Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
Larry Tse, Dig Acres Farm Manager & VP, Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition
A Conversation with
of Dig Acres Farm
Drawing on a diversity of work experiences across many points of the food value chain, Larry Tse is in a good position to know what farmers need most from policymakers: affordable farmland access, funding for rigorous climate-change-resilience training for both farmers and their technical service providers, and a recognition that the terms of government grants and loans need to better align with the harsh economic realities of farming in the 2020s.
Remembering the wisdom imparted to him by an older mentor in his early farming years, Larry also hopes for less polarization and more opportunities for Hudson Valley farmers to share knowledge across generations and practices.
A Study Year Abroad Kindles a Passion for Farming
Larry Tse’s farming career was seeded during a semester abroad in Australia where he worked on a succession of small organic farms. “My first mentor was an older gentleman who was very concerned about peak oil," Larry reflects. "One day his tractor broke down and he said, ‘I'm not going to use a tractor anymore.’ From then on he was cover-cropping by hand, terminating the crops by hand, tilling by hand. It gave me this great experience of how everything can work on a farm just by using your hands.”
Returning to the states Larry managed farmers’ markets in the DC area, and, after graduating from George Washington University in 2012, moved to New York to work as a food buyer for Northern Spy Food Co., one of the city’s early farm-to-table restaurants. “My job was just to ride a bike throughout the city, going to farmers’ markets and buying food,” he shares. “It was really cool to be a part of a mission-driven enterprise.”
Larry went on to apprentice at and then manage a 30-acre diversified nonprofit farm outside Philadelphia, and thereafter was hired as field manager at a large tomato farm outside Reading. Returning to his passion for mission-driven work, Larry moved to the Hudson Valley in 2017 to become the first farm manager of Dig Acres, a 20-acre diversified vegetable farm at the Chester Agricultural Center in Orange County’s “Black Dirt” country.
The Dig team harvesting purple napa cabbage.
The Micro-Community of the Chester Agricultural Center
Dig, the fast-casual restaurant organization that sources the bulk of its produce from Northeastern farms, established Dig Acres to provide its New York City chefs with opportunities to more closely connect with the food they were serving up at its Manhattan locations. (Responding to the new normal of the COVID-19 emergency, Dig, a popular grab-and-go and sit down lunch spot for office workers, has had to retool, and is now offering pickup and delivery throughout Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.)
The not-for-profit Chester Agricultural Center’s stated mission is to preserve Orange County’s Black Dirt, convert it to organic, and provide affordable long-term leases to beginning-level farmers. As a for-profit enterprise, Dig pays full market rate for its land under cultivation, but gets to shares a wash space, a cooling space, and a greenhouse with five other Chester Ag Center farms. “It is its own little micro community here,” Larry reports.
Larry says Dig also makes additional in-kind contributions to the Center, including free equipment usage and, when it can, farm labor. It is an arrangement that also benefits Dig’s apprentice program, affording team members more training opportunities like tractor operation. As the COVID crisis forced Dig to furlough its apprentices for one month this spring, Center farmers have pitched in to fill the breach. “Farmers are saying ‘you've helped us before, we're happy to come help you now.’” Larry shares. “The outpouring of support from the community has been really incredible.”
Growing broccoli to demonstrate what a crop failure looks like
Over the decade he’s worked in agriculture-related businesses, Larry has witnessed up close the accelerating impacts of climate change. Most recently, during his first year as farm manager at Dig Acres, the first frost arrived on September 1st; in 2018 on October 19th in 2019; and in 2019, September 19th. “We can get a frost warning out of nowhere and my crew's going to be going to be out there until 10:00 PM putting cover out to protect the crop,” he reports.
In Pennsylvania eight years ago, he recalls, it was possible to grow broccoli in the spring with a relatively high degree of certainty about what could be expected in terms of rain and frost events. “Now I grow broccoli in the spring at Dig Acres just to show my crew what a crop failure looks like,” Larry says. “The climate is just that unpredictable.” Today very few farms in downstate New York grow broccoli in the spring, Larry shares. Most have moved onto sprouting broccoli or broccolini. Cornell University is leading a project researching new varieties of broccoli that can withstand the higher degrees of heat and humidity the Northeast is now experiencing.
Although Orange County’s Black Dirt is legendary for its fertility, like all soils the impacts of climate change have speeded its degradation. Of course organically rich soil also offers fertile ground for weeds. “You can keep your weed bank low in the areas that you lease,” Larry shares. “But if you have 20 acres on a 100 acre property that is not maintained, those weeds are going to blow into your fields.”
The Dig farm has retooled its tillage systems over the past few seasons to use less aggressive processes, such as using a power harrow rather than a rototiller, and implementing more complex cover crop systems. These systems can lead to better overall soil health and less topsoil erosion.
“We can get a frost warning out of nowhere and my crew's going to be going to be out there until 10:00 PM putting cover out to protect the crop,” Larry reports.
