Scenic Hudson Ups the Ante on Farmland Conservation by Philip Ehrensaft
The “foodshed”—both as an idea and a hi-tech mapping tool—is increasingly important for farm
sector and local economic development policy advocates. Scenic Hudson upped the farmland conservation ante during the 1990s by moving beyond ad hoc efforts to save a given farm, focusing instead on conserving high-value farmland clusters in key agricultural towns. Now Scenic Hudson is upping the ante again, via a regional foodshed strategy firmly grounded in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) research. That foodshed strategy is spelled out in their newly published “Securing Fresh Local Food for New York City and the Hudson Valley” (downloadable at: scenichudson.org/sites/default/files/Foodshed_Conservation_Plan.final_.web_.pdf).
A foodshed is almost like a hydrologist’s watershed. The Hudson River watershed is an extensive drainage basin defined by landscape elevations and tributary waterways that feed the great river. While nothing is permanent in nature, the geological timescale for watersheds is measured in hundreds of millennia. Scientific advances fine-tune measuring watershed boundaries and flows, and how these flows are impacted by human artifacts like the impermeable surfaces of parking lots. But watershed boundaries themselves are literally set in stone.
Foodsheds are different. The concept was invented in 1929 by the chief of the Port of New York Authority’s commerce division, Walter P. Hedden, in his book How Great Cities Are Fed. Hedden’s foodshed concept was an explicitly imperfect analogy between mapping watersheds and mapping local, national and international flows of food supplies into a huge urban market: “The barriers which deflect raindrops into one river basin rather than into another are natural land elevations, while the barriers which guide and control movements of foodstuffs are more often economic than physical.”
More recent guises of the foodshed concept shifts the focus from describing existing food flows towards restructuringthose flows in favor of local farmland sources. Locally produced food is fresher and more nutritious than typical fare supplied by trans-continental hauls from regions like California’s Salinas Valley; cuts down carbon generation and energy costs for transporting food; and can potentially recycle urban food waste back into farming zones.
What “local” means for a specific foodshed project is tied to proponents’ framing of what kind of farming is or is not ecologically, economically, and politically sustainable. That framing’s viability is, in turn, coupled to GIS technologies that evaluate agricultural land quality, parcel by parcel, within the defined foodshed.
On that count, Scenic Hudson’s new effort is a model of foodshed analysis and policy advocacy. Their foodshed project is spearheaded by Steve Rosenberg, director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust. Rosenberg is a real estate lawyer who left his Washington DC practice to work on Hudson Valley land conservation issues. Conservation issues grabbed Rosenberg while he grew up in Southern Florida, watching the despoliation of paradise so sharply depicted in Carl Hiassen’s ecological mystery novels.
Rosenberg and his team define the Valley’s foodshed as a 150-mile long chain of counties on both sides of the Hudson River. The chain stretches from Westchester and Rockland in the south, up to Albany and Rensselaer. Although Sullivan lies mostly outside the Hudson River watershed, it’s included, because of Sullivan’s coupling into the Mid-Hudson regional economy.
From an agricultural ecology perspective, limiting the Big Apple-centered foodshed to the Hudson Valley is overly restrictive. Applying a 150-mile transportation radius in all directions incorporates farmland stretching into New Jersey, Connecticut, and the northeastern corner of Maryland.
Politically, however, the restricted geographical scope is logical: farm policy is channeled via lobbying in state legislatures, and state delegations in Washington. Multi-state lobbying flies in wide territories with similar agriculture, like the Corn Belt or the Great Plains. Our agriculture, just within the 150-mile NYC to Albany corridor, is fragmented and variegated. That makes farm lobbying a challenge.
Countering that fragmentation are: 1) the NYC-Albany corridor contains significant farmland parcels suitable for the high value horticultural and niche livestock products increasingly demanded within the Valley itself as well as the Big Apple; 2) we’re regaining the Valley’s strong pre-1945 regional identity that was shaken-up by the post-1945 highways-industrial complex.
Once foodshed boundaries were defined, the next call was the intensive, expensive GIS analysis necessary for turning a promising idea into an operational tool. Scenic Hudson inventoried the quantity and quality of just about every acre of suitable Valley cropland.
Then came the really hard part: even a coalition of senior, well-endowed nonprofit organizations like Scenic Hudson, plus senior government agencies, don’t have nearly enough resources to save all the farmland that merits saving. There has to be system of prioritization.
A first priority was restricting conservation efforts to farms of 45+ acres because: 1) these farms supply the lion’s share of the Valley’s’s agricultural production; 2) greater financial and technical resources are needed to save larger farms than community efforts like farmers markets that help smaller farms survive; and 3) it’s more expensive per acre to conserve small farms, so scarce resources are best leveraged by targeting larger parcels.
So 5,387 farms of 45+ acres, comprising 730,389 acres of significant cropland, receive priority. To date, only 11 percent of these farms, occupying 81,430 acres, have been conserved.
Priority number two is choosing which of the remaining 89 percent of the unprotected 45+ acre farms should be conserved. Regional clustering of farms with high quality soils comes into play here.
So Scenic Hudson identified regional clusters of Valley farms via three demanding steps. First, they used USDA soil quality standards to establish the productive capacity of each of the region’s 5,387 45+ acre farms. Second, they measured the extent to which relatively large numbers of farms with high quality soils cluster within a given town. Third, they calculated the extent to which these high agricultural value towns, in turn, clustered into a regional concentration of high value agricultural towns.
Nine clusters of high-value farming towns were identified via this intensive data mining. These clusters include 614 of the Valley’s 815 highest priority farms. Scenic Hudson proposes that stage one of new conservation efforts concentrates on these nine clusters. An estimated $720 million is required to conserve the 163,673 acres worked by these 614 farms.
Now comes the hardest part of all: mobilizing the public and private agencies that have the dollars and expertise to make this conservation happen. Scenic Hudson gives us a Cook’s Tour of the pluses and minuses of existing farmland conservation programs and policies, both public and private.
Some parts of that tour are downright depressing: like the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets not issuing a single request for new applications to its Farmland Protection Program since 2008 because the agency’s still working on a backlog of applications. But mostly it’s a story of dispersed and uncoordinated measures that need to be pulled together, both in terms of strategy and political support.
One potential game changer that’s central to Scenic Hudson’s efforts is getting private and public New York City interests to hone in on Hudson Valley farms as the logical priority source of fresh, healthy foods. Another game changer is reversing the lack of support from major private foundations for conserving the Valley’s farmland. Scenic Hudson’s exemplary research speaks a language that major foundations can understand.
But it’s less sure this language translates readily to grassroots organizations that are also necessary for carrying Scenic Hudson’s farmland conservation strategies forward. As a researcher on farm structure, I’m mightily impressed by Scenic Hudson’s intensive work and the logic of their strategy. But, wearing another grassroots organizer hat, I see unanswered questions about firing up citizens’ movements, which trend towards highly locavore perspectives, in support of Scenic Hudson’s proposals. Ditto for farm interests not located in one of the nine strategic clusters.
Minus rumblings from below, and a buy-in from farmers in general, there’s less chance that senior governments and foundations will put their resources behind Scenic Hudson’s well-founded proposals. And the Hudson Valley will be a better place if Scenic Hudson’s proposals are indeed carried out.