It is increasingly clear that we need to live within the proximity of our food source. The benefits of local farms go beyond just fresh healthy food; they include educational and economic opportunities, and a better quality of life for local communities and future generations.
-John McDowell, Rockland farm Alliance president
Not that long ago, Rockland and Westchester, the southernmost counties of the Hudson River Valley, were filled with farms. Visitors to Cropsey Community Farm in New City often reminisce about the farm stands and tomato fields that covered the county from Palisades to Spring Valley.
While concern about what we eat and where our food comes from increases, the sources of our food get pushed further away from where we live. In Rockland County, the number of farms decreased from 406 farms covering 17,630 acres in 1950, to only five production farms covering 520 acres in 2000. We are still losing valuable, farmable land today as the population swells. This is not just about the loss of sources of locally grown food. This is also about the loss of open space, of environmental education and land stewardship, and of opportunities for future generations to receive agricultural training locally. It is about the health of our communities and our quality of life.
In 2007, John McDowell and his wife Alexandra Spadea formed Rockland Farm Alliance and got to work on several fronts. John spearheaded several important policy initiatives. First he organized the community and implemented Glynwood Center’s Keep Farming Program, which resulted in an extensive study showing that Rockland residents wanted locally grown food and local farms. Over 300 residents and elected representatives attended a forum on the study. One of the outcomes is that nearly all the town and villages of Rockland signed on to a resolution supporting local agriculture. Next, he convinced the County legislature to revive the Rockland County Farmland and the Ag protection Board which had disbanded. He then formed partnerships, too many to mention here, with municipal, non-profit and private institutions. One initiative was to work with the Rockland County Health Dept. to get more healthy local food into the school lunches. He lobbied and was successful in getting stronger language in the Rockland County Comprehensive Plan to support local agriculture. John has also worked with US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on several Ag Bills she proposed nationwide. Probably the most significant policy achievement was his championing the NYS Suburban Ag Bill, which passed unanimously in both houses of NYS in 2014.
Assembly member Ellen Jaffee and chair of the NYS Task Force on Food, Farming, and Nutrition, of Rockland, sponsored the bill, which reduces the current minimum amount of acreage required for an Agricultural District from 500 acres to 250 acres. the bill passed unanimously by both NYS Houses.
An agricultural district encourages and protects farming because it assesses farmland based on its agricultural value rather than market value. As described in the Assembly bill, a Suburban Agricultural District would protect smaller farms located in suburban areas from “overly restrictive local laws, government funded acquisition or construction projects, and private nuisance suits involving agricultural practices in the districts.” The bills recognize that “development pressure, high land prices, and dense population in these areas can threaten the continued existence of farms. Agricultural District protections in some of our more developed counties are not attainable because there is not sufficient farmland acreage to meet the current requirements of the Agricultural Districts Law, due to the significant loss of farms and farmland over the past 30 years.”
The reduction to 250 acres is a much more realistic and attainable number for counties like Rockland that do not have enough remaining farmland acreage to meet the current requirements. Although heavily developed, Rockland still has farms, orchards and available land for small farm operations. Rockland and Westchester are closest to one of the largest populations in the world yet outdated models of urban planning left farming and access to local food out of the vision for future generations.