The state’s new Climate Change Leadership and Protection Act recognizes farmland’s role in carbon sequestration through better land use practices. Details of implementation to come.
The NY Soil Health initiative is allocated $200,000 in the current state budget, along with $4.5 million to a Climate Resilient Farming program.
The 2018 Working Farm Protection Act makes $38 million available to protect farmland and creates a new easement mechanism.
A law passed this year makes $5000 grants available under the New Farmers Grant Fund Program to farmers just starting out.
The 2019 Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act mandates a day of rest, overtime pay after 60 hours of work in a week, and the right to collective bargaining (without the right to strike) to farm workers
A pending NYC Council City bill establishes an urban agriculture plan including an inventory of existing and potential urban farm sites and modification of land use policies to expand urban ag.
HOW NYS POLICIES SHAPE AGRICULTURE
in the Hudson Valley
Contributor: Lisa Elaine Held
The Trump administration has largely continued the long tradition of federal agriculture policies favoring large-scale commodity agriculture over the interests of the small family farms that New York—and especially the Hudson Valley—is known for. It has also suppressed climate change research and relaxed environmental regulations that industrial agriculture companies face. Fortunately, states have increasingly been taking the lead in crafting policies that prioritize more regenerative agricultural practices, in particular, those that address climate. This shift offers opportunities for small and large farmers alike.
“Oftentimes people say that ‘states are the incubators of democracy,’ and before things come to the federal level...programs are tried out at the state level,” says Wes King, a senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).
In New York, most recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Change Leadership and Protection Act into law—arguably the country’s most ambitious piece of legislation dedicated to confronting the climate crisis. The law’s scope includes measures to dramatically increase the use of renewable energy, promote the use of electric vehicles, create more energy-efficient buildings, and, most notably in food and agriculture circles, to “achieve long-term carbon sequestration and/or promote best management practices in land use, agriculture and forestry.” Although the details of how enhanced carbon sequestration on farmland will be encouraged and funded have yet to be worked out, the Act’s recognition of the role farmland has to play in climate resiliency comes not long after the state allocated $400,000 for a carbon farming pilot program.
While American Farmland Trust (AFT) was founded with a focus on saving farmland, the organization’s mission has evolved and expanded alongside the growing threat posed by climate change. “It's not just about protecting the land,” reports AFT’s New York State Deputy Director Erica Goodman, “it's about making sure that that land is well managed, and so we have a lot of programs around soil health and water quality,” she said.
Goodman says AFT was one of a coalition of groups working to make sure agriculture was included in the NYS Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, and while the details of the Act’s implementation are still up in the air, AFT was thrilled to see that agriculture leaders will have a seat at the table in terms of turning the policy into programs.
Representatives from the New York Soil Health (NYSH) initiative, which earlier this year published the New York Soil Health Roadmap, have also met with legislators who crafted the Act, and were happy to see carbon sequestration included among the tools under consideration.
The NYSH was also allocated $200,000 in this 2019-2020 state budget. The budget also included funding in the amount of $4.5 million for the Climate Resilient Farming program and $400,000 for the carbon farming pilot program proposed by Assemblymember Didi Barrett, who represents parts of Dutchess and Columbia Counties. Although the details have yet to be confirmed, the carbon farming pilot will serve as a research project looking at factors like which practices maximize carbon sequestration and how to measure sequestration in order to offer farmers incentives. Farms in Dutchess, Columbia, Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange counties will be involved.
Erica Goodman of American Farmland Trust says her organization was among a group who made sure that the role of agriculture was recognized in the NYS Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act.
Farmers and Farmworkers
Climate change is clearly a priority concern for farmers in the Hudson Valley and beyond. But early-stage farmers in particular, who may be eager to be part of the solution, need both the security of land ownership and access to resources to implement more sustainable agricultural practices. “It’s one of the most expensive places to farm because of the proximity to New York City and this wave of people coming up from the city and buying second homes,” says Sophie Ackoff, the vice president of policy and campaigns at the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), based in Hudson, New York. “Real estate is really driving up farmland prices.”
In 2018, Governor Cuomo announced that nearly $38 million in state funding was being made available to protect farmland. Some of that money has gone to supporting conservation easements, which make farmland more affordable for young farmers. The New York State 2018 Working Farm Protection Act adds an optional affordability provision to the calculation of the dollar amount of a conservation easement awarded to landowners through the Farmland Protection Implementation Grant (FPIG) Program. Under this new easement mechanism, the land can be sold only to qualified farmers at affordable agricultural value.
The State has also funded programs like AFT’s Farmland for a New Generation New York, a statewide initiative that is modeled after the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network. The program applies a boots-on-the-ground approach to linking retiring farmers who want to pass their farms on to the next generation with early-stage farmers looking for land, via a network of regional navigators across the state. It also offers help with things that can often derail the process, like easements and legal assistance.
