by Ed Yowell
On Wednesday morning, March 13, at 6:45 A.M., I joined 14 intrepid, uncharacteristically early-rising New York City residents, passing the even earlier rising farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket, to board an Albany-bound bus with the galvanizing purpose of participating in the annual “No Farms No Food” rally organized by the American Farmland Trust. Three hours later, we joined more than 80 souls from all around the state to call upon legislators to convey the message; indeed, if No Farms, then No Food. I, a member of the Slow Food NYC Board and a SFUSA Regional Governor, was proud that Slow Food NYC helped sponsor the Albany bus and pleased to see members of Slow Food Saratoga and East End (Long Island) at the state capital.
Late winter is budget time in Albany, when the state Assembly and Senate consider the Governor’s budget request and set the legislative and funding priorities for the coming year. We, friends of the American Farmland Trust, were there to visit more than 60 legislators to opine for protecting farmland, supporting local food purchasing by state agencies, and aiding a new generation of farmers in securing farmland.
Protect Farmland from Development
New York is a farm state that has been losing farmland rapidly to development, almost 450,000 acres, the equivalent of 4,500 farms, in the past twenty years or so. Our first priority was to ask legislators to support Governor Cuomo’s $153 million Environmental Protection Fund budget, of which $13 million would be dedicated to the EPF Farmland Protection Fund, which is the state’s only farm protection funding mechanism. This funding, enough to save about 30 farms, would enable the state to start new protection projects for the first time since 2008.
Encourage State Agencies to Buy Food Grown in New York
State agencies and institutions feed millions of New Yorkers. Greater institutional purchasing of food grown in New York would offer substantial economic benefits to New York farmers, for the best way for farms to stay in operation is for them to be profitable. Our second priority was to ask legislators to; support the Governor’s proposal to grant state agencies discretion to purchase food valued up to $200,000 outside of formal, competitive bid processes, which could facilitate the purchase of New York food; sustain dedicated funding for state public health programs to purchase food grown in New York; and support pending legislation that would require the development of guidelines for state agencies to increase the purchase of New York food and, modeled on New York City’s new food purchase reporting, require that state agencies report on the origins of the food they purchase.
Aid a New Generation of Farmers in Securing Farmland
For many years, the average age of American farmers has increased by about one year each year. There are now five times as many farmers over 65 as there are under 35. Our third priority was to ask legislators to: support the identification of state-owned land that could be made available for agriculture; encourage agencies to provide long term leases of such land to farmers, with particular consideration given to beginning farmers, and move to permanently protect state-owned farmland prior to sale of such land; and require that state agencies aid in the successful transfer of farmland to new generations of farmers through the good offices of the Advisory Council on Agriculture and the Farmland Protection Fund.
My group of advocates visited the offices of four New York City legislators, two from Queens, one from Manhattan, and one from the Bronx. The legislators’ staff were supportive of the AFT agenda, three being remarkably savvy in matters agricultural, and one asking why the AFT wanted to talk about farming to a Senator from the South Bronx – a good question, indeed. (A smart farmer once told me that New York rural farmers need the help of New York urban eaters because the eaters have a lot more votes than the farmers.) I submitted to the Senator’s staff that his constituents in the Bronx eat, and that it is healthier for them, our economy, and our environment if they eat regionally, as much as possible, and told him about a very popular, student-run, school “farm stand” in the South Bronx, sponsored by Slow Food NYC, that provides fresh, seasonal, local food to the school and surrounding communities. Our visit, and that rural/urban farm stand connection, made an impression and perhaps an important ally in the cause of regional agriculture in New York.
Ed Yowell is former chair and present member of the Slow Food NYC Board of Directors, a co-chair of the SFNYC Urban Harvest program, and a Slow Food USA Regional Governor for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He also is a member of the American Farmland Trust New York Advisory Council.