With programs like Keep Farming, Putnam County’s Glynwood Center is mobilizing
communities to search for ways to protect the Valley’s vanishing agricultural resources
by Anitra Brown
Outside Cold Spring, at the end of a two-mile private drive that wends alongside a woodland stream, lies Glynwood Center — part working farm, part nonprofit organization. It’s the prettiest farm you can imagine, with a gorgeously restored 1700s farmhouse, several white stick Victorians, and a 19th-century red barn with a wooden silo. A small herd of Black Angus grazes near old stone walls, and a rolling hayfield is bordered by spreading beech trees. The summer sky is reflected in two deep, clear ponds, and all you can hear is birdsong and the wind in the grass.
But this scene of bucolic perfection stands in contrast to the harsher realities of agriculture in the Hudson Valley, where rising land values coupled with low prices for agricultural products are driving farmers to sell out to developers. Glynwood Center, itself created to save one working farm, is particularly sensitive to the issue. It sponsors conferences, sometimes right on the property, on important issues like food security and the need for local slaughterhouses. It gives Harvest Awards to farmers and others who best exemplify practices in sustainable agriculture. (One winner was Cheryl Rogowski, the Orange County farmer who went on to win a “Genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.) It is working to strengthen the regional food system in the Hudson Valley by compiling data, helping farmers find big customers, and organizing communities through the Keep Farming program. “Our primary focus is the Hudson Valley because that’s our home, and the need is so great,” says Judith LaBelle, president of Glynwood Center since its inception in 1995.
At the heart of Glynwood is a 1920s stone manor house where three generations of the George Perkins family once enjoyed a slow-paced rural lifestyle on a sprawling 2,500-acre estate. Ten years ago, after the death of Lyn Perkins, her children sold the property at a bargain rate to the Open Space Conservancy (now the Open Space Institute). The state purchased the property’s forested land from the conservancy, adding it to adjacent Fahnestock State Park. Glynwood was created to take care of the remaining 225 acres of farmland, keep the farm in good working order, and develop programs to help communities with their own conservation priorities.
“We started out with a very broad focus on community stewardship,” says LaBelle. “But we realized that agriculture was at the heart of it.” To preserve rural communities, you must preserve your small and mid-sized farmers. And if you want to keep your farmers, you have to mobilize the people who live around them — and create markets for their products.
That’s the goal of Glynwood’s Keep Farming, a new program that helps communities in the Hudson Valley and beyond understand the benefits of agriculture and develop strategies to help farmers survive. To see how it works, take a look at the Town of Chatham, an attractive rural community in Columbia County. With 120,000 acres, 18 percent of the Valley’s total, Columbia has more farmland than any other Hudson Valley county. But it also faces serious development pressures. Back in 2003, the Town of Chatham started updating its Comprehensive Plan, which hadn’t been dusted off since 1971, and identified agriculture as a key
“All up and down the Valley, farmland is very attractive to developers,” says Mary Gail Biebel, a Chatham resident and volunteer coordinator of the Keep Farming effort. People had seen homes sprout up in former fields, and wanted to save farms and farmland. But it’s hard to understand the true dimensions of a problem, much less find solutions, without good information. “We had no data,” says Biebel. “It was all on the county level.”
When people in the town found out Glynwood Center was looking for a community to be the Valley’s Keep Farming pilot, they applied. “We pressed them to tell us that it was agriculture they wanted to preserve, not just open space,” says Virginia Kasinki, Glynwood’s program manager for training and support. And Glynwood needed to know there would be support from town government, cooperation from farmers, and plenty of volunteers to go out and get the information.
Approval got the community a highly detailed set of workbooks, training in how to use them, and ongoing guidance from Kasinki. Workbooks in hand, dozens of community volunteers fanned out over the township. “We interviewed all our farmers, who filled out a detailed questionnaire,” says Biebel. “We took pictures of farms and every single road in town. We talked to everyone who sells food in our town, from the EZ Mart to the local grocery to find out what their experience or interest was in distributing local foods.”
When it was done, an exhausting 18 months later, they had a precise picture of agriculture in their community — how much land was being farmed, how it was being farmed, even which farms provided the most beautiful viewsheds. They also put hard numbers on what local farmers contributed to the local economy: $1.2 million a year spent on supplies and services like fertilizer and veterinarians, and $5 million over five years on major capital expenditures like equipment, land, animals, fencing, buildings, and computers. They also found out what farmers are up against: gross sales were $4.66 million, just slightly higher than production costs, which don’t include labor.
Learning exactly how the land is farmed offered clues to possible solutions. “We found out that two-thirds of the farmland in Chatham is used for commodity dairy, and just three percent for produce,” says Biebel. “That tells us that farmers’ markets won’t save farming here. It might be a nice thing to do, but it won’t save farming.” Dairy farmers in the Northeast can’t match the production costs of the Midwest, and the old price supports under the Northeast Dairy Compact are gone. Meanwhile, they’re sitting on a small fortune in real estate, which many are counting on for retirement.
“We had to alter our understanding of what â€˜keeping farming’ means,” says Biebel. “Keeping farming means keep as much active farmland as possibleâ€¦which won’t be all of it.”
So what will work? Some of the committee’s recommendations are small, like creating signs that say “Welcome to Chatham, A Farm-Friendly Town.” They published a “Guide to Local Food,” with a map of farmstands, restaurants, and retailers who sell food produced in Chatham. They put up a Web site, www.chathamkeepfarming.org, to post their reports and spread the word.
But the most important proposal is to put forward a major bond referendum to purchase development rights, which compensate farmers for keeping land open, and to help dairy farmers make the transition to other types of farming, like pasture-fed beef or greenhouses. The referendum would have a good chance of passing, Biebel believes, since so many residents learned about farming firsthand. Her husband, a retired executive, went to work on a neighbor’s dairy farm for a few days a year ago, and is still there. “He’s lost 60 pounds, and he loves it,” she says.
Building that intimate connection between a community and its farmers is the whole point of having residents collect the data themselves, says Glynwood’s LaBelle. “People pay a consultant to do a report and it sits on a shelf. This is a way to build a constituency that really understands what is going on with agriculture.”
Chatham residents also learned that there are larger issues they don’t have control over, like the disproportionate amount that farmers pay in property taxes. Biebel says it’s critical to work as a region to lobby Albany to reform property taxes and pass farmer-friendly legislation like the Community Preservation Act, which will provide funds for development rights. “As a town, we don’t have enough farms or economic clout,” says Biebel. “But if we think of ourselves as the Hudson Valley and get four or five contiguous counties to lobby, we would have a much greater chance of success.”
That’s one reason Glynwood Center is hoping to roll the process out to other Hudson Valley communities. It’s no quick fix. But the more communities that go through this process, the more support goes to farmers and farmland. “We’re trying to strengthen the regional food system,” says LaBelle. “If we can’t make it work in the Hudson Valley, where we have such a huge market to the south, how will small and mid-size farmers anywhere do it?”