Saturday, July 28, 2007

The late Edward Abbey, personal hero and favorite author of mine, once said that the greatest mistake mankind ever made was giving up the life of hunting and gathering for agriculture. And in a way, he was right. For with that one evolutionary transition, humans began to alter their landscape forever. That, of course, was thousands of years ago and it took quite a while to get to a point where we really began to do some damage. By the time of the industrial revolution, machines began to do much of the work usually conducted by humans. Tractors plowed, harvesters harvested, cotton gins plucked seeds from cotton.

For roughly a half century, it was wonderful. We plowed more land, grew and harvested more, and made more money. But then came the Dust Bowl and we saw for the first time what our technology had wrought. Farmers fortunately survived, as did the land, and pushed on. But after WWII it all changed again. The end of the war brought new chemicals, technology, machinery, and more. In effect, farmers had much bigger hammers with which to solve their problems. For three decades, the harder farmers hit, the bigger the problems became. Until one day, the hammer simply didn’t work anymore [or it caused so much damage that society decided it just wasn’t worth it]. So, we put down the hammer and started figuring out ways to grow food that were less harmful to the land.

We can’t go back 50 or 100 years where small farms were widely spread across America, where more food was eaten by those that grew it than not. But we can choose our food future. What do I mean? We are at another of those evolutionary transitions. Hunter-gatherers didn’t decide to take up farming overnight. It took a long time. In similar fashion, there are many today that would like to take a step back and embrace a more thoughtful land and food ethic, but realize it won't happen overnight. The simple fact is that we are in danger of having to import more food than we actually grow domestically, and we need this transition to happen faster rather than slower. There is a whole litany of reasons we're moving away from a domestic food supply including development and economic pressures, to a reduced focus by our land grant universities on domestic food production, to a society-at-large that quite honestly doesn’t understand what’s going on and usually doesn’t care when it does. As luck would have it, the land-ethic pendulum is swinging back to an ethos that embraces the land and works with rather than against Nature. As it does, we capture a whole new audience of folks looking to get back to the land and reconnecting with their food supply. The question is whether it will swing back fast enough.

Society at large still needs to understand at an even deeper level where its food comes from. Food is grown on a farm; it doesn’t miraculously arrive on the back of truck every Tuesday and Friday from a factory. They need to understand that food grown thousands of miles away has incalculable negative impacts on global warming, open space [e.g., farms], clean air and water, and most importantly the human psyche. The more of our food production that we "outsource" to other countries the more open space and farms we lose.

There was a time when the eggs we had for breakfast came from chickens that we personally knew. We need to reconnect with our food supply, who grows it, how and where. We need to know our eggs. In the battle to protect who we are as human beings, the front lines will be fought on working farms by working farmers. Protecting working farms protects open space, food production, air and water, and protects against growing threats from global warming. We can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers [not that we would want to, necessarily] and likewise if we lose our working farms, we won’t be able to get them back either. The greenest thing anyone can do is make sure our working farms keep working.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Saving the World One Farm at a Time

There are people that say apple growing in the Hudson Valley is dead, or darn near. They cite the growing number of farms transmogrified into McMansions as substantial proof. And, yes, according to the 2001 New York Fruit Tree and Vineyard Survey, the nearly 76,000 acres of apple orchards in 1962 had dropped to 44,563 by 2001. In Ulster County the acreage figures have dropped 48% since 1990 alone. And while it appears that apple growing in New York is in a free fall with orchards being turned into bad architecture faster than you can say Red Delicious, farmers persevere by being innovative and creative.

Agriculture is New York’s number 1 industry. New York farmers grow food for millions of New Yorkers and Americans, as well as countless others in many countries. In Ulster County, fruit production is valued at over $17 million with apples constituting almost 90% of that overall value. But beyond its economic value, farms do so much more by protecting open space, clean air and water, scenic vistas, and providing safe, local food. Without our agricultural land base, farms move away, food is grown by someone you’ll never meet, food safety oversights decline, economies become imbalanced, and, well, the food just doesn’t taste nearly as good.

For better or worse, most of our large scale food production occurs in regions or countries sparsely populated, with large amounts of acreage and economic incentives to grow there. But US apple production started right here in the Hudson Valley. It as much a part of our heritage as the Hudson Valley School artists, West Point, the Catskills, and the mighty Hudson River itself. And in much the same way as Pete Seeger and other resuscitated the Hudson River [an effort that continues to this day], we need to support the resuscitation of agriculture in the valley. And we need to support in ways that may not pay off for generations. Unlike a river, farmland once lost is rarely recovered.

Here in Stone Ridge, we have our own little orchard called, not surprisingly, Stone Ridge Orchard. This farm has been around for over 200 years and has produced such a wide range of crops that is the embodiment of diversified crop production. For the better part of the twentieth century it was properly farmed as an apple orchard. But for the better part of the 90s it was farmed with little vision for its farming future. And so when I began farming this piece of land in 2000, I worked with what I had in front of me. Changes had to be made and made quickly. Orchards were replanted. We diversified by planting a number of other fruit crops to help ease the transition from old orchards to new orchards. And while the changes that have occurred were without a doubt the right things to do, we didn’t go far enough, nor was enough time given to allow the plantings we did put in to take effect. In fact, 50% of the new orchards have not even come into full bearing yet.

As debate begins over the future of Stone Ridge Orchard, it is important that everyone place this farm in proper historical perspective. In doing so we shed new light on the value this land plays in regional food production, as well to who we are as human beings, and the valuable role open space, clean air, scenic vistas, and great tasting food have in our collective presence on this planet. Farms evolve and adapt, just as they always have, and they’ll look and feel different from the way they did in their distant past, but they’ll be there on the muddled landscape, producing food and providing peace of mind that some things are simply sacred. Today, we have an opportunity staring us in the face that will only come once: to protect this viable, productive, working farm for future generations. The greenest thing anyone can do is to see that our working farms stay working.

I encourage anyone with an interest to contact me directly or better yet stop by the farm for a walkabout and some lively conversation.

Mike Biltonen 845.687.2587

To be continued………………………..