By Martin Kirk
Farming is not for the faint of heart. It requires passion, dedication, perseverance, and a lot of ingenuity. This is especially true if you are not just trying to be successful as a stand-alone farmer but also help transform the very way we do farming to make it more just, equitable, and fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
Enter the Hudson Valley Farmer Training Collaborative. This new venture, which got going in February this year, is bringing together five organizations—Glynwood (Cold Spring, NY), GrowNYC (New York, NY), Hawthorne Valley Farm (Ghent, NY), the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (Hurley, NY), and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (Pocantico Hills, NY)—to understand the outcomes of current efforts to train farmers and work towards more collective impact.
“This regional collaboration is a chance for growing a foodshed that provides healthy and affordable food for all while also honoring the health of the land,” said Steffen Schneider of Hawthorne Valley Farm. “This is tremendously important in the context of the global challenges around agriculture and food.”
Experts and practitioners within the agricultural community recognize the need to adapt to the climate and ecological stress and upheaval we are now facing. This means two things: firstly, farming in ways that protect and, as far as possible, restore vital ecosystems—the soil, the water, the natural biodiversity. And secondly, doing so in ways that help repair some of the damage that has been done by chemically-intensive industrial methods over the past 100 years.
This requires, among other things, an intergenerational approach, according to Elizabeth Corio of Glynwood, one of the partner organizations. “If a farm becomes intergenerational, they will be here to train the next generation too. This was the reality for thousands of years, and it was dismantled in the span of 100 years through a systematic preference for large-scale agroindustry. We need to rebuild that small, diverse, resilient system.”
The awareness around the need for a new approach is growing. “We’re seeing many of the new farmers and businesses are very mission focused,” says Corio, “simultaneously about restoring and stewarding the farm, feeding their families, and providing access to this sort of food to far more people in their communities. They aren’t getting into it to become large scale farms—land in the Hudson Valley doesn’t support that—they recognize that is part of how the whole food system has gotten messed up. They’re addressing the zeitgeist in the way they know how.”
“Ten years ago, you might have complete neophytes, who were really drawn to farming as a profession. What we’re seeing now, as the back-to-the-land 3.0 movement has matured a little bit, the applicants know more, they’ve done their due diligence, are a little less starry-eyed, and so there is a need for us to meet them where they are.”
This means starting out with some research to help figure out what support needs are not being met. “It’s a 10-year process to become a viable farm,” says Corio. “Some people think it’s just a couple of seasons required. It’s a much longer road than that. The whole support system is evolving along with these farmers.”
One of the core things the collaborative wants to advance is the discussion around who is currently being served through existing programs and who is being left out. Is the pool as diverse as it could be? Is it representing the community that lives in the Hudson Valley? If not, why not?
“We hold a lot of power and resources,” says Corio. “So, it’s about making sure that we are sharing those resources and trying to increase access to the wealth, power, and privilege these organizations hold for farmers that want to be feeding their communities.”
The 20th century saw huge changes in land ownership, and minority communities bore much of the brunt. Land owned by black farmers, for example, decreased from a high of 13% in the early 20th century to 1% today. Organizations like Soul Fire Farm in Grafton are addressing racism in the farming system directly, and the collaborative recognizes the urgent need to connect with, learn from, and support such efforts.
Corio continues, “There are many organizations and communities who are already doing this work, so how can the collaborative lift up that work, design and undertake research that would be mutually helpful for them and the collaborative, and be adapting our programs and strategy so that our programs support, learn from, and integrate with the work of groups like Soul Fire Farm, Farm School NYC, and many others? How can we be working towards collective impact?”
There is also an age question. Nationally and regionally, farmers over the age of 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one. Not only is nearly two-thirds of US farmland currently managed by someone over 55, over the next five years nearly 100 million acres will change ownership and need a new farmer.
Evolving from a centralized, fossil fuel-intensive, biodiversity-killing industrial food system to a more resilient, diverse, and localized one is a herculean task. Working together, and building the structures to do so, is essential. The Hudson Valley Farmer Training Collaborative is stepping up to the challenge, something all of us who are lucky enough to call the Hudson Valley home should welcome with open arms.
Photo: A garlic twilight planting meeting last spring at the Farm Hub in Hurley, NY. Photo credit: Hudson Valley Farm Hub.