Rescuing Rockland's Farms

The Future of Farming

Rescuing Rockland's Farms

Christine Gritmon

IN 1950, ROCKLAND HAD 406 farms in production; by 2000, there were only 5. The construction of the Palisades Parkway and the Tappan Zee Bridge in the 1950s had created a housing boom that left little room for farmland in its wake. “Rockland is so small, and we’re at the edge of the large population of the city and the country,” says farmer John McDowell. “Developments are good—we need to live places—but they may not be the best use of the land everywhere.”

With his wife, Alexandra Spadea, McDowell began Rockland County’s first CSA on their six-acre Pomona property in 2004. That simple act clarified for McDowell how little support there was for farming in the county. “It just was not in people’s consciousness that there could be farming again in Rockland,” he says. “We were so left out of the thinking process—farms were somewhere in Iowa or upstate.”

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In 2007, McDowell founded Rockland Farm Alliance (RFA) with the intention of preserving farmland in the county. Since then, the Alliance has succeeded in saving existing farms, connecting farmers old and new, creating a new flagship community farm of its own, and even impacting agricultural laws to better reflect and support the current farming landscape in Rockland County.

“John is one of the world’s saints; he really has given himself to this full-heartedly,” says Piermont author and food activist Joan Dye Gussow. “Without him, I don’t think there’d be any such thing.”

Gussow was present at some of the earliest Rockland Farm Alliance meetings, and she now sits on its board. “I have a community garden that my husband and I helped start right next door—I see how much people grow on tiny little pieces of land,” Gussow says. “There’s more land in the county that could be farmed than people realize—various kinds of large acreages people have not wanted to see developed and have held onto—many of those people would like to see that land farmed.”

Mary Hegarty, a former resource educator at Rockland Cornell Cooperative Extension, now with the Rockland County Soil & Water Conservation District, helped connect McDowell to like-minded people. “It was a really amazing time for me professionally,” Hegarty recalls.

“All these great people converged and kind of fell into my lap because I was passionate about farming. I was, like, ‘Yes, let’s do this!’” She also researched how the county could help the Alliance achieve its goals. “There’s lot of government support that’s unseen, but really important,” Hegarty notes. “Slowly, government is catching up to people with progressive ideas.”

One such opportunity emerged in 2006, when farmer Jim Cropsey sold his family’s historic farm through the auspices of the county’s Open Space Program, which “acquires areas of scenic beauty, environmentally sensitive lands, farms and Hudson River waterfront areas.”

We all need to eat, and we manipulate a huge portion of the earth’s surface to grow our food,” Hardy says. “We can make incremental changes to how we do that, and how we manage that land while we feed ourselves.

Through an agreement with the county and the town of Clarkstown, RFA launched Cropsey Community Farm in 2011. Its first CSA season was in 2011; this past season, the 25-week CSA counted 250 members, each receiving up to 10 pounds of organic, biodynamic produce weekly, at roughly half market price. Cropsey Farm produce also is sold at farmers’ markets and at the Hungry Hollow Co-Op in Spring Valley, and by several local food purveyors, including Rockland Roots food truck and Palma Restaurant in Manhattan.

Cropsey Farm has enabled RFA to connect with schools, as well as organizations such as Jawonio (a support program for people with special needs), Hudson River Healthcare, and ARC. Visitors can tour the farm, see how food is grown, and get physically involved with tasks such as weeding and rock picking. RFA’s Junior Farm Program hosts students in grades K-6 for two week-long summer sessions of learning, planting, harvesting and tasting.

Assistant farm manager Jose Romero-Bosch sees sustainability and community education as the key initiatives of the project. “We are all united and dependent on food and water—we have to take care of those things,” he says. “I wonder how we’re going to [teach] the next generations the importance of these things if they’re disconnected [from] the land, the soil, the air, the water, the food. When kids come and say, ‘Ooh, what’s that? Let’s try this! Let’s try that!’ I’m, like, OK, that’s a little battle won.”

Long considered one of the primary forces behind the growth of the “eat local” movement, Gussow, whose books include Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Life, Death and Vegetables (Chelsea Green, 2010; $17.95 paperback), agrees that early education is a primary function of the farm. “Many years ago, I was on the Rockland 2000 Committee—I was pushing to retain farming in the county,” she recalls. “Someone said—I’ll never forget this—‘Oh, yes, we should have something like Westchester, a sort of model farm where children could see how food used to be grown!’ The idea is, children won’t be coming to see about how food used to be grown, but how food is grown. We’ve created this situation where parents can bring their children as an educational, entertaining, fun thing to do. Children learning about food that way is really important in this world full of junk food.”

With his English shepherd Rongo (named for the Maori god of cultivated food) by his side, Cropsey Farm Manager Shane Hardy is one of the more public faces on the farm. In addition to working in the field and managing all farm business, Hardy maintains key relationships with CSA members, community members, other farms and even government officials. “We all need to eat, and we manipulate a huge portion of the earth’s surface to grow our food,” Hardy says. “We can make incremental changes to how we do that, and how we manage that land while we feed ourselves.”

Hardy describes the farm’s growing methods as “beyond organic.” Though not certified, Hardy says the farm’s methods are more stringent than organic certification guidelines require. No pesticides or herbicides with any sort of toxicity are allowed, not even organic-approved materials. Erosion and nutrient leaching are kept to a minimum by contour plowing; edible clover is planted between the beds to further anchor and enrich the soil. The farm utilizes biodynamic farming methods, learned through the tutelage of Mac Mead, program director of The Pfeiffer Center, a biodynamic farming education center in neighboring Chestnut Ridge.

