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.

GrowNYC Helps Urban Gardens Prepare for Climate Change

Is your garden prepared for climate change? Are your hyacinths ready for a heat wave? Is your fig tree ready for a flood? These are the questions GrowNYC is posing to gardeners across New York City this year—and chances are, the answers are “No, no, and no.”

A new manual released by the nonprofit could change that, though, by providing gardeners and greenspace managers with simple strategies to prepare for more severe weather incidents.

The Resilient NYC Community Garden Guide is a practical manual that details easy ways to make your garden or greenspace more resilient, including step-by-step guidelines to minimizing storm damage.

Learning from Sandy

Photo credit: GrowNYC
Photo credit: GrowNYC

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy showed us, in the most straightforward way, our region’s immense vulnerabilities when it comes to climate change. It also gave us a glimpse of what is to come: more severe weather events, frequent flooding, higher temperatures, and less predictable outcomes.

In fact, these changes are already happening: just last month, New York City received nearly five inches of rain in a single day. As our region begins to tackle the infrastructure needed to handle these changes, GrowNYC is making sure we don’t leave our greenspaces and urban gardens behind.

Lenny Librizzi, GrowNYC’s assistant director of open space greening, remembers the impact of Sandy well. “Around 25 community gardens were damaged in some way by Superstorm Sandy. A number of them had large trees come down causing extensive damage. Others were completely flooded by the ocean or the East River.”

And while GrowNYC was awarded funding to help these gardens recover—through soil replacement, raised bed installation, debris removal, and other repairs—Librizzi hopes that in the future, with the help of their new guide, that won’t be necessary.

A Guide for the Future

Photo credit: GrowNYC
Photo credit: GrowNYC

The 15-page guide is meant to provide practical, approachable advice to gardeners of all kinds—backyard, community, and beyond. It provides preventative steps, like pruning, rainwater collection, and infrastructure enhancements, that can enable a garden to withstand the winds, rain, drought, and snow that come with a changing climate.

The pages are filled with illustrations, diagrams, and photographs that make it easy, even for gardening novices, to take steps towards resiliency. The end of the booklet also contains pre- and post-storm checklists that are designed to keep gardeners safe and healthy.

Resilient NYC Community Garden Guide
Resilient NYC Community Garden Guide

GrowNYC has distributed more than 1,000 copies of the guide to NYC community gardeners at gatherings, workshops and plant sales. The guide is also available online.

If you’d like to see some of these resiliency strategies in action, Librizzi recommends the following:

  • Campos Community Garden on the Lower East Side, where gardeners replaced wooden raised beds with recycled plastic lumber, which is less likely to be displaced by flooding and can be reused after floods.
  • College Avenue Community Garden in the Bronx, where GrowNYC has helped prune dead and damaged branches on trees and added dwarf fruit trees which will not grow as tall as standard varieties and therefore be less likely to be damaged by wind. This garden also repurposed many of the downed limbs into rustic structures in the garden.
  • Santos White Community Garden in Coney Island, which received a new shade structure that incorporates rainwater harvesting as a way to mitigate damage from heavy rains.


Urban Gardeners in NYC: Test Your Soil!

In just a few months, community gardens throughout New York City will once again become bountiful sources of fresh local produce for residents: ripe, red tomatoes, lush salad greens, crunchy radishes.

Unfortunately as it turns out, many of those same gardens are also rich sources of lead, arsenic, and other pollutants.

According to an article in the NY Post,

The data come from a first-of-its-kind soil-contaminant study by scientists from the state Center for Environmental Health published in the journal Environmental Pollution earlier this year.

Scientists found lead levels above federal guidelines at 24 of 54 city gardens, or 44 percent of the total. And overall, they found toxic soil at 38 gardens — 70 percent of the total. But the study did not reveal the locations or names of the gardens, and officials were mum, prompting The Post’s March FOIL request.

The worst single soil sample was found in The Bronx at Bryant Hill Garden — where lead was detected at 1531 ppm, new documents revealed.

The federal threshold for lead and arsenic is 400ppm and 16ppm, respectively.

