TAKE-AWAYS

  • The #1 issue for beginning farmers in the Hudson Valley is the mismatch between agricultural land values and real estate land values.
     

  • The future of successful agriculture is going to involve alternative models, for example, agricultural land trusts.
     

  • Climate change will require new farming methods—more permanent grass cover, planned grazing systems with livestock, more tree-based systems with agroforestry components—but adequate supports do not yet exist for this transition.
     

  • Major, bold cross-sectoral conversations and collective actions need to occur to create a coherent support system for this transition to address climate change, soil depletion, and biodiversity loss.

talking with Connor Stedman of Appleseed Permaculture & Terra Genesis

Contributor: Mark Phillips

Connor Stedman is a field ecologist, agroforestry specialist, and carbon farming educator based in western New England and the Hudson Valley. As a farm planner with AppleSeed Permaculture, he provides consulting and design services for new and existing farm businesses throughout the region. In this interview for Hudson River Flows, we explore the Hudson Valley food system’s story of place and relationship to New York City, the challenge of land access for beginning farmers, and new opportunities to support the region’s agricultural economy in the face of climate change intensification. 

As implied by the name of our project, the Hudson River has a unique ecological and cultural history as a waterway intimately connected to the tidal currents of the Atlantic Ocean. How can the Hudson River Valley’s story of place provide a deeper context in our work to support food and agriculture in the region?

CONNOR STEDMAN: 

One thing I see in the Hudson Valley is the fact that if you look at other large river systems in this broad region (between where the sandy coastline starts in Portland, Maine, down to where the Barrier Islands stop in Georgia), what is unique to the Hudson River is that it’s a geologically uninterrupted waterway for over 100 miles inland to the ocean.

 

This means that you can go 140 miles to Troy on an ocean-going vessel without running aground anywhere. So really the Hudson River is an extension of the Atlantic Ocean in a way that no other river system in the region is. And I think that uninterrupted ability to move water, tides, and resources back and forth between the coast and deep inland has shaped so much about these communities of life. As just one major example, for thousands of years that tidal connectedness has deeply shaped the lives of native peoples of the region, such as the Mahican, Mohawk, Munsee, Lenni Lenape, and many other peoples. This river has supported those communities' ability to travel, engage in trade and treaties, and to maintain intimate relationships with the coast and ocean.

How has the Hudson Valley’s food system been shaped over time by its relationship to New York City? What opportunities and challenges does such a large economic engine present for agriculture in the region?

CONNOR STEDMAN: 

From the beginnings of New Amsterdam to New York City and into the present day, the extent to which the Hudson Valley is economically an organ system of New York City is hard to overstate. It would be accurate in many ways to call the Hudson Valley an economic colony of New York City.

Though there are certainly individual producers who have market access challenges, I would not put access to markets among the top challenges for farmers in this region. With access to New York City itself and secondarily to the large New York City metropolitan area and then the Albany metropolitan area, access to large urban markets with high amounts of financial capital flowing through them really exists more in the Hudson Valley than any other agricultural region on the eastern seaboard.

 

At the same time, this proximity to the city creates unique challenges for the region’s agricultural economy. I think the #1 issue for beginning farmers in the Hudson Valley is the mismatch between agricultural land values and real estate land values. There is a general scenario I’ve seen repeat many times, where investors from the city are passionate about getting involved in agriculture and therefore buy or found a farm upstate. Then—in a way that is easy to miss as it is happening—that farm is developed in a way that can make the property ultimately unaffordable to future farmers to whom the land might otherwise have transitioned at some point.  

 

The long term of this is really concerning. Right now, the Hudson Valley does have an agricultural real estate market. There are properties that are turning over, and especially the further north you go into Columbia and Rensselaer County there are properties that can be affordable to young and beginning farmers. But the more of those properties that are purchased and redeveloped by investor class money with a non-agricultural vision of housing, lifestyle, and aesthetics, alongside agricultural goals — it basically creates a new class of holdings that function as stranded assets from a long-term agricultural point of view.  I've seen a lot of this in parts of the mid-Atlantic as well, where historical horse boarding estates are very difficult to convert to food production due to this mismatch in asset values.

