The first of three posts on this topic from Judy LaBelle.
I was recently asked to give a presentation to the New York City Bar Association about what is happening in our regional food system. And it made me think that this would be a great update for everyone who wants to know more about the exciting, often surprising and sophisticated work that is happening in our region.
Let’s start with some definitions.
First, what is a regional food system? This term encompasses all of the pieces and connections required to produce food and deliver it to your table. It includes the inputs required by farmers, the farms and farmers themselves, and the processing and distribution systems that deliver their products to you.
Second, what is a region? That is a more challenging question since there is no set definition. A region has to be big enough to provide a substantial part of the food needed for its population, yet as small as possible to reduce transportation impacts. Joan Gussow, a regional leader in the sustainable food movement, has a definition that is often used: the distance that can be traveled in an easy day trip. And a regional food system may be composed of many overlapping smaller local food systems that strive for some level of self-reliance.
In this first part of my post, I’ll begin with a focus on the greater Hudson Valley region, since that is Glynwood’s home and we have collated better data there. This area encompasses the 12 county region on either side of the Hudson River – beginning just above NYC and ending above Albany with Saratoga and Washington Counties.
Now, some facts to go with our definitions, drawn primarily from the most recent USDA Agricultural Census completed in 2007:
In 2007, the region had more than 5,000 farms operating on 1,000 square miles of farmland. That is equivalent to 17% of the region’s landmass.
Those 5,000 farmers have nearly $4 billion invested in their businesses. Their gross economic impact in the region is more than $800 million annually.
And yet, agriculture in the Valley is in transition.
- From 2002 to 2007, there was a 10% loss in the acreage of farmland. In general, the region is losing larger farms and gaining smaller farms. In part, this reflects the on-going loss of dairy farms.
- The average farm size was 160 acres; 42% of farms were smaller than 50 acres.
- During this period, production costs increased by more than 20%. Farmers were contending with an expense to sales ratio of 94% leaving them with a very narrow profit margin. Not surprisingly, then, most farmers in the HV also rely on off-farm income (and I would add, health insurance from another job, no small concern.)
- The average age of farmers was 57 years old. But while the number of farmers over the age of 60 increased, so did the number of farmers under 25.
So what does this tell us? We still have a treasure – both in terms of agricultural land and an independent farming culture that many other parts of the country – now dominated by monocropped industrial farms – wish they had.
But most of these farmers are not doing well economically, in spite of this great nearby market.
It is estimated that the demand for fresh, regional food now outstrips the supply by nearly $900 million per year. So why aren’t the region’s farmers producing more? It is not for lack of land. It is because farmers are business people. They will not produce unless they know they have a way to get their product to consumers and at a fair price. And the processing and infrastructure distribution they need to do this is badly frayed. Most of what exists is designed to support large-scale production.
Now remember, we are talking about a food system and systems want to grow organically, with each piece responding to evolutions in the others. But we are trying to do everything needed to create a resilient, sustainable food system all at once.
In Part Two of this post, we’ll look at what is being done in three key areas: data, infrastructure and on the farm.