Lead in soil is not just a legacy of lead paint, though gardens located near any structure built before 1978 (when lead-based paint was taken off the market) or near a demolition site are particularly at risk.

Leaded gasoline, plumbing, and pesticides have also contributed to high levels of the toxin in our soil, and while those are now outlawed, batteries and automotive parts still contain lead today.

Urban or rural, there are very few places that are immune.

What to Do?

The first step in making sure the fruits of your garden are healthy and safe is to test your soil! There are easy, affordable, and very accessible ways to go about this. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a great tip sheet that outlines exactly how to sample your soil and where to send it. For what it’s worth, NYER has had a good experience with Brooklyn College.

Once you know your levels, you can determine how to proceed. Maybe you can get right to planting, or perhaps soil remediation or replacement is required. Building raised beds is also an option for avoiding tainted soil altogether!

And as for the NYC gardens that showed high levels of lead? City Parks Department spokesman Phil Abramson said those gardens received clean soil after the study.

5 Things to Know About NY Agriculture from the 2012 Census

Every five years (the ones ending in a 2 or a 7, in case you were wondering), the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a census of American farmers. Processing all that data takes quite a bit of time (heck, just getting farmers to return it is pretty time-intensive), so preliminary results for the 2012 census were just released last month.

In case you’re not familiar, the census provides a comprehensive summary of agricultural activity in every state and county in the nation, including the number of farms* by size and type, inventory and values for crops, farmer* characteristics, and much more.

While the detailed report won’t be available until late spring, the first batch of data is here now. Overall the data shows the continuation of the same trends we’ve seen for years: our farmers are getting older and fewer in number, and the farms that do stick around are getting bigger.

Dig a little deeper though, and there are some bright spots to be had—even here in the Big Apple. Below are five important things to know about New York agriculture in 2012, as revealed by the first batch of census data.

  • Young farmers are sprouting: The number of farmers under the age of 35 in New York State grew 14.4 percent over the five-year period (from 1,879 to 2,149)—that’s way above the national increase of just 1.1 percent. Wes Hannah of the National Young Farmers Coalition explained the growth to NYER this way: “New York is one of the leaders in providing many programs and benefits for beginning farmers—everything from a strong Cooperative ExtensionNOFA, and other organizations to helpful land trusts and other groups focused on land access. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re optimistic that we’re starting to see the inflection point on recognizing the need to support the next generation.”
  • Farmers are becoming more diverse: While the total number of farmers in the United States continues to fall, the farmers we do have are becoming more diverse. Here in New York, the number of farms being operated by those of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origins has increased by 27 percent since 2007. Those operated by Asians are up 8.4 percent, and by African Americans 6 percent.
  • We’re still losing farms…but not as fast as the rest of the nation: From 2007 to 2012, the United States lost farms at nearly twice the rate as New York State (a 4.3 percent decline compared to a percent decline) That being said, New York still lost 814 farms over the five year period, which works out to about three farms per week. Ouch.
  • Farmland acreage is increasing: According to the report, land being used for farm operations in New York has increased by .12 percent, to 7,183,579 acres. That may not seem like a lot, but nationwide we actually saw a drop of 0.8 percent.
  • We’ve got a few more full-time farmers. Off-farm employment has always been important for America’s farming population (whether for additional income, health benefits, or other reasons), and New York is no different. Forty-two percent of New York farmers report another job as their primary occupation—but that’s 4 percent less than 2007. That means more farmers are finding a way to make full-time food production work, and that’s good news.

These demographic, economic, and production trends are not only super-interesting for all of us numbers geeks—they’re also a critical tool for policy makers, community planners, journalists, farmers, and the general public, too. The best part is, this is just a taste of what’s to come! Full results are expected in May 2014.

(* Note: The USDA defines a farm as any agricultural enterprise that produces and sells goods worth at least $1,000 in a year. Demographic data is taken from surveys of each farm’s “principal operator.”)

Farm Bill a Mixed Bag, But Mostly Good for Conservation

A multi-year “food-fight” over a nearly $1 trillion piece of legislation has finally ended, resulting in a bipartisan Farm Bill that is mostly good news for New York’s environment.

