Gill Farm educational center plans to boost local agriculture
by Anne Pyburn Craig
The Local Economies Project (LEP) and the NoVo Foundation made big news last December when they announced the acquisition of the 1,255 acre Gill Farm, located in Hurley, with the intention of establishing a Hudson Valley Farm Hub that will nurture and support local agriculture in a number of ways.
For some time now, local farmers, families and foodies have been unsatisfied with the mess that is Big Agriculture, struggling to compete economically while refusing to mimic its folly. “A reasonable agriculture would do its best to emulate nature. Rather than change the earth to suit a crop—which is what we do with corn and soybeans and a handful of other agricultural commodities—it would diversify its crops to suit the earth. This is not going to happen in big agriculture, because big agriculture is irrational. It’s where we expose—at unimaginable expense—our failure to grasp how nature works,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in an article for Yale Environment 360 entitled “The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins.”
The Farm Hub presents the enticing possibility of the Gill property, famed for fine sweet corn and community fun, transitioning in a more organic direction—something John Gill, who has said he’s thrilled that the property will remain agricultural, would no doubt have found prohibitive as an individual farmer.
“The project is unique in that it has the benefit of a large, centrally located tract of prime farmland in addition to plans for a dynamic combination of programming,” says LEP spokesperson Brooke Pickering-Cole. “A farm business incubator, educational programming, demonstration of new technologies, and agricultural research in conjunction with Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences…these are all in the works.”
Although farm incubator projects have sprung up in various agricultural regions, most over the past five years, Pickering-Cole is quite right about the unique scale of this endeavor. Most farm incubators are less than one-tenth the size of Gill Farm, and few have the breadth of programming envisioned here.
In many ways, a Farm Hub is a logical next step. Last April, the LEP released a study of local food hubs that identified a need for on-farm infrastructure and farm business and production planning. The study recommended providing “farmer business and production services to improve efficiency, increase production, and get ‘wholesale ready.’”
No one doubts the demand is there. New York City is a hungry place, with a lot of health- and flavor-conscious eaters; estimates of unmet demand for local food there are at about a billion dollars. Farm to Table Co-Packers owner Jim Hyland told the Kingston Daily Freeman last year that his company processed over 800,000 pounds of produce from some 60 different farms in 2012; that statistic was cited in a Freeman story in January 2013 about Farm to Table receiving $775,000 in grant monies from Empire State Development and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Hudson Valley Harvest, founded in 2011, partners with over 30 farms (Gill’s is on their list) to assist in marketing and distribution to not just New York City but the tri-state area. A regional website called FarmersWeb that connects farmers and wholesale purchasers was thriving as of last September: “Our sales have been averaging a 25% month-over-month growth since last summer, which shows just how eager wholesale buyers are to efficiently source local ingredients. On the farm side, we’ve had so many sign ups that we had to institute a waitlist,” co-founder and CEO Jennifer Goggin told AlleyWatch.
Founders envision the Farm Hub as fitting neatly into the larger picture, offering something new to the region and, in its sheer scale and breadth of services, unique. “A Farm Hub is focused on production, whereas a Food Hub is focused on post-production: aggregation of product, processing, and distribution. Of course both involve education, and the relationship between the two can be symbiotic, even overlapping,” says Pickering-Cole.
“In developing Farm Hub initiatives, LEP will continue to collaborate with its extensive list of partner organizations that are working to strengthen sustainable agriculture in the Hudson Valley. We view this collaboration as a key to the Farm Hub’s success and its potential to have a broad impact.”
The current list of partners on LEP’s website is impressive: regional sustainability organizations like Scenic Hudson and Mid Hudson Pattern for Progress, agricultural groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Coalition, and the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. That’s but a sampling; there are 21 in all, including regional players like the Columbia County-based Hawthorne Valley Farms, where they’ve been organic and biodynamic since 1972, and Glynwood, based in Cold Spring, where a farm begun in 1929 has grown into a major preservationist, research, and educational facility. Cornell University, which has long served the region’s growers through its Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, has two other entities involved as well—its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and its Small Farms Program. Also in on the educational side is the Wild Earth Wilderness School.
