Monday, August 25, 2008

A Second Act for Local Agriculture

In the United States, you know that a movement is gaining strength when you see people attempting to piggyback on it for profit. The effort to promote local agriculture as a way of conserving energy and farmland is no exception. Over the last few weeks, I've seen a New York City supermarket advertise "local peaches" (from Georgia) and a Rhode Island store selling "Eastern blueberries" (from Nova Scotia). But in northeastern Connecticut, I recently found evidence that small farmers can survive high energy costs in ways that give them a competitive advantage over agribusiness.

I learned this lesson recently in the village of Hampton in northeastern Connecticut, where my wife grew up. Hampton is a beautiful southern New England village of rolling hills, wetlands, and rocky soil. When my wife lived there in the 1960s and 1970s, there were still plenty of local dairy farmers and also mill workers who labored at textile mills in towns like Willimantic. The mills have since closed down and ever more farmland is being given over to the construction of new homes.

I thought farming in the Hampton region was an endangered way of life, but a conversation with an organic farmer in Hampton made me see things a little differently. With the rising cost of oil, he explained, big agriculture can't beat farmers who raise high-quality produce and sell it locally.

Admittedly, the newer face of farming that he described is something of a niche
market: hay for horse farms, organic tomatoes, and buffalo meat. And a many of the farmers are people embarking on second careers after first making money elsewhere. Still, he described to me an active world of agriculture that is emerging in a region where I thought farming was a fading presence.

Farmers from southern New York State and eastern Pennsylvania are a regular presence in Manhattan green markets. And at least one farmer from the Hampton region sells cheese at the green market in Union Square. I'm glad to see them all. They bring our region good food and a green future.And in New York City, farm products from Connecticut are surely more local than peaches from Georgia.

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