The final bill, which cuts $23 billion (or slightly more than 2 percent) from the overall budget, still includes $57 billion for conservation-related programs. While this represents a decrease of about $6 billion from 2008 levels, it is the first time since the original farm bill in 1933 that funding devoted to conservation has exceeded expenditures earmarked for commodity subsidies (crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat).

The final bill still includes $57 billion for conservation-related programs.

Indeed, it’s often overlooked that the Farm Bill is, by far, our nation’s largest investment in the conservation and management of private lands. With 36,000 farms in New York State, and roughly half of the contiguous U.S. under some form of agricultural usage (crop, pasture, range), these programs have incredible reach and the potential to impact a huge swath of New York farmland.

Coming in at 949 pages, the Farm Bill isn’t exactly a quick read. Just in case you haven’t had time to pore over the entire thing, we’ve hand-picked what we think you should know about conservation programs in the Farm Bill—both the good and the not-so-good.

The Good:

If the two-year struggle leading up to the bill’s signing seemed contentious, the reaction to the final version was not any less combative. For the most part, though, conservationists were pleased—enough so that The Nature Conservancy and more than 230 other organizations came together to support its passage. Some of the wins for the environment include:

  • Local Food Systems: The bill invests heavily in the development, growth, and expansion of local and regional foods—good news for New York farms (and those who support them). Programs like the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion, Community Food Projects, and Specialty Crop Block Grants all received steady or increased funding. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, essential to the future of New York’s farming community, received $100 million in funding.
  • Increasing Organics: Also included is significant support for organic agriculture research and a program that helps farmers offset the costs of organic certification, something that is “particularly important to the small-scale farmers in New York State,” said Elizabeth Henderson, co-chair of the Policy Committee for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), in conversation with NYER. “That money really enables smaller farms to remain certified organic.”
  • More Maple: Finally, the bill includes a $20 million grant program for research and expansion of maple tapping, thanks to the work of New York Senator Chuck Schumer. New York currently taps less than one percent of the state’s nearly 300 million maple trees, forcing the U.S. to import four times as much maple syrup as it produces.

The Not-So-Good

Of course in a bill this vast there are bound to be problems. For starters, a controversial $8 billion cut to food stamp programs means 300,000 low-income households in New York will have less money for food each month. Other, more conservation-related let-downs include:

  • Reducing the Reserve: In addition to cutting $6 billion out of the conservation budget, the new Farm Bill also cuts the acreage of the Conservation Reserve Program from 32 million to 24 million. This program encourages landowners to take sensitive lands out of production and plant them in grass, and is estimated to save 450 million tons of soil from erosion each year.
  • Dairy Disappointment: Dairy farmers in New York and the Northeast were frustrated to see the Dairy Market Stabilization Program removed from the final bill. The provision was designed to reduce milk production when prices drop, preventing a market glut and pricing free-fall. House Speaker John Boehner called the program “Soviet-style” and blocked its inclusion. Bob Wellington, dairy economist at the milk cooperative Agri-Mark, lamented the loss: “We had a program that was going to save money [and] work better in the marketplace.”
  • Sticky Subsidies: While the bill does put an end to controversial direct payments, it expands crop insurance programs which many believe are not much better. These programs pay farmers up to $100,000 when they experience a crop failure, and generally go to the largest commodity farms. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), described the move this way: “At a time of fiscal restraint, growing income inequality, and economic distress in rural communities, it is appalling for the new farm bill to continue uncapped, unlimited commodity and crop insurance subsidies for mega-farms.”

What’s Next

The relief that surrounds the passage of the Farm Bill is palpable among conservationists, farmers, and lawmakers alike. And while conservation initiatives seemed to win in 2014, sustainable agriculture groups will stay vigilant with their eyes focused on future Farm Bill debates.

“The process that went on for this is so dysfunctional and so far from actually developing a program for healthy food and agriculture for the whole United States. It makes you want to tear your hair out,” lamented Elizabeth Henderson of NOFA.

“We are pleased that the bill renews support for innovative programs that invest in the next generation of farmers, the growth of local and organic agriculture, and economic opportunity in rural communities,” said Ariane Lotti, Assistant Policy Director with NSAC, in a statement. “We do not endorse the process that has led to completion of this farm bill nor do we think it represents the 21st century policy we need to support a sustainable farm and food system.”

