Roots and Shoots: Local Farms Are Getting Connected

By Pamela Doan

Efforts to “Keep Putnam Farming” are moving into a new phase this year as the surveys of farmers, residents and home gardeners are being tallied and next steps will be planned. Lauri Taylor, a project leader from the Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District, said: “We want to make connections between families, farmers, restaurants and gardeners. Right now we’re still trying to capture what people are doing and find out what each group needs. We want to strengthen the economic viability of farms for the long-term.”

Taylor said they have received 30 surveys back from farmers, more than 100 from residents, and many from gardeners. Next, they are surveying restaurants and institutions to find out if they use local produce or meat and what they would like to be able to get if they can’t find something locally.

Keep Putnam Farming is a joint initiative between the district, the Putnam County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board and Glynwood Farm in Philipstown. More than a dozen agencies and elected officials are collaborating to help the initiative, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the county Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

Since the project launched last June, in addition to the surveys, they’ve organized networking events for farmers. Jennifer Stengle, community educator at the CCE, said: “Bringing the farmers together was really about building community. It gave them a chance to network and also brought business into the mix. This is the right time for this. There’s a different national awareness of farming in general. People know about the farm-to-table movement; it’s integrated into school programs like the Farmer in the Classroom, and people are beginning to understand the value of local produce.”

The community surveys seek feedback and information about buying habits and awareness of local produce, and try to identify other things that residents would buy locally if they could. The survey of gardeners recognizes that home garden supplies need to be readily available and could address needs for essentials, like compost. Both surveys are still active and can be accessed on the Keep Putnam Farming website.

The majority of farms in Putnam are horse farms; they don’t produce livestock or vegetables for food. Taylor said that horse farms can be more profitable: “There is more guaranteed revenue. You don’t have to depend on having a good season for growing. Some of the soils here are challenging for growing, and fencing to keep deer out is expensive.”

Many farmers in Putnam have to work off the farm to make a living. Virginia Kasinki, who runs the Keep Farming program at Glynwood and has done case studies in other counties, said that was a real difference between Putnam and Columbia counties, for instance, or the Berkshires. Agriculture is not an economic driver in Putnam and farms are relatively small.

Kasinki identified challenges to farming here, including property taxes, an inability to find labor and the cost of land, which are common to many areas. In Putnam there are specific issues, though. She said: “The challenge here is that there’s a growing sense of agriculture, which is different. There are more farms and more people wanting to farm, but it’s difficult to get started. We’re close to New York City so it’s enticing because that’s a good market, but you have to be able to get there.”

Although there aren’t large tracts of land in Putnam easily available, there are landowners who might be interested in leasing parcels to farmers for a tax incentive. In general, farms keep land from being developed, which can be good for the environment. Taylor said: “We want local governments to see that there is an economic benefit from farming. While developments might bring in a larger tax base, there is a larger burden, too.”

There have been major losses in agriculture due to climate change. Drought, flooding, extreme temperatures and severe storms have been causing severe damage to crops and livestock. Figuring out how to grow enough food under changing conditions is critical.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have published studies about the impact of climate change on our ability to produce food in the future, and quite simply, some crops will do better in warmer temperatures; some won’t. To adapt to a warmer world — 2014 was the hottest on record yet — farmers are going to need innovative approaches. Supporting local farms is one basic step in the right direction.

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