Wanted: Land for Climate-Change-Resilience-Trained Farmers to Restore
Larry notes that the proliferation of new farmer training programs in the Hudson Valley has been a double-edged sword. These farmers—many of them armed with the latest climate-change-resilient technical know-how—leave their programs unable to secure land they are so eager to restore. Even if they are lucky enough to secure a few acres to cultivate, the scope to implement what they’ve learned is likely to be limited. “How can you afford to put half of your lands out of production to cover crop or do crop rotation when that makes your entire operation financially unsustainable in the short term?” Larry asks. “People may have all the technical knowledge in the world but it is in many ways economically not feasible to carry out because of how expensive land is.”
With its pilot farm incubator project, Dig is attempting to address this challenge on a small scale, offering select graduating apprentices a plot of land and a short-term safety net of support services. “We'll be paying a lot of their bills initially but each year our support will go down,” Larry reports. “The idea is that in the first three years they should be getting used to running their operation. Then the expectation will be that one day they leave our program and will be able to stand on their own two feet.” It’s a project that could be enhanced and replicated with more government funding. But that said, as more farmland in the Hudson Valley is sold for residential and commercial development, farmers graduating from these programs will ultimately be frustrated in their search for affordable land to lease or own.
Larry, Vice President of the Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition is among the young farmer leadership advocating for more and better farmland protection programs and more funding for working farmland easements: “This is at the absolute core of the problem where people cannot afford to buy or lease land even when they have the knowledge and skills to farm sustainably.”
Wanted: more funding for technical trainers
Larry praises his own Cornell Cooperative Extension agent but reports there are not enough to serve the new farmer community in the region. “How are they going to get to every one of these farming operations and advise them?” he asks. Older established and larger farms tend to have long-term relationships with the extensions while, reports Larry: “a lot of new farmers don’t know the resources available that can be brought to bear on their operation. We need more agents that are constantly coming out to farms even when you're not calling them, saying, ‘Hey, can I come out the next two days and see your operation and just see how you're doing and see what steps you can take to make your operation more sustainable?’”
The team has a laugh while weeding celery root.
Wanted: A higher bar for training programs
Although there is an abundance of farmer training programs in the Hudson Valley they would all benefit from more structure and uniformity, Larry also asserts. He holds up Pennsylvania’s Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship program as a model. “Under their program apprentices work a certain amount of hours and with a set curriculum they must master. Funding is provided to farmers to take on these apprentices. Its great to have this template structure so if you want to farm organically, these are the practices that you need to know. You learn to cover crop, how to reduce your tillage, etc. So when you leave you have an actual base of knowledge.”
Wanted: Grant and loan terms that match the realities of early-stage farmers
New York State’s farmer assistance grants often require the farmer to invest money upfront out-of-pocket. “We'd like to see a way where it is not an entirely reimbursed funding structure,” Larry says.
He also notes that although the State of New York has begun offering grants for the purchase of equipment that will enable farmers to be more climate-change resilient, necessary technical assistance is often not offered as part of that grant package. “Farmers need help implementing new practices to use equipment efficiently and effectively,” Larry reports. “I believe that in addition to these new programs that New York has been proposing around soil health, they also should invest just as much in extension and education. You can have all the best tools, but you don't know how to swing the tools, then what's the point?”
Empowering farmer advocates at the grassroots level
As a leader of the Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition, Larry reports that the organization is retooling to become more effective in communicating with its members, recognizing that farmers are often too busy to take time out to attend in person policymaking roundtables where their voices can be heard.
The chapter has recently been hosting weekly and biweekly phone calls with farmers to share ideas COVID-crisis coping strategies. “These calls often have as many as 70 people on them,” Larry reports. “It's obviously a difficult time for everyone mentally and physically, but these calls are a bright spot for our local community.”
These information-sharing sessions provide valuable insights about what farmers need and want from policymakers. “We need to know what our farmers really care about and then bring those suggestions to New York legislators,” Larry says. “Right now a lot of policy decisions are top-down dictated, and some of it is being pushed by other organizations who may not really know what farmers need.”
Photo caption here.
NEEDED: MORE Sharing across generations and practices
Larry expresses particular concern about the increasing polarization he sees in the farming community, reflective of a larger societal phenomenon. Young farmers rarely speak with older ones, and organic farmers tend to be too quick to judge the practices of conventional farmers and vice versa. He welcomes the creation of more venues for conventional and/or older generation farmers to share ideas with the younger “regenerative” farmers. “It is hard to find those places where you can mingle,” Larry shares, but with the impacts of climate change bearing down on all farmers, the need to find common ground is more critical than ever.
It could start with making space for a “no-judgment” zone, he reports. For example, organic farmers who have been tilling heavily for decades are now turning to no-till practices, while many conventional farmer have been practicing no-till for years, albeit with spraying. On the other hand, Larry reports, some of his neighboring “old-school” Black Dirt farmers often look askance at the new organic farmers down the road who are putting everything under plastic to suppress weeds: “They are asking, ‘how is this organic and how is this better than what I'm doing if you're using all of this oil to create this plastic?’”
“We all need to realize that conventional farmers aren't out there because they want to be spraying and we are not out there because we want to be laying plastic,” Larry concludes. “It’s important for us to take a look at our entire agricultural system and not just focus on ourselves. We need to look together at each part of what makes this industry run. We're all doing what we do because we think it’s the best way to do it. But we're all trying to get better at what we do.”