Hudson Valley “Farm Hub” To Preserve Land, Educate Young Farmers

An innovative Hudson Valley project may soon have a storied parcel of farmland producing new farmers in addition to fruits and vegetables.

At the end of December 2013, the NoVo Foundation—run by Warren Buffett’s son Peter and his wife Jennifer—announced that it had purchased Gill Farm, a 75-year-old family-run vegetable operation covering more than 1,200 acres, for $13 million.

The Foundation intends to eventually transfer the property to an independent nonprofit organization that will operate it as a “farm hub”—a center dedicated to sustainable agriculture, farmer training, and related services.

Stemming the Tide of Development

Located just 100 miles from New York City in the town of Hurley, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub aims to become a regional farming center for sustainable agriculture by offering training and other services, all with the goal of preserving valuable farmland and educating a new generation of growers.

The need for such a project is great: The American Farmland Trust figures show that New York has been losing farmland at a rate equivalent to one farm every 3½ days. In fact, the Hudson Valley’s core counties—Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester—lost more than 10,000 farms and more than one million farm acres between 1950 and 2007, according to federal statistics.

The new Farm Hub will offer beginning and established farmers a range of resources, including:

  • Hands-on training in sustainable farming practices to meet modern-day challenges;
  • Marketing assistance to help grow their businesses;
  • Information on cutting-edge practices and technologies that promote resilient agriculture;
  • Assistance with secure and affordable access to land; and
  • Expanded access to capital to establish and expand their farming operations.

A central part of the program will be the creation of “incubator farms,” plots ranging from three to 20 acres to be worked by new farmers without the pressures of finding and investing in affordable land.

Making the Transition

While excitement for the project, which could eventually be the largest incubator project in the country, is running high, there are lingering concerns among Hudson Valley residents about its scale and impact.

While the Hub aims to eventually turn out new local farmers and business owners, there will be some immediate job losses—up to 100 migrant workers who found employment at Gill Farm will be displaced by this transition.

Other established farmers have expressed concern about changes to the grower community created by an influx of young farmers, and the ability for existing growers to compete with a flood of “foundation-supported” vegetables.

Bob Dandrew, a representative for the project, tried to address some of these concerns at a December press conference. “We know in New York City alone, there is unmet demand for local food of more than $1 billion a year. I’m convinced if we do it right, we can help our farmers get access to that market and make really great things happen, ” said Dandrew. Assistance in developing a cohesive marketing strategy will be part of the incubator process.

It also helps that John Gill, the farm’s current owner and life-long Ulster County resident, will be involved in the transition of the property from private farm to education and research center and will remain in the position of Farm Manager.

“It’s always been important to me that our farm remains a working farm – this way I can preserve my grandfather’s and my father’s legacy,” said Gill at the press event.  “I’m really happy that I’ll be involved in the next chapter, and to know that the farm will always remain viable and help prepare future generations of farmers.”

Master planning for the new Farm Hub will begin in early 2014 and programs are slated to begin operations on-site by the spring of 2015.

A Milestone for Food Metrics in New York

Soon, public school students, hospital patients, and even senior center residents in New York State could find locally grown fruits and vegetables on their daily menus, thanks to a new law passed by Governor Cuomo.

The Food Metrics Bill (S.4061/A.5102), sponsored by Sen. Patty Ritchie and Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, mandates that New York State agencies establish a robust tracking and reporting system for all the food they purchase.

The law requires successful bidders on state food contracts to provide the type, dollar value, and geographic origin of all their food to the procuring agency and also requires the Office of General Services and the Department of Agriculture and Markets to develop guidelines for state agencies on increasing their purchase of local foods.

“Eating local is a big trend right now—and it can mean big business for local farmers and food producers. This legislation builds upon that movement, seeking to use the purchasing power of state government to help farmers grow,” said Senator Ritchie.

This bill will provide New York State with valuable (and currently non-existent) baseline data about money being spent on food as well as the geographic source of such food, all with the aim of increasing the amount of local goods purchased by state agencies.

