It’s a raw late November morning, the kind where the wind whips through your clothes and seeps into your bones. We’re walking through an open field in Wappingers Falls, toward what looks like a small hangar; about 100 feet long by 14 feet high with translucent sides that billow in the wind like the sails of tall ships.
Stepping inside is like stepping back in time six weeks. It’s about 20 degrees warmer and the air is heavy with the sweet, loamy smells of growth. The ground is shot with brilliant greens and reds all the way to the back of the structure. There’s a crop plan hanging on a clipboard by the door, but Tim Heuer doesn’t need to look at it anymore as his fingers dance through the air.
“Swiss chard, carrots in the middle, turnips on the end, then spinach, two different varieties, then arugula, then lettuce for salad. Two different kinds of mustard greens, that’s giant red mustard and the wispy stuff is ruby streaked mustard, then komatsuna, then purple mizuna, then regular early mizuna. In the middle of that is tatsoi and red Russian kale and the second to last bed is all spinach.” His fingers have guided us back around to the last bed, which looks like it contains greater variety than most supermarkets’ entire produce sections. “The last bed is a hodgepodge.”
Tim works for Common Ground Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in southern Dutchess County, where I’m finishing up a two year term serving on the board. We’re standing in the farm’s new high tunnel, an unheated greenhouse that captures energy from the sun in order to extend the growing season. Anything growing outside the walls of the high tunnel right now is stunted, withered and spent. Inside, things are still growing fast. Maybe too fast. “I’ve actually been trying to slow things down in here the past few weeks,” Tim says. The temperature can be manipulated via louvered aluminum vents on either end; the sides of the tunnel can also roll up a few feet and be tied off to the metal framework to let in low lying breezes.
The CSA season is over now but thanks to the high tunnel, Tim is still growing, still taking fresh local produce to the Beacon Farmers Market every Sunday. He figures he can keep things going until mid-January, then come back to the high tunnel in early April and start tomatoes for next season’s CSA shares. “I could actually turn it right around in January and start growing again, but that would mean I don’t get a break all year,” he says, carefully navigating through the jam packed rows of greens underfoot.
In 2011, for its first full season in use, the tunnel will help to supplement the shares of Common Ground Farm’s members and offer extended shares next fall and winter. But visitors to the farm, which consists of nine acres leased from the Stonykill Environmental Education Center, can be forgiven for not knowing about the tunnel. That’s because the tunnel isn’t on the farm.
Last winter, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a program to award grants to farms seeking to build high tunnels as part of a three year program to determine their effectiveness in conserving water, reducing the use of pesticides, maintaining vital soil nutrients, increasing crop yields and extending the growing season. Representatives from the Cornell Cooperative Extension urged Tim to apply for the grant, which would pay for half of the costs of the tunnel. The problem was that there was nowhere to put it. The nine acre plot the farm leases from Stonykill was completely full.
In stepped Alex Reese, a friend of the farm who owns land just up the road from Stonykill. Alex offered a three year lease on an acre of his land for a dollar, and donated the rest of the cost of the tunnel himself. Now that the tunnel is up, Alex and his wife Allison often stop by to give Tim a hand.
If Alex hadn’t offered the land, Tim would not have been able to even apply for the grant, much less build the tunnel. When a farmer doesn’t own their own land, it severely limits them in what they can grow, how they can grow it, and how they can expand. It also makes it very difficult to take advantage of opportunities, like the high tunnel grant, which come their way, as well as plan more than a few years down the road.
These problems are nothing new for Benjamin Shute, who runs Hearty Roots Community Farm. Hearty Roots, which is located in Upper Red Hook, has grown into a robust model CSA, growing more than 600 shares for people in the Hudson Valley and New York City while still selling to local restaurants and farmers markets and growing a thousand pounds of produce a week for food pantries in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. On a 25 acre plot of land, Benjamin and his staff are feeding thousands of people every year.
It wasn’t always this way. It began in 2002 with an acre of land leased on a handshake from an elderly couple running a dairy farm in the area. From that acre, Hearty Roots expanded slowly but surely, learning along the way, until they got to where they are now. But when the couple passed away two years ago, their multi-generational farm was sold and another piece of prime Hudson Valley farm land was lost. Hearty Roots couldn’t even consider putting in an offer on the land; at a price tag in the millions it was way beyond their reach.
Right now, Hearty Roots is leasing 25 acres of the 500 acre Greig Farm. They’ve been able to hold steady at their current scale, but they keep running into the same problems as all farmers who don’t own their land. They haven’t been able to invest in long term infrastructure upgrades like underground irrigation lines and bigger walk-in coolers, because those upgrades would be left behind if they ever had to leave. It takes years to truly know a piece of land, to know where it floods when it rains and where it dries out in a drought, to know which parts are best suited for which crops, to know where the sun breaks over the hills in the summer and where the wind blasts through in the fall. Years of hard won knowledge of the landscape will be lost if they have to move.
All the while they make sure they are growing in a sustainable manner using organic practices, in order to preserve the fertility of the land. Of the 25 acres they lease, only 17 or so acres are being sown. The rest are lying fallow, recovering nutrients and waiting their turn in the rotation plan, even if Hearty Roots won’t still be on the land when it’s recovered. Tim made a similar decision this past summer at Stonykill. After a year and a half of farming the Common Ground Farm plot, he concluded that the land had been planted too aggressively in the past. Next year, more fallow land will be worked into the rotation, even though it means he’ll be growing less food and the farm’s budget will have to shrink accordingly.
It’s a hard choice to make, considering that the demand for local, sustainably raised food continues to grow. Benjamin laughs when I ask him how much land he thinks it would take to meet the demand he sees every day. “I don’t think we’d ever be able to meet the demand,” he says. Still, there’s no doubt that he could be feeding a lot more residents with permanent access to more farm land. He works with groups like Scenic Hudson, the Dutchess Land Conservancy and the Winnakee Land Trust, as well as the town of Red Hook, to preserve the area’s historic farmland. But preservation is only half the battle; the preserved land then has to be made affordable to small scale farmers who will grow in a sustainable manner. And that’s the nut that no one in the Hudson Valley has been able to crack yet, at least not in a manner that can be replicated throughout the Valley and beyond.
There is much work to be done, but it’s incredibly encouraging and humbling to know that there are people like Benjamin and his staff, like Alex and Allison, like Tim. People who are serving as stewards of the land, maximizing not only its agricultural potential, but also its benefit to our local communities and local economies while making sure the land will remain healthy and fertile for generations to come. It makes one optimistic about the possibility of more Hudson Valley residents doing what they can to preserve our local foodshed for the next generation and make sure it’s entrusted to the right people. Underneath all of the laws, tax codes, and vagaries of the real estate market, at the center of it all is people. And people need to eat.
Brian PJ and Kristen Cronin live in Beacon with their four cats and a baby on the way. Check out their blog A Rotisserie Chicken and 12 Padded Envelopes on this site, and view more of their photos at www.flickr.com/teammoonshine.