Saturday, October 10, 2015

Preserve the Farm / Prepare the Farmer

     Hands on the land. Yours, mine, everybody we know and a whole lot of people we'll never know. The central concept of Jan Albers book, which is a history of the Vermont landscape, is that we all play a role in shaping the look and feel, the liveability of a place. And as sentient beings, blessed
(or cursed!) with consciousness and self-awareness, we can think about and make choices in how we mold our world.
     I've been reading Albers book over the summer. It's the discounted copy I picked up at Hermit Hill Books in Poultney, with the cover that was bound upside down and backward to the text. This has provided endless amusement to my family and confirmation of their suspicions about my reading comprehension. I'm happy all of us got some enjoyment out of the book...

     Albers works in and synthesizes a long tradition of scholarship on the New England landscape.  My bookshelf contains works by Cronon, Meeks, Thomson, Jorgensen, and Wessels among others.
Hands on the Land draws from these and many other sources with a deep bibliography that will keep me occupied (at my glacial reading pace) for many years. Albers was educated at Yale and has also taught there and at Middlebury. She comes from a dairy farm background and has New England in her blood.
     Her book is full of quirky facts and thought-provoking concepts presented in a visually colorful package. There's art work, photos, maps and drawings, all showing us how the Vermont landscape was created and where it might be headed. This has appeal well beyond the Green Mountain State, as many influences and trends she discusses are universal. With a shared border, the book illuminates Washington County's landscape history as much as Vermont's.
     Locally, two organizations have put their hands on the land in hopeful ways. The Agricultural Stewardship Association is a land trust based in Greenwich which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Since incorporation in 1990 it has conserved 16,000 acres on 101 properties in Washington and Rensselaer Counties. Focusing on working farms and forests, it buys or accepts donated easements that allow and encourage continued productive use of the land while preventing development. The idea is to build a critical mass of conserved acres with good soil and proven capability. This in turn should help keep the crucial support systems in place, things like veterinary clinics, equipment dealerships and seed, feed and fertilizer suppliers. The ultimate goal is a sustainable farm community that provides food, jobs, economic activity and a desirable landscape in perpetuity.
     George Houser Jr., Jim Perry and Pam Cali among others got the ball rolling back in the early 90's and a committed board of directors has kept it energized ever since. ASA hired Teri Ptacek as its executive director in 2003 and she has proven to be a visionary leader. With a capable staff the group pursues its primary mission of "protecting the future from the present" by negotiating and monitoring easements while also generating enthusiasm for local food and farms with a series of outings and events.

Conserved fields of Hand Melon Farm
Conserved farmland in Bald Mountain
     Its biggest fundraiser of the year is the Landscapes for Landsake art sale and exhibition on Columbus Day weekend, October 10-11-12. With dozens of artists contributing it's an opportunity to celebrate both the beauty of our agrarian countryside and the talented people inspired by it. All while supporting a great cause. The Maple Ridge Inn on Rt. 372 in Coila (just west of Cambridge) plays host in its classic high-beamed barn. Stop by to chat and mingle at the opening reception from noon to 5 on Saturday or quietly enjoy the art from noon to 4 on Sunday and Monday.

     What's farmland without farmers? That's where SUNY Adirondack (formerly ACC) has a role to play. The community college, located in Queensbury just north of Glens Falls, is looking to increase its ag education offerings. With sponsorship from Washington County, where agriculture is the leading industry, this is welcome news.
     I can remember decades ago when the college had a dairy farm located right next to it and there was some connection...the farm owner may have been a college trustee. Some of us thought that the addition of the farm to the college would have been a golden opportunity to offer ag courses locally. That was probably an idea before its time because the farm subsequently became a golf course and high-end development.
     But times change and there's been a resurgence in interest among young people for farming as a career. Educators at the college have taken note of this trend. Biology professor Dr. Tim Scherbatskoy developed some food related courses and found eager students. Kristine Duffy, the colleges recently appointed President, seems open to fresh ideas. Then, last year, SUNY Adirondack received a gift from local residents Ruth and Sandy Lamb to help fund a Sustainable Ag Initiative.
Scherbatskoy with young hop plants and hoop house at SUNY Adirondack

     Local farmer and Town of Jackson resident Jared Woodcock has been hired as Coordinator of Ag Initiatives. He is working with an advisory committee of area people involved with food production and distribution. The goal is more course offerings and potentially a degree program. I don't believe SUNY Adirondack intends to replicate what Cobleskill or Cornell does. Both of those schools being oriented towards large scale production ag. More likely are courses that help small, niche producers with business and marketing skills. All this is a work in progress and Jared is actively seeking input and ideas. Contact him at and get more information by typing in "agriculture" in the search box of the colleges website.
     I'm proud that my daughter Holly has been active in supporting local ag. Several years ago she wrote an opinion piece for The Post-Star encouraging ACC to consider adding a farming curriculum. Now she serves on their advisory committee. She has also worked as an intern with ASA and still volunteers when not busy with her job as land access coordinator for the National Young Farmers Coalition. It's her way of putting her hand on the land. Oh, she also milks cows and throws hay on occasion. That's called giving Dad a hand.

Taproots Farm
     Jared Woodcock, in addition to his work at SUNY Adirondack, operates Taproot Farm with wife Shannon and their children. They are located on Shunpike Road between Cambridge and Shushan. Check out their website, buy some of their products (pork,chicken, eggs) at the Cambridge Farmers Market or arrange a visit to the farm. Here's a fun gallery of photos from their site:

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