This information will also be shared with the state’s agricultural community, in hopes that farms may tap into the institutional food market by shifting production towards those items shown to be in demand.

Channeling this opportunity to local farms can reduce carbon emissions related to food production and transportation and help keep them profitable, protecting vulnerable farmland from development.

The New York League of Conservation Voters, which works to make environmental sustainability a top political and policy priority in New York State, named State Senator Patty Ritchie a 2013 “Eco-Star” for her work on The Food Metrics Bill.

Taking a Bite out of NYC’s Carbon Emissions

From shopping at Greenmarkets to eating less meat, New Yorkers can reduce their carbon footprint three times a day by making more sustainable food choices—a fact many agriculture groups hope Bill de Blasio will champion during his term as mayor.

Up to 13 percent of all household carbon emissions can be traced back to what we eat and how it’s grown, packed, and shipped. With 8.3 million permanent residents and 52 million tourists visiting annually, New York City requires a lot of food—yet most of it is grown in other states (or even other countries), using pesticides and carbon-intensive growing methods.

Creating sustainable food policies and increasing local food purchasing could not only reduce the city’s carbon footprint, but also support our health, our economy, and our environment.

Putting Things in Context

Food policy is not a new issue for New York City. During the 12 years that Michael Bloomberg served as mayor, his administration maintained a serious focus on public health, working to increase access to fresh, nutritious food for all New Yorkers.

And on a state level, the Food Metrics Bill passed by Governor Andrew Cuomo this past December will ideally lay the groundwork for increased purchasing of local food by state agencies.

But many involved in agriculture and environmental efforts in the city feel Bloomberg missed a critical opportunity to highlight the connection between agriculture and carbon emissions.

For example, the first edition of the landmark PlaNYC was all but silent on the issue of food. The second edition, released in 2011, did introduce food as a “cross-cutting issue,” but devoted only two of the plan’s 98 pages to food, with no concrete policy steps. By comparison, Chicago’s regional plan has an entire chapter devoted to food systems.

Taking Stock

Now that Bill de Blasio has taken office, many are scrambling to understand how his administration will approach these same issues.

While he has not yet tipped his hand with regards to climate change or food policy specifics, there is reason for optimism.

In July of 2009, then-city councilmember Bill de Blasio sponsored the first ever resolution linking food and climate change, “A Resolution to Reduce NYC’s Climate ‘Foodprint.’” In it, de Blasio called for the implementation of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s report “Food in the Public Interest,” a lengthy series of recommendations to increase the availability of locally grown food in New York City.

De Blasio also encouraged the establishment of “FoodprintNYC,” a citywide initiative that would include “climate-friendly food policies and programs, financial and technical support, a public awareness campaign regarding the city’s food consumption and production patterns and greater access to local, fresh, healthy food.”

Specifically, the resolution called for:

  • An analysis of New York City’s foodshed;
  • An expansion of local and/or organic food distribution centers, both wholesale and retail;
  • Increased support for community gardens and urban farming initiatives; and
  • Local food procurement goals of 20% for city-run institutions within 10 years.

Sadly, while Foodprint garnered a respectable number of co-sponsors and a lot of grassroots support, the full council never actually voted on it. Many suspect de Blasio became distracted by his own campaign for public advocate. Others argued that the resolution process was not the best approach for Foodprint in the first place: resolutions are nonbinding and often only express a legislature’s intent.

The Next Four Years

We have yet to see how food and climate priorities will shape de Blasio’s administration, and attempts to reach his office for comment have so far been unsuccessful.

But there is at least some hope that Foodprint remains a guide for future policy work. For one thing, de Blasio participated in the first-ever Mayoral Candidate Forum on the Future of Food in NYC this past July, and did not shy away from making the connection between food, sustainability, and climate change.

And, as the new mayor of a city built on a collection of islands with 520 miles of coastline, one hopes that preparing for and fighting against climate change will become a central tenant of his sustainability platform.

De Blasio’s previous support of Foodprint—and the coalition built around it—proves that he and other New York City policy-makers are aware of the critical connection between food and climate change. Whether he and his administration will take action around these issues remains to be seen.