Ackoff said she’s particularly excited about tax credit programs that incentivize landowners to rent or sell to beginning farmers. After a bill was passed in Minnesota, 450 farms were granted tax credits in the first year. NYFC has since helped pass a similar bill in Pennsylvania and the organization is working to bring similar initiatives to additional states.
Meanwhile, NYFC is looking at other policies that address the tough economics of farming. The New Farmers Grant Fund Program previously excluded farmers with limited access to capital, but a law passed this year created a pathway for those just starting out to access $5,000 grants. These can be used for projects that increase farm profitability via pathways like diversifying production or implementing sustainable practices.
New York State law also currently offers student loan forgiveness to farmers, but requires the farmer to own or manage a farm within two years of graduation. “What's happening is the people who can get that loan forgiveness probably are from multi-generation farm families, so they can easily come back to the farm and be managing part of it within a couple of years,” Ackoff reports. “So, we [introduced] a bill that would just reframe the qualifications for that program, to be a young farmer in their first 10 years of farming.” While that bill did not pass at the end of the session, NYFC plans to advocate for it again next year.
While figuring out how to get enough farmers on the land is critical, so is supporting the farmworkers who power the Hudson Valley food and agricultural economy. Reports on conditions on New York’s dairy farms, for example, have found workers often face low wages and dangerous working conditions. Those conditions are exacerbated by the fact that many workers are undocumented, and are exempt from labor rights that exist in other industries.
That changed in New York in June, when the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act passed, mandating a day of rest, overtime pay after 60 hours of work in a week, and the right to collective bargaining (without the right to strike).
“It’s good news, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Suzanne Adely, an organizer with the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “The fact that it grants collective bargaining but makes strikes illegal really weakens it.”
Overtime is also a contentious issue among farmers, some of whom say that they work hard to take good care of their workers but that having to pay overtime could be financially ruinous for their farms given already tight margins.
The Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act was also signed into law in June after years of advocacy that was driven significantly by farmworkers. The law will allow workers who are often isolated on farms to obtain drivers’ licenses regardless of immigration status, allowing them to leave the farm for everyday errands like groceries and doctor’s appointments. It also protects workers from immigration enforcement during routine traffic stops.
The Local Supply Chain
While CSA and farmers' market growth seems to be slowing nationally, NSAC’s King said it looks like small farm sales through intermediaries like food hubs, restaurants, retail stores, and institutions are rising, and that New York is one state that is leading the way in terms of encouraging local purchasing.
AFT is part of the New York Grown Food for New York Kids Coalition, and Goodman said state support has been crucial in funding programs like farm-to-school grants and incentives that increase school lunch reimbursements if schools source 30 percent of their food from local farms.
“Farmers need market opportunities,” she says, pointing to the state’s struggling dairy farmers. “[Milk] is 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.”
The program unfortunately does not always deliver on its objectives, says Sarah Goodman, of Common Grounds, because of the constraints of the USDA’s nutritional standards. “You cannot hit 30 percent through local procurement without buying protein or milk. In our region, the milk bid keeps getting won by New Jersey and Connecticut farmers, and they can’t just source New York milk because it is a competitive process,” she says. “And then, the cost of protein is too expensive to actually make local purchasing worth it, even with the reimbursement.” Instead of supporting the purchase of existing local produce, Goodman worries the program will encourage farmers to figure out ways to grow cheaper produce, which would likely negatively affect the environment.
NYC City Councilman Rafael Espinal is leading the push to pass a comprehensive urban agriculture bill.
Finally, one of the most unique aspects of the Hudson Valley’s food system is the rapidly expanding world of urban agriculture in New York City. As more farms are established within city limits, advocates for urban farming have pushed for local policies that would better support growth. City councilmember Rafael Espinal has been working to pass a bill that would establish a comprehensive urban agriculture plan for the city for several years, and Just Food executive director Qiana Mickie has been working to make sure that policy does not prioritize capital-intensive indoor farms over neighborhood efforts like community gardens.
“What we have been finding…is that yet again, economically marginalized communities are not seen as the leaders and innovators of urban agriculture, and that's just simply not true,” she explains. “We have generations of neighborhoods growing food when other businesses divested from those neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the land stewards of our spaces are involved in that work and policy, so they are able to access those resources and capital.”
One example she mentions is companies that are petitioning the city to change zoning to make it easier for them to build large indoor farms in residential zones. More food grown locally sounds good, but changing zoning may also change a neighborhood in ways that negatively affects the community, as property values rise via gentrification and long-time residents and the local businesses they rely on are displaced.
That’s why, she says, when advocates talk about working towards an equitable, regenerative food system, “It's not just about advocating and protesting and wearing a tomato suit somewhere. It's [about getting at] the nuanced pieces of the policies.”