By Paul Smart
Early November and the harvest’s in. Throughout the Hudson Valley and surrounding hills and mountain ranges, old logging roads and stone walls become visible again. The last gleaning takes place as the sun starts to ride low in the sky, setting earlier and earlier as frost cleans the stubble in local fields. A long season of work comes to a close. But another is just starting.
There was a time when the fallow months of late autumn and winter were when new fields were created from forest and wildlands, through the hard work of lumbering, controlled burns, and all that’s needed to be ready for spring plowing. It was when new crops were planned, and market prospects weighed. Close-knit communities spoke amongst themselves about who would grow what, and where. Eventually, governments started stepping in to help direct the flow of food to growing metropolises, and ensuring that the free market wasn’t so free that it would create hungering swathes of land as we settled west.
Nowadays, those who know agriculture know that farming’s as much about paperwork, and planning, as about planting, husbandry and getting one’s goods to market. Just consider the importance of current ag districts on one’s property tax burdens, or the impetus behind New York’s large promise of $138 million in incentives for stabilizing and even growing the size of our ag share, nationwide. Those who farm don’t try to shirk their share of paying for school costs, or all it takes to keep a community’s infrastructure up to grade. They have simply learned that there are trade offs necessary to keep agricultural pursuits alive in the vibrant places we call home.
We started writing this piece to celebrate some farms we know in the Rondout Valley which had been scheduled to be named as part of a new protocol for the protection and enhancement of farmland in the Hudson Valley. But it then turned out that such a celebration would be premature; unlike the reliability of a farmer’s seasons (even when reliably unreliable), governmental programs move fitfully, and often slower than expected.
What we can still celebrate are the ways that the Hudson Valley in general, and Ulster County in particular, has incorporated progressive ideas and ideals about the role farming and all it involves should play in the way our villages, towns and counties develop, now and for the foreseeable future.
Like the nation and world that surround us, our region grew through small farms. Communities of settlers took over verdant lands cared for by the Hudson Valley’s indigenous populations. New hamlets and villages surrounded themselves with fields from which they could draw sustenance and, eventually, shifted their crops and livestock, their mode of farming, to match growing urban area needs for food.
On a national basis, agricultural policy was directed towards the maintenance of a vast network of family farms needed to support the commerce building around new cities and the products they were creating for our own advancement, as well as growing international markets. Land Acts, and later Homestead Acts, opened up new lands for farming, granting whatever lands were “opened” to our nation from tribal defeats to pretty much any white man who’d not taken up arms against the United States, and eventually even they were included. A system of land-grant colleges was set up and subsidized by the government as a means of supporting agricultural research and education.
After a good century of progress aided by the constant push into untrammeled lands, the whole idea of American progress based on uncontrolled agricultural growth supporting a burgeoning industrial expansion fell apart as the world shrunk following its first global war. The Great Depression, spread across all continents, pushed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign an Agricultural Adjustment Act to start regulating farm production to get what was grown into line with what markets wanted. Enter the first large-scale attempts to buy back certain crops and subsidize farmers to grow others. Yes, Republican opposition to FDR’s New Deal brought about a Supreme Court nullification of that Act as unconstitutional, but then it ended up replaced by Congress’s passage of the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1938, which set up a new department to oversee farm production via the use of subsidies and other means.
Out of all this grew a form of government support of farming that even with attempts to reverse buy-back programs that reached a peak in the 1980s decimation of much of New York State’s once-dominant dairy industry, is still a dominant force, especially in terms of large farm lobbying. On the one hand, certain concerns have resulted in new laws moving surplus product to our nation’s hungry, supposedly protecting organic principles of production, and the environmental aspect of good agricultural practices. On the other, there’s been a sustained push since the days of the Nixon Administration for farmers to “get big or get out,” as former Ag Secretary Earl Butz put it in the 1970s, and to plant “hedgerow to hedgerow.”
So where does the Hudson Valley and Ulster County figure into this? On a national basis, our apple and other fruit production has long helped push our state into the forefront in those fields. The preeminence of the Culinary Institute of America as a training ground for new chefs has spread a locavore kitchen revolution that’s helped sustain and even grow local produce farming. And the growth of New York City’s Green Market concept has pushed growing numbers of “Upstate”: farms into profitability, while also buoying the farm market and CSA concepts throughout our region.
More important have been advances such as the Ulster County Agriculture & Farmland Plan, first passed in 1997 “to keep agriculture a vital and integral part of Ulster County’s economy and rural lifestyle.” Put together by a sterling board of local planners and farmers, many of whom still serve on the county’s Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board, the plan set in motion both protections and enhancements that have included the establishment of state ag districts for tax protections, the promotion of local products in NYC markets, as well as local supermarkets and restaurants, implementation of farm education in our schools, and enhanced awareness of farmers’ needs throughout local government.
The success of Ulster County’s plan, and similar ones in Columbia County as well as via the Catskill Region’s Watershed Agricultural Council, have helped support the state to expand its own farmland protection and enhancement efforts, to the tune of nearly $75 million to date, recently augmented by a nearly equal amount to support conservation easement projects on dairy farms, land trust efforts to keep former farm lands out of developers’ hands, and training and support programs for young farmers.
“Protecting our most productive and resilient farmland is important for ensuring that food can be grown in New York for generations to come, and for combating climate change,” noted David Haight, New York State Director of the American Farmland Trust, following one of the state’s big farmland protection announcements this past summer. “These funds have also proven to be a key strategy for helping farm families transfer their farms to a new generation of farmers.”
Added Ulster County Executive Mike Hein in a similar announcement the previous summer, in keeping with our region’s ahead-of-the-rest role in modern approaches to agriculture’s role as a contemporary new economics lynchpin: “As someone who grew up on a farm, I fully appreciate that Ulster County has a tremendous agricultural history and today we are able to acknowledge that history while also protecting its future… We do what is best for our environment and the people of Ulster County.”
Talk about sentiments that are eternally in season, yet always in need of continuing protection.