A Conversation with Erica Goodman of American Farmland Trust
AFT is addressing the big transitions happening in agriculture including the dairy crisis.
Farmers need more support to play the meaningful role they should have in addressing the climate crisis.
The transition to new farm ownership is one of the most critical issues that agriculture must address in the Hudson Valley.
Contributor: Lisa Held
The American Farmland Trust was founded with a focus on farmland protection but has evolved as an organization to more broadly address farm management and marketing practices that contribute to the long-term viability of the agricultural sector. As a national organization it works in partnership with state and local organizations to support their on-the-ground efforts. Here AFT’s New York State Deputy Director Erica Goodman talks about state policies and funding mechanism that support farmer transition and institutional local food procurement efforts.
What are the major policy initiatives that American Farmland Trust is addressing that impact the Hudson Valley food system?
We have been working to heighten awareness of the role that farmers play on the front lines of climate change, and on supporting programs and budgetary items that enable farmers to be in a position to do something about mitigating it. We really pushed to make sure that agriculture had a voice at the table in the crafting of the state’s Climate Act.
We are also focused on addressing the big transitions happening in agriculture, both generationally and in the dairy industry. We are in the second year now of having support from the state for a statewide Farmland for a New Generation program. The new ag census revealed again that a third of farmers across the state are 65 or older and that there's interest from a younger generation who might be from a farm family or may not be. But it is during the transition to a new generation that pressures can build in a family and it is at that point that farmland is most under threat to be lost.
Recently AFT announced a farm-to-institution initiative that the state is supporting.
It is a year-long program where we will have six schools this year go through an intensive first week of training and getting on board and planning and then have one-on-one coaching throughout the rest of the year and a mid year meeting as well to bring everyone back together. It’s not directly funded by the state, but it complements really well the New York State Farm to School Program funding that goes directly to schools that are either starting up farm to school programs or starting to take advantage of the 30 percent reimbursement program.
How does the 30 percent reimbursement program work?
That was two budget cycles ago, and it was for schools that are able to purchase 30 percent of their lunch food budget from New York farms. There's some layers of complications of what that is and some of it's still being tweaked, but the idea is ensuring that if schools are incentivized to buy more local, then they will be able to increase their school lunch reimbursement. That reimbursement helps to offset the additional cost of procuring locally to encourage more New-York-grown and New-York-raised products going into schools.
Is getting schools and other institutions to buy more local food a central focus of AFT's efforts right now?
Yes, I'd say that is true in New York specifically; we're not working on it as directly in other parts of the country where we work. But in New York it came out of knowing that there are market opportunities and that farmers need more of them. Even thinking about dairy, it's an easy way for a lot of schools to be able to start reaching that 30 percent. And a lot of schools are already buying a lot of New York dairy. So that's one example, but there are a lot of other New York products. And so we had started to think about the farm-to-institution New York State idea and working with some partners in agriculture but also in school settings, and in other institutions like public health. So it was reaching a little bit beyond just the farm community to think about how to develop a market to support farmers, and then really seeing through that process that there's a lot of need to educate and train and support on the institutional side. We have also been making sure we're sharing stories of success to inspire other schools and institutions.
This is a difficult time for dairy farmers in New York. Is there other work that you're doing or that you know of in the policy world to address the challenges that New York dairy farmers are facing right now?
Yes. I grew up on a dairy farm in New York, in Washington County. We do not have the farm anymore. I was of the generation that decided we weren't going to be farming anymore. So it's certainly an issue that is near and dear to me, but a lot of it is kind of stemming from AFT’s existing focus on generational transition work. We are supporting new generations coming on, but also, those senior generations who might not have someone poised to take over, which was the case in my family situation. And we are also working on farmland protection and conservation easements through the various coalitions we help to lead. We are also celebrating the success of last year's announcement from the governor that the state will provide $8.5 million to support conservation easement projects to help dairy farms diversify or transition operations to the next generation. Seeing that there's some dedicated funding to do that is critical.
Do you mean transition to new ownership?
In the case of that specific program it could be dairy farms that were transitioning within the same family to a new generation or it could be they are maintaining some sort of aspect of dairy but are going to do some value-added or a different type of farming; maybe they'll add some vegetables or whatever it might be. They might change the business model a little bit, or it might just be completely going out of dairy. So there's a few options, but it's really just acknowledging that it is really difficult in many ways be a dairy farmer, especially so in the current market, so the program has some flexibility.
Are there specific policies that New York has that facilitate conservation easements?
Yes. It's oftentimes a combination of different funds; sometimes it also will come from private sources or a land trust will chip in. So it's usually several players, and if there's not a local land trust, it might be the town or county or someone will help and work with the farmer on that. But I'd say a lot of the funding is coming from the state. It takes time to go through that process and it's competitive. And also a lot of that decision-making of what proposals go through is coming through whomever the entity is that is helping to run point.
I'd say in terms of transition, farmers often have their life savings in the farm and not necessarily in a retirement account. So easements help them and it's really important for farmers to start thinking about that early on. In any type of transition you need to be planning for it, but as I experienced it in my own family, it's hard to do that. When you're looking at easements, you are not only compensating the farmer in transition for a portion of his land value, you could think about an easement as decreasing the cost of that land for the next generation, whether it be in the family or out of the family, to enable them to purchase or lease or prepare to purchase a property.