News From the Farm | May 29, 2017

I spent the last week in New York state’s capital, Albany, at a conference of practitioners dedicated to strengthening regional food systems — farm businesses, food processing capacity for local farm products, distribution hubs and independent grocery stores.  These are the businesses that provide food to local communities and can serve as a locally controlled economic development powerhouse.

The people at the conference provide services to small-scale farmers.  They help them gain access to new markets; figure out how they can get loans if needed; provide legal services; run farmers markets and food hubs; and teach about new food safety and immigration rules.  Organizations that train new farmers as well as immigrant and refugee farmers were also there. Plenty of discussion ensued about business planning and financial record-keeping, all to promote viable farms that are economically profitable, with secure access to land and markets, using environmentally sound production practices.

Good and innovative policy is always part of the effort to make big changes, and New York recently announced a granting program to help farmers with infrastructure needs, and also will be investing millions in a regional food hub warehouse in the Bronx. Their state program, New York Grown and Certified, comes on top of the success of a set of laws supporting on-farm brewers, vintners and distillers. These laws resulted in a renaissance of craft producers in NY, with hundreds of new startups and economic activity generated.  California’s Cottage Food Law has had similar results.  Maybe new rules on grain milling and meat processing for local farmers will open up new opportunities in California in future.

On the other hand, sometimes the uniform, impassive tool of policy can yield less positive results.  One example was discussed by folks working in the Lake Champlain Basin, which is 48% of the land area of Vermont.  This huge watershed drains into Lake Champlain and unfortunately for decades has suffered from pollution running-off from farms and roads in the watershed.  Various agencies have worked with the farms for years, trying to encourage adoption of various management practices, which even with various financial assists, proved to be too much for 600 or so of the smaller famers and dairies.  Now, suddenly, those practices are required, and farms with fairly small net worth have to fence their streams, create vegetative strips along waterways, construct manure pits and build various other expensive infrastructure. The result is an impasse, not unlike California’s ongoing environment versus agriculture standoff around water quality.

My presentation was part of a panel on farmers gaining access to wholesale markets — in case they were feeling that “direct” sales through farmers markets and CSAs was not sufficient.  The concern has always been that the wholesale market can be cutthroat, hardball and even unfair to smaller scale farms.  Is that trend towards concentration in food businesses going to continue?  Someone asked me to look into my crystal ball.  “I think we all know the answer,” I said.  “We know that it could go either towards strong, regional, family-farm community based food systems, or not.  And we know that the outcome is up to us and our commitment to build the future that we want.”

— Judith Redmond