rich soil that is then sold to farmers and landscapers.

Eventually, the city will also send compost to the Newtown Creek digester eggs, which turn garbage into natural gas.

DSNY claims that the cost of composting organics is 40 to 60 percent less than disposing of regular trash, thanks to the resale of the end product. Once the city’s entire school system is participating, administrators expect that they will be able to negotiate even lower costs with the facilities that receive the material.

Color-Coding and Hands-on Training

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Compost. Photo credit: zen Sutherland | Compost collection bins. Photo credit: NYC.gov

Implementing a composting system in public school — where kids often have less than 30 minutes just to scarf their sandwich — is not for the faint of heart.

The process begins in the cafeteria, where students sort their food into color-coded bins: one for trash (plastic bags, foam cups and wrappers), another for recyclables (metal, glass, plastic and milk cartons), another for liquids (milk, juice, water) and finally, a bin for food scraps.

Some schools utilize “green teams” of students or parents who don latex gloves and wield plastic grabbers to sort wayward objects.

But as one might imagine, the real key is training. “We have been working closely with the NYC Dept of Education to systematically train the Deputy Directors of Facilities who in turn train their custodians, and similarly SchoolFood managers,” says Mary Post, Public Information & Outreach Specialist at the DSNY. “We also provide regular trainings for Sustainability Coordinators in each school; and we’re working with the unions to present trainings to their members.”

The NYC Recycles website also hosts a plethora of resources and information for schools that are implementing composting programs, as does GrowNYC.

Trial by Pilot

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Middle school students enjoying lunch. Photo credit: USDA

The program that could eventually impact the way more than a million students across New York City eat (and discard) their lunch got its start in a much more modest way. In early 2012, a group of five public school parents launched a completely PTA-funded compost pilot in eight District 3 schools on the Upper West Side.

The parents—each of whom chair their school’s “Green Teams”—worked to implement the program in the school cafeterias by training students and staff on composting basics, including how to separate trash from meat, dairy, and kitchen scraps.

They also kept detailed records on how much compost, garbage, and recycling was generated at each school.

At the end of the program, which lasted for exactly four months, the parents found that they were diverting 450 pounds of food waste from landfill every single day — and reducing the volume of cafeteria garbage by 85 percent. In real terms, this meant decreasing the number of garbage bags used in their cafeterias from 54 to eight.

The following academic year the city took over the program, and has expanded it each year since.

Beyond the Funnel Cake: A Photo Essay from the Delaware County Fair

Thank you to Heather Phelps-Lipton for the use of her beautiful photographs from the 2014 Delaware County Fair. 


In some ways, stepping foot onto the grounds of a county fair is like stepping back in time: with the rip of the paper ticket and smell of sweet, warm hay, you’re transported back to the days when homemade reigned supreme and when fried-everything on a stick was as guilt-free as it was delicious.

But fairs aren’t just batter-covered celebrations of yesteryear nostalgia. Even today—173 years since the inaugural New York State Fair in 1841—they remain a relevant platform for the work of beginning and established farmers and a meeting place for area agriculturists. For the rest of us, fairs are a unique way to connect with the regions and people that grow our food and our economy.

“State and local fairs are a wonderful way to showcase projects, ideas, and programs,” says Lorraine Lewandrowski, upstate New York dairy farmer and lawyer. She recalls a trip to this year’s State Fair: “At each stop, I was able to interact with people who were displaying their work. This is so different from simply looking at a website. Our conversations have led to more personal contacts and trust.”

Fairs are also a crucial way to cultivate and encourage youth participation in agriculture—something that’s on the decline across our nation. And even though 4-H and home economics still dominate display tents, some fairs have begun to encourage other disciplines, too, like science, engineering, and robotics.

This year more than 50 individual county fairs took place across New York, and the State Fair set a new single-day attendance record. But crowds at the fair still trend towards locals—something many would like to change. “I would like to see more urban attendance and participation,” says Lewandrowski. “It would be great if ‘urban aggies’ would bring up their displays to Syracuse next year.”

If you missed your county fair this year, or weren’t able to hitch a ride upstate, you’re in luck: today we’re bringing a taste of the county fair to you. Check out these images taken at the 2014 Delaware County Fair. Enjoy!

Scenes from the Delaware County Fair

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Heather Phelps-Lipton was born in Ithaca, N.Y. and raised by wolves. Her photography is a dialogue between curiosity and alienation and explores the drama of the everyday.

Heather studied art at San Diego State, technique at ICP and collodion under Jill Eisenberg and Joni Sternbach. Her photographs have been shown in San Diego, LA and New York. She has also shown photo-based pieces that employ pencil, crayon, embroidery and projection.

Publishing credits include the NY Times, NY Magazine, Village Voice, Time Out NY, Dutch, Brooklyn Edible, Japanese Vogue, Guns, Luna, Nona Brooklyn and Newsday.

NY Announces $20.5 Million for Farmland Protection

State officials announced yesterday that for the first time in five years, a significant amount of funding will be available to help protect New York State’s vulnerable farmland.

More than $20 million will be handed out over the next year to organizations, municipalities, counties, and not-for-profit organizations to fund protection efforts that keep viable agricultural land from being converted to non-agricultural use.

From the press release:

“Protecting and maintaining farmland is vital to supporting the continued growth of New York’s robust agricultural industries,” Governor Cuomo said.

“Farming supports jobs, businesses and economic activity in communities across the State, ultimately representing a cornerstone of our State’s economy. This funding will help to make sure that farms are kept in production, given the tools to grow, and ensure support for farmers and their families.”

A Pressing Issue

Photo credit: Keith Mountain
Photo credit: Keith Mountain

Nationwide, an acre of farmland is lost to real estate development every minute of every day. In the Northeast, this loss is particularly extreme; according to the American Farmland Trust, New York has lost more than 452,000 acres of farmland to development since the 1980s.

Nationwide, an acre of farmland is lost to real estate development every minute of every day.

The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture results released this month shows that the nation’s farmers are also continuing to age. In New York State, the average age of a farmer has increased to 57, nearly 17 years older than the age of the average American worker.

As these farmers begin to age out of the workforce, millions of acres of farmland in the United States will either transition to the next generation or be lost to development, making permanent protection efforts vital.

A New Strategy

Photo credit: Joshua Bousel via Creative Commons
Photo credit: Joshua Bousel via Creative Commons

Protection efforts through New York’s Farmland Protection Program will come primarily in the form of permanent conservation easements, however the state has dedicated $2 million of the funding to a new “incentive payment agreement” program, also known as “lease of development rights.”

This trial program would allow eligible entities to make multi-year commitments to landowners, working with the landowners to seek other funding arrangements to effectively create a perpetual conservation easement on these lands. The press release states that “this particular tool has been identified in municipal agricultural and farmland protection plans adopted across New York.”

Application materials and important webinar information for the Farmland Protection Implementation Grants are available for download on the Department of Agriculture and Markets website. Application materials are also available by calling the Department directly at 1-800-554-4501.