You’ve talked about how farmers looking to purchase land must typically pursue a “patchwork” of financing options, referencing organizations like Dirt Capital, Iroquois Valley, and various land trusts, as well as tools like conservation easements and Farm Service Agency loans, as typical pathways for successfully transferring properties to agricultural use in the region. Moving forward, how do you envision the evolution of land access and technical assistance for new farmers in the Hudson Valley, particularly in the context of climate change adaptation in the agricultural economy?

CONNOR STEDMAN: 

I think that the future of successful agriculture is going to involve an increase of collectivization in the form of alternative land access models like agricultural versions of the urban community land trust: an agricultural land trust that is essentially creating a commons in which there is a legal structure and set of relationships that give people lifetime transferable and renewable leases with equity tied into them. Ideally this model would allow farmers to invest in the development of their farm property and business, and build equity through that process, even if they are not holding full fee ownership of the land. Agrarian Trust comes to mind as an example of an organization working on models like this.

 

In the context of climate change, we’re talking about significant land use changes to respond adequately to the scale of the threat: Towards more organic annual systems with no-till methods, more permanent grass cover, planned grazing systems with livestock, more tree-based systems across the board with agroforestry components, buffers, and trees integrated into working farms. All of these are land use transitions and therefore business changes.

 

There are support systems available for such land use changes, but in the Hudson Valley currently I would characterize them as “weak.” For instance, the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides funding through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for many conservation practices that contribute to climate change resilience. But it is generally only available (at least in New York State) for farms that have what is called a “demonstrated resource concern.” If you’ve got a big nutrient pollution problem, an erosion problem, etc., then you can get funding for buffers, permanent grass cover, and certain kinds of infrastructure.

 

But in general, the amount of funding available for these conservation practices is inadequate to scale what’s needed, and they’re focused on fixing problems rather than transitioning farms from whatever stage they’re currently at to best-in-industry examples. I think that getting to the scale needed to make a difference for climate change adaptation and the global transition to carbon farming will ultimately require significant support from public, philanthropic, and private sectors. We need coherent packages of both funding and technical assistance paired together so that there’s a comprehensible, accessible, and streamlined process that people can go through to figure out what they can do and then get funding to do it.

How do you see stakeholders in the food system working together to address these issues?

CONNOR STEDMAN: 

There are conversations happening between non-profits in the region and across sectors between non-profits that serve agriculture and public sector service providers and investors. I think if this kind of associative process takes place more, where people are not just talking as investors, or service providers, or as philanthropic funders or administrators of non-profit programming, but having a structured conversation around farming and the financial system, some new pathways that don’t exist yet could be developed.

 

If we’re just moving around the current pieces on the chessboard, the current pieces are not adequate to what’s needed. So we need to create new pieces somehow. It’s going to require cross sector conversations with a big presence of producers at the table in order to figure that out.

 

Another way to think about this is to ask the question: Wherever you are in the food and money system, how can you exercise your personal agency to do something that is beyond what has been done before?

Taking a step back, what work in the Hudson Valley food system are you the most excited about right now?

CONNOR STEDMAN: 

I’m excited about Soul Fire Farm’s Reparations Map and the open conversations about large transfers of wealth and power to people from whom it was taken historically. It’s an asynchronous, non-incremental move to take meaningful steps towards reparations and actually transferring equity and control of land, resources, and money to severely, historically impacted communities.

 

We are at a time in the history of the planet where there’s processes of both ecological and societal collapse happening. That requires a scale of boldness and belief in something better , like we are also seeing with the Sunrise Movement's youth leadership right now. Whenever people can actually be supported to think at that kind of scale and then act on that possibility, I think big things could move.

© 2018 by Hudson River Flows. 

For more information about Hudson River Flows contact arterianchang (at) gmail.com

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