Hudson, N.Y. — When New Yorkers shop at a farmers market, wait in line at a food pantry, or sit down to dinner at that hip new “farm to table” bistro, they’re likely benefiting from the Hudson Valley, a swathe of farmland extending more than 100 miles north of the city.
But the farmland that’s responsible for the local produce and meat that New York City residents enjoy is under threat from land developers. Land prices in some areas are rising too high for many farmers to afford.
That’s why some think it’s time for the city to kick in and help out. Members of the City Council are urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to spend $5 million a year for 10 years to help conserve farmland in the Hudson Valley by paying farmers to not sell their land to developers. New York would be the first big city in the U.S. to protect farmland outside its borders—a forward-thinking approach to help protect food security.
“By definition, we don’t have much farmland in the city, so we have a real stake in the farmland around us and the access to the food it produces,” Dan Garodnick, the Council member leading the effort to include the farm funding in the budget, told Fusion. “We need to be thinking creatively about how to protect it.”
Because when you talk about local food in New York City, it extends beyond fancy farm-to-table restaurants—a number of food pantries partner with farms in the Hudson Valley to deliver produce those in need. Lower income residents get bonuses on their food stamps if they buy at farmers markets in the city, and doctors of patients battling obesity can give them city-funded coupons for farmers markets.
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The city funding would be administered by municipal officials or a nonprofit like Scenic Hudson, a which helps farmers who can’t afford land arrange deals to preserve their farmland. New York State—along with many other states—already gives farmers funding, but no big U.S. city does this, experts say. The New York City budget is expected to be finalized in the next few days under an agreement between the City Council and the mayor.
New York State loses a farm every three and a half days, mostly to land developers or rich people from the city who want a second home in a peaceful, rural community. The average age of farmers in the U.S. was 58.3 in 2012, compared with 50.5 in 1982, according to the Department of Agriculture, and when older farmers decide to call it quits, developers can pay a lot more money for their land than eager young farmers can.
“We need to move that farmland to the next generation,” Nelson Bills, a Cornell economist who’s studied farmland preservation, told Fusion. “There is clearly an uptick of interest in farming among younger age cohorts… but land prices are not accessible.”
Meanwhile, more city-dwellers are thinking about where their food comes from. There’s been a recent boom in New York in Community-Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.), a system in which a group of people in the city get together to order regular deliveries of local produce. A University of California study this month found that New York City could feed 30 percent of its population with food produced within 100 miles.
De Blasio noted the importance of protecting local farmland in his environmental plan released earlier this year. "Upstate farmland that feeds the city and protects our water supply is disappearing. We will work with the State to conserve the region’s agricultural land for farming," the plan reads. But de Blasio spokesperson Amy Spitalnick declined to confirm to Fusion on whether or not the Scenic Hudson funding will be in the final city budget agreement.
The funding would go to help farmers like Lindsey Shute, 35, who with her partner Ben run Hearty Roots Community Farm outside of Hudson, N.Y., about 130 miles north of New York City. “If there is not more public investment in farms in the Hudson Valley, then farms will not be able to survive,” Shute told Fusion.
Lindsey and Ben rented land in 2004 on a handshake deal from another landowner, but when they wanted to expand their farm and own the land themselves, they found prices too high to afford. With the help of Scenic Hudson, they put a conservation easement on the property—in other words, the nonprofit helped pay for the land and then gave it to the Shutes in exchange for them legally agreeing not to develop the land.
Now their farm is 70 acres, with 800 laying hens and 20 pigs each year. They’re sending their products to about 600 families in the city in a CSA, driving down every week to drop off produce. They want to pass the farm on to their daughters, who are one- and three-years-old.
“Farmers here and nationally are struggling to rent land,” Shute said. “This agreement was essential for our farm to scale up and start raising livestock.”
Making sure farmers themselves own their land is an important component because it gives them the freedom and the capital to grow the farm.
“People think of conserving the land as locking it up from something,” Steve Rosenberg, the president of Scenic Hudson, told Fusion. “Instead, it’s unlocking the potential for them to be more effective, efficient, and expand their operations.”
“This proposal would place New York at the forefront nationally in terms of progressive food policy actions,” he said.
There is a precedent for this kind of arrangement: Since the '90s, New York City has funded reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains upstate in order to guarantee clean water for its eight million residents. Supporters say it’s a natural evolution for the city to support food protection as well.
“This is about supporting underserved communities… who don’t have access to fresh produce,” Garodnick said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.