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December 10, 2016
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If you build it, they will come; Infrastructure for a local farm/food system

Last week’s ground breaking in Liberty, NY for a red-meat processing facility is an important step forward for the economic development of agriculture in Sullivan County and a contribution toward building a more sustainable local food system.

For decades, the trend in livestock production in the U.S. has been toward ever-bigger farms and ever-larger slaughterhouses. (Today the top four food corporations in the U.S. supply 80% of the meat we eat from factories that process thousands of animals daily on huge killing, cutting and packaging floors.) This industry consolidation has left small, rural farms with few outlets to have their livestock slaughtered. Keep in mind, too, that a farmer must use a USDA-certified slaughterhouse in order to sell at retail, where he or she can potentially get better prices.

With the dearth of slaughterhouses, small farms like those we have here in the Upper Delaware River Region, faced increasing difficulty in getting an appointment to butcher livestock. It’s easy to see how this lack of infrastructure locally presented an obstacle to growing the size of the farmer’s herd, in turn creating a roadblock between the farmer and access to the marketplace, thereby limiting a farm’s ability to grow and increase profitability. Take especially the case of beef farmers, where there are even fewer outlets because the size of the animals presents special needs for butchering them. Currently, beef producers frequently have to wait weeks or even months for a scheduled date with the butcher, or they have to haul their livestock long distances to be processed.

The good news is that in our rural region, we have vast unused potential for raising livestock (and for other forms of farming). We have an abundance of fields and pastureland, the first critical “infrastructure” for a viable food system. In addition, our farms are strategically located within a few hours’ drive of 20% of the U.S. population, where consumer demand for agricultural products from local farmers has been growing steadily.

The importance of agriculture to rural communities cannot be underestimated, and the trend in Sullivan County to nurture local agriculture appears to be headed in the right direction. Two other encouraging examples of infrastructure investment are in the works here, too. Cornell Cooperative Extension will soon build a certified, commercial kitchen to help launch local food entrepreneurs (including farmers) in developing value-added food businesses—tomatoes into tomato sauce, milk into cheese, etc. Plans for a food distribution hub are also well under way with the first phase already funded through a large Rural Business Enterprise Grant to be administered jointly by Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) and Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corp. Farmers’ markets also are infrastructure, and Sullivan County’s farmers’ markets are doing well.

Without grants from various sources, including especially from government, many of these positive steps to grow agriculture and related businesses here would not be possible.

Now, sadly, some established federal grant programs are in jeopardy because Congress has not been able to get its act together to pass a Farm Bill. After the 2008 Farm Bill expired, Congress was able only to muster the votes to pass a short-term extension, and this extension expired on October 1. Programs like the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which helps farmers; increases customers of fresh, healthy, local food; and generates dollars for local economies, have not been funded since 2012. Other programs are operating with diminished funds, such as the Value-Added Producer Grants that help farmers and local food entrepreneurs acquire working capital and fund business plans to establish viable marketing opportunities.

We call on Congress to pass a new farm bill that will continue to support these strong and successful programs and others that promote economic well being for America’s small farm holders and farming communities. State and local governments must also continue to contribute, and various Sullivan County agencies deserve kudos for progress made to date but must keep up the good work.

We believe a bright future lies ahead for farm and farmers in our region, if everyone (including consumers who buy fresh local products) continues to support and invest in farmers.