By Chip Rowe
In 2004, an American Farmland Trust report concluded that major changes were needed to save agriculture in the Hudson Valley. Fifteen years later, how are we doing? We asked David Haight, the trust’s New York state director, and Todd Erling, executive director of the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corp. (HVADC), to assess some of the report’s recommendations.
Assignment: Create a private or quasi-public entity such as a Community Development Corporation with an annual operating budget of $250,000 to $500,000.
Comment: The report led to the creation in 2007 of the HVADC, which promotes agricultural entrepreneurship in the Hudson Valley, has an operating budget of about $625,000 and assists 45 to 65 agribusinesses each year.
Assignment: Create an agribusiness retention, expansion and attraction plan.
Comment: Food and agriculture had not always been part of regional planning, but since the report, HVADC has worked with the Hudson Valley Regional Council (which covers seven counties, including Dutchess and Putnam) to incorporate agricultural data, statistics and issues into its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. That, in turn, led to the inclusion of food and agriculture in the state’s regional development plans and food being identified as a priority in the Mid-Hudson region. “That a huge change from where we were in 2004,” says Haight.
Assignment: Enhance transition programming for new farmers, including mentoring, specialized skills training, estate planning and farm management.
Comment: Haight noted that the American Farmland Trust and 14 other groups partnered to create the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network, which plays matchmaker between farmers and landowners. “We’ve helped 140 farmers find land in the Hudson Valley over the past four years,” he said. “Some are getting into farming for the first time, but others are established farm families looking to expand.” In October, American Farmland Trust partnered with New York to launch a similar statewide program called Farmland for a New Generation New York. “There’s still more to do but there’s been a lot of attention and movement with this in the last 14 years,” Haight said.
Assignment: Increase funding from government and private sources to $20 million per year and protect 100,000 acres of farmland within 10 years.
Comment: There is much more public funding available now than in 2004 to purchase permanent conservation easements to prevent development on farmland, Haight notes; this year the state has set aside $68 million, the highest level ever. (Private groups continue their work; Scenic Hudson has facilitated easements on 13,000 acres since 1992.) In 2016 the state spent $20 million on easements on 5,600 acres in the Hudson Valley. However, there has been far less done on the local level, Haight said, with the exception of “shining stars” such as Ulster County, Warwick in Orange County and Red Hook in Dutchess. A 2007 law allows municipal governments in Westchester and Putnam to create, with voter approval, land preservation accounts funded by a real-estate transfer tax that could pay for easements. But “the economy tanked and it never took off,” he said.
Assignment: Create a critical-farms fund and a more effective agricultural “angel” network to provide investment capital.
Comment: “The report didn’t anticipate the emergence of socially conscious farmland investors (local food is cool now) and entities such as Dirt Capital and Northwest Farm Access,” said Haight. “And some private entities have emerged that offer financing for leasing with the option to buy.” But there is still far more that could be done, he said. Erling noted that the state does have an agriculture loan fund and this year named HVADC as a lender.
Assignment: Create a marketing campaign to bridge information gaps between farmers and the general community.
Comment: Erling pointed to initiatives such as Hudson Valley Bounty, an online directory to help consumers find local food; FeedHV, which helps farms, caterers and restaurants donate surplus food to food pantries; and Taste NY stores, which are stocked with New York food products and originated in Lagrangeville.
Assignment: Establish farm viability grants that promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
Comment: While there is a statewide program called the New York Farm Viability Institute, “we could do better with something specific to the Hudson Valley,” Haight said.
Assignment: Enhance workforce conditions with measures that include H2A visa reform and better housing options.
Comment: “This one has been a significant challenge,” said Haight. “There still isn’t a good legal way to have a stable workforce when so many come from outside the country. And the H2A visa program still needs reform, as we said in 2004. It’s not a long-term solution. Housing is still a problem for workers 14 years later but also for farmers, particularly the farther you go south in the Hudson Valley. If you’re an early-stage farmer and you find land but can’t afford to live near it, that’s a problem.”