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Off the Farm and Into the Faucet

by Sam Williams, Jun 28, 2006
 

Like many U.S. farmers, Ulster County dairyman Tom Hutson is a businessman first and a romantic second. In New York City recently to accept a $10,000 Steward of the Land award from the American Farmland Trust, Hutson made a point of pulling a plastic bag of dirt out of his pocket and delivering a brief comment on its contents.

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“I’m a farmer, so you just have to understand one thing,” said Hutson, holding up a sample of bottomland soil scooped that morning on his family’s 380-acre River Haven farm in DeLancey, N.Y. “This is gold to me.”

But the contents of Hutson’s little bag has significance for New York City residents as well. Hutson’s farm is within the Catskills/Delaware watershed, the city’s primary source of drinking water. What he does on his land has a direct impact on the purity of the water coming out of New York City’s taps – and on how much the city must spend to keep that water clean.

Hutson is a member of the Watershed Agricultural Council, a city- and state-sponsored organization designed to reduce organic pollution within the Catskills/Delaware watershed. He earned his award by letting his farm serve as a laboratory for testing the council’s land management recommendations. Starting in 1994, Hutson has retained “buffer strips” -- wide swaths of vegetation alongside streams – intended to protect the waterways on his farm from direct fertilizer runoff and bank erosion. He has built manure containment systems and implemented a rotational grazing program to minimize and distribute the impact his 108-animal herd has on the farm’s 100 acres of pasture. Hutson also adopted the Watershed Area Council’s forest management plan, limiting cutting and development on the 57 acres of woodland within his farm boundaries.

“Nobody cares more about protecting the land than a farmer,” says Hutson. “But when you’re developing a whole farm plan, there’s a real learning curve involved. Farming’s tough enough as it is.”

Good Environment, Good Business

To help Hutson make the adjustment, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection kicked in $100,000. The money is part of a $100 million effort to protect New York City’s drinking water at its source. The program has two goals, according to Barry Beckhardt, program director for the Department of Environmental Protection’s Watershed Agricultural & Forestry Program. It wants to encourage upstate farm managers to do the right thing environmentally and it hopes keep those farms in business instead of succumbing to development pressures.

“Instead of supporting farms through subsidies, we’re proposing that farmers be supported by the way they protect the land,” says Beckhardt.

Development in the city’s second major water source, the Croton Watershed, is already forcing the city to build a plant to filter runoff before the water. The plant, to be constructed in Van Cortlandt Park, is currently estimated to cost at least $1.3 billion. And to make room for it, the city is devoting a 10-acre portion of Van Cortlandt Park to the plant’s construction. Building a similar filtration plant for the Catskills water supply would cost an easy $4 billion, Beckhardt estimates.

In light of that, the $100 million being spent by Watershed Area Council makes economic sense. “This is clearly a more cost effective approach,” Beckhardt says.

The Watershed Agricultural Council owes its existence to a 1992 deal between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In exchange for preserving wild acreage and reducing runoff from the 300 farms in the Catskills/Delaware watershed, the city has been able to avoid the need to filter water from that region. Working through the council, "the city has paid to return 15,000 acres of farmland to uncultivated wilderness, and by 1995 had gotten at least 85 percent of the affected farms to sign up for a pollution prevention program. In return, the Watershed Agricultural Council doled out subsidies to cover the cost of wastewater diversion ditches, barnyard drainage systems and other pollution reduction strategies. The council also helped participating farms draw attention to their products under the “Pure Catskills” brand name.

“The goal is to strengthen the linkages between the producers upstate and the consumers in New York,” says Beckhardt. “It doesn’t make sense to do all this and have the farmers go out of business.”

Marketing the Catskills

“Pure Catskills” has helped farmers looking for a local edge in the commodity foods marketplace. Still, as Hutson notes, many farms have a hard time taking advantage of the program. The cultivated acreage on River Haven is devoted mainly to hay and other surplus forage crops that the farm sells to neighboring dairies. As for the milk, most of that is pooled and sold through regional cooperatives and routed to New York City via bulk distributors. Elmhurst Dairy, a Queens-based distributor that bills its milk as “New York’s Own” but not “Pure Catskills,” handles Hutson’s milk.

“Milk is such a perishable commodity,” Hutson says. “You’ve gotta move it every day, and that makes it hard to market as locally produced.”

While direct marketing of “Pure Catskills” milk may not yet make economic sense, the New York City greenmarket system has provided support to the upstate farm economy. According to the Council on the Environment for New York City, an organization that provides information on greenmarket produce and schedules, the city’s 51 markets have helped sustain 11,000 acres of cultivated farmland and keep 27,000-plus acres total out of development.

“The good news is that New York City boasts the best greenmarket system in the country,” says Jeremiah Cosgrove, northeast regional director for American Farmland Trust. “The only thing missing right now is the consumer education component. We’re trying to make it so food buyers in the city recognize that the few cents extra they pay on local dairy products or local produce is actually a cost savings when you compare it to the amount they save on their taxes if the city has to build a new filtration plant.”

 




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