“Biodynamic agriculture asks you to really observe deeply, be present to what’s going on in your soil and in the greater universe that we live in,” Hardy explains. “It asks you to think of the farm as a whole organism and to really be conscious of and tune into the greater rhythms that are around us—the rhythms of the moon and the stars.”

I don't have to pay a mortgage, I don’t have kids to support—so I can just quit my relatively good-paying job and come farming. I can just enjoy myself and enjoy nature. It’s so joyful!

Hardy acknowledges the huge effect the farm has had on many people who have visited or worked there. “To me, that’s one of the things that’s amazing about farming—it’s never just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “People who farm find so much more value in it. It’s about the life that you want to live.”

Farmworker Mehmet Genel grew up on a farm in his native Turkey, then worked for many years as an auto mechanic in the United States before switching to farming. “I was tired of smelling the brake fluid—wildflowers smell much better!” Genel says. “I don't have to pay a mortgage, I don’t have kids to support—so I can just quit my relatively good-paying job and come farming. I can just enjoy myself and enjoy nature. It’s so joyful!”

For volunteer Margo Solomon, work at the farm is about becoming the change she wishes to see in the world. As a student at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Solomon scrutinized current, industrialized systems for producing, distributing and consuming food. “I started getting into local food systems and looking at how that can provide people with [both] a sustainable living and sustainable food,” Solomon says. “I felt a very deep calling on a personal level—sort of a basic survival instinct—to learn how to grow healthy food that doesn’t deplete the earth and doesn’t deplete your body.”

This all may sound like romantic idealism, but the impact and benefits Cropsey Farm-and others—bring to local communities are quantifiable, including a healthier local economy, and localized foods that are more readily accessible to everyone, regardless of demographic.

Hardy sees Cropsey as the tangible manifestation of what the Rockland Farm Alliance had set out to do, and he says he hopes the project serves as an example for other organizations. “We’re trying to figure out how we can best be of service to all the other farmers,” Hardy says. “Who knows where the organization’s going to go in the future? Maybe it’ll go more toward being [a] ‘thought leader’—to provide examples for how other organizations can start a community farm in an unlikely place, and help guide the policy for their situation.”

Not surprisingly, setting up a profitable farm in Rockland County involved more than just finding appropriate land and planting crops. With many dense residential and commercial areas, zoning issues and other bureaucratic regulations could be significant obstacles.

McDowell’s experience setting up his own farm was instructive. “The mayor loved the idea of a farm—but it’s zoned residential,” McDowell recalls. “So [the mayor] said, ‘We’ll just look the other way.’ Well, what happens when another mayor comes in? Am I going to spend a hundred thousand dollars on equipment and everything just to have them say, ‘Sorry’?” McDowell saw the designation of an agricultural district as one way to assure protection and sustainability of Rockland County farmland.

“We started looking at why Rockland didn’t have an agricultural district when almost all other counties of New York State had ag districts,” McDowell notes. “Basically, it protects farming and the idea of farming.” Farmland in an agricultural district is assessed based on its agricultural value rather than its market value as residential or commercial property, and it’s protected against overly restrictive local laws, government-funded acquisition or construction projects and private ‘nuisance’ lawsuits involving agricultural practices in the districts. In order to be classified as an agricultural district, however, Rockland would have needed 500 acres of total active farmland. “We were close to 500,” McDowell says, “but all the farms would need to put their hat in the ring—it was too close!”

McDowell began working on the Suburban Agriculture Bill with New York State Assembly member Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern), chair of the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy and the bill’s sponsor. “In meeting with farmers and advocates, it was very clear that there was a serious concern to preserve farmland,” Jaffee says. “Rockland has lost so many farms. The [Suburban Agriculture Bill] would stop that loss and help us go down a different path.” Significantly, the bill, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in early December 2014, reduced the required acreage for an agricultural district from 500 to 250.

It’s such an amazing win-win because we create the farm and bring in enough revenue that pays the farmers, and the county gets a community situation at basically no cost—they don’t have to maintain the properties.

One small farm that stands to benefit from agricultural assessment is Bluefield Farm, in Blauvelt. Joy Macy and her husband purchased the property and its historic 200-year-old farmhouse in 1998. The modern farm began as a cooperative venture between Joy and four of her fellow master gardeners from Cornell Cooperative Extension. After member Rebecca Finnell began growing flowers, a series of fortuitous events—a bumper crop, the relative ease of selling flowers (compared to produce), and, finally, an open spot for a flower vendor at the Nyack Farmers’ Market—wound up sealing Bluefield’s current fate as a flower farm. (They do have two dozen laying chickens and three cashmere goats. “They’re basically big pets,” Macy laughs.) The beautiful property also has been host to a few weddings.

Due to the success of Rockland Farm Alliance’s initiatives thus far, the organization has been offered more buildings—including no-cost leases—and land from the county. “It’s such an amazing win-win because we create the farm and bring in enough revenue that pays the farmers,” McDowell says, “and the county gets a community situation at basically no cost—they don’t have to maintain the properties. The towns actually pay more for a development because of police and fire and water and roadwork and all that kind of thing.”

He concludes, “There’s this whole generation of young people getting into farming, but many of them don’t have any experience, so it’s a big need to train [them]. T­­­hat’s where our biggest focus is. From my point of view, anybody who farms is a hero, because it’s a pretty challenging vocation in this day and age.”

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