Farm Hub creators listening to farmer and community concerns
By Anne Pyburn Craig
Almost three months have passed since the announcement that the NoVo Foundation had purchased Gill’s farm in Hurley for 13 million dollars with the intention of creating a Farm Hub dedicated to strengthening local agriculture, and discussion of what that might mean just may be one of the hottest things happening in this long, chilly winter.
“The whole process so far has been great and, we think, very open,” says Brooke Pickering-Cole, spokesperson for the Local Economies Project, the NoVo affiliates who are managing the process. “We’ve been holding informational and listening sessions with the Rondout Valley Growers Association, which has been really helpful – in part getting feedback and ideas, but also just in helping us articulate the Farm Hub concept and talk about LEP and what we do. Deborah Dewan has done a great job creating an atmosphere of open communication so it seems most people feel comfortable asking questions and talking about what is on their minds.
“We are headed into a master planning phase in the coming months. We’ll be working with two planning firms, Terrapin Bright Green and Conservation Design Forum, doing background analysis, natural resource inventory and mapping of the farm in addition to the creation of a master plan which will encompass land use, programming, organizational structure and environmental monitoring. Everything we are hearing from growers is being catalogued and absorbed, and will be considered as part of our process, so all of these conversations are incredibly valuable to us right now. We feel very lucky that it’s winter right now and we’re able to talk with farmers before the growing season kicks in and they get so completely busy.
“Conversations with growers are always lively around the Farm Hub as a topic – and varied,” she says. “Mostly people are just asking questions because they are excited and curious. A few topics we find we are exploring with regularity are organic production — the Farm Hub land will be devoted in part to organic production, but we will also be doing research within a range of methods as we see a great deal of opportunity for learning here — property taxes (NoVo has committed to continuing to pay the taxes), and how the Farm Incubator might impact existing local farm businesses. We are very attuned to this and in every step we take will be examining potential impact on the local economy.
“What’s been the most exciting for us is the fact that everyone seems to want to be a part of this in some way. There is a lot of expertise out there and we’re really appreciative of everyone’s willingness to lend it to us. We’re excited about moving forward with crafting plans and getting up and running – there will be even more to talk about in the months ahead.”
John Novi, chef/owner at the landmark DePuy Canal House in High Falls, sees the news of the Farm Hub as a natural next step, and he’s excited about what the future might hold. “I’ve got 44 years in this business as a Hudson Valley chef,” says the man who’s been called the father of New American cuisine, “and I’ve been involved in the Rondout Valley Growers Association all along. It’s a pleasure to know the growers and deal with them intimately. And it just gets even more exciting when new farmers come in trying to get a start.” With a half-dozen value-added local products already designed, Novi – visions of salsify and black currant cheese dancing in his head – hopes to take a very active role in the post-production doings. “It’s the next stage for what’s happening here, value-added products,” he says. “If I could work for the Hub, how beautiful that would be! I hope to be involved in the field of product development – it’s what I do – and it would be great to have my kitchen be a product development space for them.”
At the region’s primary food hub, Farm to Table Co-Packers, located at Kingston’s onetime IBM plant Tech City, CEO Jim Hyland shares in the general excitement. “The Farm Hub and the food hub are very intertwined; we’re just three miles apart,” he points out. “We’ve been involved with the Local Economies project and they’ve helped us out a lot. There’s huge potential, not just in training new farmers but in helping the existing ones and helping open up new markets. The idea that there will be, for example, research into better varieties of plum tomatoes and better ways to harvest them – it’s going to be great to have this kind of resource available.”
“We’ve devoted a lot of energy to exploring hard-to-reach markets like institutions and schools; there have been a lot of barriers, most of which we’ve broken down by focusing on colleges and private schools in New York City, where there’s more autonomy, and we’ve started to make really nice headway. I think, ultimately, that market will come to us as we get more efficient.” (In mid-February, news broke that the Local Economies Project/NoVo had granted $200,000 to the American Farmland Trust to enhance the work of the Farm to Institution New York State Initiative, and the opening of institutional markets is also a focal point for the RVGA.)
Down across the river in Cold Spring, Glynwood has been promoting local agriculture since the 1990s on a number of fronts – the organization operates a working farm and CSA as well as numerous educational, research and value-added marketing initiatives, including a current push to establish Hudson Valley-region hard cider as a signature product. “Glynwood and the Local Economies Project are committed to realizing a shared vision for the Hudson Valley,” says Kathleen Frith, Glynwood’s president, “and we are excited to work together. Glynwood’s own soon to be launched Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator project, based in New Paltz, will reduce the barriers to success for new farm businesses, particularly for livestock enterprises, by providing access to land, housing, shared equipment, infrastructure, low-interest capital, business mentoring and training in sustainable agricultural practices.
“By supporting new sustainable food and farming businesses, these initiatives, along with other organizations, farmers and projects working towards common goals, are ushering in a new era of sustainable agriculture for our region. As a result, we see the Hudson Valley becoming a model for fostering sustainable agriculture for the rest of the country. Together, we have a momentous opportunity to invest in the future of farming for the Hudson Valley, and we are excited to work together to achieve this vision.”
Frith is absolutely right in pointing out that there are a great many organizations coming together around the push for local eats on every level. Also very much in the loop is Todd Erling, leader of both the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation and Hudson Valley Bounty. Erling is a very busy man: besides those positions, he is heavily and directly involved in at least ten other organizations working on every aspect of things from land preservation to marketing value-added product. “We’re a collaborator on that,” he says of the Farm Hub, “as well as one of the technical assistance collaborators for individual farmers and related businesses. We’re excited to see what the Farm Hub brings. Along with Glynwood’s business incubator, the 100 acres being developed as an agricultural center out in Copake, and many other individual projects, we can turn this into the critical mass that most other parts of the country don’t have. This has the potential to be a rising tide that lifts all boats…Three times a day we rely on a farmer, and that’s not ever gonna change – in the end it all works together.”
The Glynwood project ruffled some feathers when it displaced Brook Farm, a CSA that had been renting the New Paltz farmland where the incubator will be. And if there is a fear among some in the local ag community, it is that big investors may – even unintentionally – trample some of the tender shoots of smaller players as they struggle with the challenges of agriculture. Erling says collaboration and communication are the antidote to that.
“We’ve played a major behind the scenes role with the Farm Hub plan thus far,” he says, “and we have a long term commitment to the LEP to collaborate, and part of that is making sure communication is open on intentions and values and expectations. We’re continuing to have that collaborative dialogue, and maybe learning a little from that New Paltz project.”
Sean Eldridge, president of investment firm Hudson River Ventures and a contender for the 19th Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Chris Gibson, sees serious economic development potential in the Farm Hub. “It’s a very exciting project,” he says. “As an investor, I have seen significant demand for training, access to capitol and land, and the chance to get hands-on experience. It’s terrific and thrilling that it’s happening in Ulster County. I’ve been working on a number of aspects of it in conversation with (LEP president) Bob Dandrew and the Buffets. Investing in young farmers is critical for our region and for agriculture in general. “ Eldridge too points to the Copake project as another star in the constellation. “They have similar goals, but they’ll be working more with mid-stage farmers – helping them with land access, long term leasing, continuing education and training through the Cornell Cooperative Extension. I can envision, down the road, someone graduating from Gill farms and moving on to Copake.
“Obviously, agriculture is one of the region’s greatest strengths – a lot of our investors are involved in it, as well as in food and beverage. There’s a lot of opportunity and a major tourism component as well. A lot of exciting things are happening- we hope to partner with the LEP and help connect the dots a bit.”