Panel: We All Benefit From Farmland

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Saratoga County, N.Y., is home to the largest private economic development project in the U.S., a $4.6 billion computer chip plant at Luther Forest Technology Campus.

Similar huge facilities might be developed at the site, bringing well-paying jobs but a great deal of residential and commercial development pressure as well, which threatens the surrounding area’s rich agricultural landscape.

Food lovers and farmers at all levels are doing everything they can to preserve this resource, the main topic of a Nov. 17 panel discussion, “Local, Natural, Organic: What’s on Your Plate?” at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs.

“I used to think my job was protecting farmland,” said moderator Teri Ptacek, of the Agricultural Stewardship Association of Washington and Rensselaer Counties. “It’s really much more than that. It’s about protecting community. The need to protect local farms is becoming more and more crucial. As more companies locate here, what do you think is going to happen to remaining farmland.”

Her agency has already saved 14,200 acres in Washington and Rensselaer counties, which border Saratoga County.

Jennifer Small, co-owner of Flying Pigs Farm, became a farmer in direct response to a developer’s plans for pristine land along the Battenkill River, in Washington County. Previously, she knew little about agriculture, but got into it as a way to stop such development from happening, with help from the ASA and American Farmland Trust.

Starting with three pigs about a dozen years ago, her farm now has 900 of the animals, 3,000 meat chickens and 1,500 laying hens.

“We completely fell into farming,” she said. “It gives me a way to combine my political and environmental interests with my love of great food.”

Most of her produce is sold at New York City farmers markets in Brooklyn and at Union Square in Manhattan. Thirty percent is purchased by chefs and restaurants with 10 percent sold by mail order.

“Keeping land in farming benefits all of us,” she said. “Farms are money makers for local towns, oftentimes big money makers.”

For every dollar of property tax a house generates, its occupants require $1.13 worth of services such as schools, water, sewage and highway maintenance, she said.

In contrast, farms typically require from 13 to 25 cents worth of services.

New York farms have an estimated 220,000 direct employees, and the state’s $4 billion agriculture industry supports a similar-sized number of jobs for things such as tractor and feed supplies.

“We’re really fortunate to live in New York, which has a really strong farming community,” Small said.

Justine Denison and her husband left Maine to start a small retail and organic farming business in Schaghticoke, Rensselaer County, in 2005. Now it supplies 500 boxes to community supported agriculture supporters 22 weeks out of the year.

Her farm is just nine miles from the big Saratoga County tech park, but its land has been protected with help from the ASA. “We know now that the land will be forever farmland,” she said.

Another panelist was Lyndsay Muilleur, who will manage a new Healthy Living Market and Café that’s scheduled to open near Saratoga Springs next March, using a former JC Penney’s building at Wilton Mall. The Vermont-based company primarily deals in locally grown, fresh food, which will give growers another outlet for their produce.

Saratoga Springs already has one of upstate New York’s most vibrant farmers markets, which operates year round.

Panelist Margaret Sullivan directs the Saratoga Springs City School District’s lunch program. She told how she has incorporated locally grown food into school menus the past few years, starting with roasted potatoes in place of processed French fries. “The kids not only liked it, they loved it,” she said.

At one of the district’s elementary schools, kids at each grade level plant their own garden, which has been incorporated into math and science lessons as well.

The big turning point for the farm-to-school program came three years ago when the Saratoga Farmers Market began looking for an indoor winter location. Instead of paying for space at an elementary school, market members give the district food items for school lunches.

This supports a new federal guideline requiring all school lunch meals to have at least one fruit or vegetable and whole grain bread.

“We want to teach kids where food comes from,” Sullivan said. “It’s not just the grocery store.”

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