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December 03, 2016
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Agriculture as economic development; The importance of public involvement

There are any numbers of reasons that more people want to eat locally grown food these days. They want to eat fresher more nutritional food. They want to know what went into it—how the farmer grew, raised or produced it. They want to support farmers in their own communities rather than enriching big agribusiness and big food processors based far away. They want to enjoy seeing farmland and open spaces on drives along rural roads.

Meeting this growing demand for local food means increasing the supply, and today there are many players—from farmers, to government agencies and non-government organizations, to dedicated individuals and volunteers—working not only to bring more local food to our tables here in the Upper Delaware River Valley but also to tap into the vibrant food markets in nearby metropolitan areas. Beyond helping farmers improve their livelihoods (most farms still need at least one family member bringing in an off-farm income), the goal of developing the local farm economy is to contribute to the growth of the economy as a whole in our largely rural region.

We already have a good foundation and a good start. Agriculture already makes an important contribution to the economy of the Western Catskills (Sullivan, Ulster and Delaware counties). According to the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the gross economic impact of farming in these three counties was $300 to $400 million annually. In 2011-2012 in Sullivan County alone, agricultural products contributed $85.9 million toward the community’s economy. And when the ripple effect is considered, Cornell Cooperative Extension has concluded that the total economic impact of agriculture in Sullivan County reached $257.7 million with each farm dollar circulating over three times in the local community.

Despite the continuing decrease in farms and farmland that began here many decades ago, agricultural sales have continued to increase in the region. One of the most powerful tools available is direct farmer-to-consumer sales, which puts more money in the farmer’s pocket by cutting out the middle man. Successful examples of direct farm sales include CSAs (short for Consumer Supported Agriculture, in which a farmer’s customers buy a season’s “subscription” to a farm entitling them to receive a share of the weekly harvest; RSAs (Restaurant Supported Agriculture), farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Also encouraging is how more supermarkets are starting to contract with local farmers for produce, meat, poultry and eggs, dairy products and more. In addition, there is increasing interest by local, small-business entrepreneurs, who are turning local farm products into so-called value-added food products—jams and jellies, pickles and relishes, cheese and yogurt, soups and other ready-to-eat dishes, and more.

Other positive signs include investments in agricultural infrastructure. After a lot of hard work to secure grant funding, Sullivan County’s food and agricultural sectors will benefit from a number of funded or partially funded projects that either are in the planning stages or under construction; these include a food hub (including a central location for distribution and/or processing of local farm products), construction of an incubator kitchen (to help food entrepreneurs get small food businesses started) and a slaughtering facility for livestock. These projects, admittedly small of scale, are a good start toward building an ever more vibrant local food system to the benefit of our rural communities.

How best to encourage the economic growth of agriculture for our future is the question facing the Sullivan County Agriculture Protection Board, the Agricultural Advisory Board and the Sullivan County Division of Planning and Environmental Management (DPEM) as they work to update the county’s 15-year-old Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan (AFPP). Their goal is to create a forward-looking plan with concrete action steps that will focus on the needs of farms and farmers. Of vital importance in the process is public input, and Sullivan County residents are being asked to take a short online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/SC-AgPublicSurvey. (Later there will be separate surveys for farmers and for municipal officials.) Responses are anonymous. The survey needs to be completed by March 15.

We at The River Reporter urge as many Sullivan County residents as possible to take this survey. Further, we want to salute the work of so many people who are working to support local farmers and local agriculture. This is important work that contributes greatly to building a strong rural economy for our region’s future.