One partner organization in particular will be key to the endeavor’s success: the Rondout Valley Growers Association. Sponsored by the Open Space Institute—yet another LEP partner—the RVGA has been carrying the ball for local farming for over a decade, with around 60 participating members producing everything from beef to herbal tinctures to Christmas trees. “Rondout Valley farmers produce over 23,000,000 pounds of vegetables, fruit, beef, eggs, and poultry a year,” the RVGA points out with pride.
Although there are undoubtedly emotions stirred by the prospect of the Farm Hub among local growers that run the whole human gamut, it looks as though the LEP may prove a powerful partner in advancing one of the RVGA’s cherished goals: getting more locally grown food onto school cafeteria and other institutional menus. “Local Economies Project is a strong supporter of efforts to bolster farm-to-school initiatives and to encourage greater distribution of local farm products to institutions,” says Pickering-Cole, welcome tidings to bands of parents in various area districts who have been advocating such steps for years. “LEP has supported farm-to-school initiatives in the Poughkeepsie City School District and we are also a supporter of the Rondout Valley Growers Association, the latter of which will be hosting its second annual School Food Summit later this year…In 2013, in conjunction with the Goldman Family Foundation, we began supporting a new statewide coalition called Farm-to-Institution New York State (FINYS). Organized by American Farmland Trust, FINYS aims to increase the amount of local food purchased by institutions, such as public schools, colleges, hospitals, and other outlets. This support has led to a grant for a project with SUNY schools to increase their local procurement of fresh produce.
“Though we are still in the planning stages, we know that the Farm Hub will present expanded opportunities to move these efforts forward, including business incubator programming aimed at helping farmers connect with schools and institutions.”
All of this dovetails nicely with the big-picture thinking of the NoVo Foundation, the grant-makers who came up with $13 million to purchase Gill’s property and plan to hang onto it, while keeping it on the tax rolls, until a suitable indie nonprofit can be formed. On its website, the organization’s mission is described as “catalyzing a transformation in global society, moving from a culture of domination to one of equality and partnership. We support the development of capacities in people—individually and collectively—to help create a caring and balanced world. We envision a world that operates on the principles of mutual respect, collaboration, and civic participation, thereby reversing the old paradigm predicated on hierarchy, violence, and the subordination of girls and women.” The Local Economies Project, and its nonprofit parent organization The New World Foundation, undoubtedly fit under the “Promoting Local Living Economies” sector of NoVo operations. NoVo is administered by billionaire Warren Buffett’s youngest son Peter and his wife Jennifer, who in 2009 and 2010 were named to Barron’s list of the top 25 most effective philanthropists. (Peter is also a musician and composer, and the man behind the fire dance scene in Dances With Wolves.)
In several ways, then, it would seem to be a natural fit between these big benefactors and our region’s culture and subcultures—especially when it comes to food. “The Hudson Valley has a strong agricultural history, an established farming community, a lot of interest on the part of young and new farmers, a good growing climate, excellent soil and abundant water,” points out Pickering-Cole.
All of which is being noted on a number of fronts. In mid-January of 2014 it was announced that Amy’s Kitchen, a California-based organic food processor and manufacturer, would be opening a major plant in Goshen in Orange County. Amy’s Kitchen supplies organic food to such major players as ShopRite, Price Chopper and WalMart.
“We could not be happier about it,” says Pickering-Cole of the news about Amy’s Kitchen. “We certainly see great potential for collaboration with the Farm Hub and with all of the area’s growers. This represents the type of burgeoning activity that was explored in the Food Hubs Study published by Local Economies Project last spring. We wouldn’t call it a coincidence; we would call it synchronistic. Clearly the Hudson Valley is becoming a national focal point for innovation and forward thinking in the food and farming sectors.”