10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
Washington County, N.Y., officials are taking a page out of history to promote 21st century agriculture.
An industrial site on the Hudson River, in Greenwich, N.Y., is being eyed for a proposed barge transportation facility capable of hauling a wide variety of farm goods to market in New York City.
The plan fits in with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's regional economic development policy, and his call for increased commercial traffic on the state's canal system.
"Washington County is an agricultural county, rich in food and fiber," said Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman, who chairs the county's Agriculture, Planning and Tourism committee. "There is potential for even more production. The bigger problem is getting our products to the large New York City market. Food and fiber from the Hudson Valley and upstate has a natural market in the greater New York City area and barge traffic could play an important role in that symbiotic relationship."
Many farms already truck products ranging from wool to goat cheese to lucrative New York farmers markets on a regular basis. However, most of them do it on an individual basis, and with gas at $4 per gallon, bridge tolls skyrocketing and a 45 percent New York State Thruway fare hike possible, transportation is an extremely costly part of doing business.
If done collectively, shipping by barge might allow some producers to grow and move goods in much higher volumes.
There is a historical precedent. A century or more ago, Washington County was one of the state's top potato-producing regions, and goods were shipped to market by barge on the Champlain Canal, which connects Lake Champlain in Whitehall with the Upper Hudson River, at Fort Edward. Boats headed south to Albany on the river must still pass through several state-operated locks to get there.
Eventually, outside competition took its toll and potatoes gave way to other types of agriculture, primarily dairy.
However, Cuomo has considerable vision for New York's farm sector and just last week unveiled plans for a late-October beer and wine "summit" to boost those industries, the same way he's touted Greek-style yogurt production in upstate New York.
The state's craft beer industry has doubled during the past decade. In June, the state restored a tax break that gives New York brewers an advantage over those from outside the state.
Hops is a crop that could be grown in large quantities to supply fast-growing New York City craft breweries. It's also the type of good that could be shipped via barge, at slower speeds, without compromising the freshness that's critical for things such as milk, meat and eggs.
"A barge doesn't have the speed of rail or trucks, but the volume of produce they can hold is enormous," Village of Greenwich Mayor David Doonan said.
Doonan said he got the idea for a barge facility while attending a meeting about the state's new Consolidated Funding Application program that shows municipalities how to identify and apply for money from various state agencies. During the meeting, he heard that Cuomo wants to increase commercial traffic on the state canal system.
"My eyes lit up when I heard that," Doonan said. "There's a lot of support. It's a question of how do we move forward?"
Currently, General Electric Co. is conducting a major environmental cleanup of the Upper Hudson River, a $1 billion dredging project to remove PCBs on a 40-mile stretch of river from Fort Edward south to Troy. Work is expected to last several more years.
While this is going on, many private interests and local governments are calling for navigational dredging as well, to make the river more accessible to commercial traffic for economic reasons.
"Navigational dredging has been a topic in this area for some time now," Idleman said. "Many groups are behind it and many people support the idea. I too support the idea."
On Sept. 24, members of the Historic Hudson-Hoosic Partnership passed a resolution declaring their formal support of the barge proposal. The partnership consists of elected officials from Washington, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties.
"Opening the canal to more business is important," said Tom Richardson, supervisor of Mechanicville in Saratoga County. "It would be a boost to everyone's economy."
Battenkill Railroad is a small line that transports raw materials to a feed mill and fertilizer plant in Salem, Washington County. The company also has several miles of serviceable, but unused track that runs to industrial property on the river shore, in Greenwich. Farmers could potentially get their goods to the barge site this way.
"We're on board with the idea," railroad owner William Taber said.
Assemblyman Tony Jordan said, "It's not going to be the right answer for everyone. It's an option."
Like barge traffic itself, the proposal is moving slowly, but appears to at least be headed in the right direction.
"It is beginning to gain some ground," Idleman said. "I might say it has moved beyond the infant stage. It's starting to move."