As part of Ag in my Land, an online series that looks at farming globally, Emily Ashworth gets an insight in to agriculture in the state of New York, and how urban and traditional farming can work together to feed a booming population.
When you think of New York you see bright lights, billboards, Empire State.
Your mind conjures classic images of yellow taxi-cabs, skyscrapers; an architectural jungle known as the city that never sleeps and home to over 8 million people.
What you may never have considered however is that in the New York state, sat unknowingly around the hive of the city itself, are around 35,000 farms and that the largest component of the New York agricultural economy is dairy.
Ninety-nine per cent of traditional farms are still family run and its economic contribution is staggering.
According to data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and Farm Credit East, the state is responsible for almost two million jobs and in 2016, was worth $5.05 billion.
Covering 7.3 million acres of land, agriculture is very much part of the state’s history but is facing some challenges.
Labour shortages and lack of family willing to take on the farm business are increasingly worrying issues and according to Steve Ammerman, the New York Farm Bureau (NYFB) Public Affairs Manager, hiring help is becoming financially unviable.
He says: “Farmers typically tell us the biggest concern is labour, both the cost and availability of it.
“It is a challenge to find enough people willing to work on a farm and with the rising minimum wage in New York, farmers are paying more for labour than competitors in surroundings states and other countries, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage.
“Many farmers state that their employees are making more than they are.”
But they are still ranking first across America in the production of cottage cheese, sour cream and yoghurt and as a sector contribute around $2.5 billion.
Recently though, New York’s agricultural landscape has changed as innovation in the form of aquaponics, rooftop farming and vertical farming increases.
The city is renowned for its vibrant food culture and boasts over 700 farmers’ markets, but this new wave of farming taking over the city’s skyline allows food to be produced right under its inhabitant’s noses.
And unsurprisingly, urban farms are on the increase.
Utilising unused and derelict patches of land as the base for growing food sustainably, it is a way for New Yorkers to have more control over the food chain and as Steve says, they are constantly striving to connect consumers with food production.
He says: “There is definitely a loss of connection.
“With just 1 to 2 per cent of people farming these days, most of the population is far removed from life on the farm.
“They don’t understand production methods or the care that goes into raising livestock and protecting the environment.”
Most of what is produced in the city are vegetables of course, but the drive behind these revolutionary growing areas is to build community and provide jobs while also aspiring to educate citizens about what they’re eating.
Just Food are a non-profit organization located in New York City, and advocates for sustainable agriculture.
They originally specialised in urban agriculture training, helping to bring community supported agriculture models (CSA) to New York, with an emphasis on community-driven solutions to inequities in the food system.
Alexandra Foster and Qiana Mickie who both work within Just Food are on a mission to ensure food in all its forms is made accessible to every type of person, pushing that ethos through farmers markets, education and connecting people to regional farmers and CSA’s.
Through urban farming and working in partnership with farmers in the New York State, the outcome can be achieved.
Alexandra says: “Americans don’t have a strong connection to their food because they don’t realise the labour that goes into producing food.
“This is magnified in New York City given that people live in an urban environment and don’t readily have access to a farm to see them work, unless they seek out an urban farm or visit one.
“Our events, Farm Trips and Meet Your Farmer, were so impactful because it allowed people to get to know the individual that was growing their food and get a better understanding of how labour-intensive cultivating food is.”
And urban farms are one way to bring accessibility to many marginalized communities and under-resourced neighbourhoods within the city.
“One of our longstanding community partners, Sherryl Durrant, is the Garden Manager at Kelly Street Garden in the South Bronx, one of the most food insecure communities in the nation,” says Qiana.
“She recently spoke at the Food Tank Summit, explaining how her garden greatly impacts many of her volunteers’ lives. She said many of them arrive hungry and rely on the garden to get a meal that day.”
There is most likely always going to be a disjointed connection between city-dwellers and food production, but is there a way for more traditional farms and the urban agriculture uprising in the heart of the city to effectively co-exist, and create a more integrated food production system in the New York state?
Just Food have a diverse network of sustainable regional farmers and over thirty farmers to connect to their 118 CSA sites, while many others vend at Community-Run Farmers Markets.
Steve however believes in playing to their differing strengths by focusing on alternative markets.
He says: “NYFB is a general farm organization and has members of every commodity, farm size and production method. We believe it will take every kind of farm to meet consumer demands while also growing a safe, healthy and low-cost food supply for this country.
“One thing that can always be improved is the distribution methods, which can be especially challenging for smaller farms. But New York is continually working to improve methods.
“It may also be a challenge to get food into low-income areas, and that is where urban farms can help as well.”
There are certain expectations as to how farming both inside and outside of the city can survive sustainably, with Government support at the core of that.
Steve says: “New York has been supportive in many ways including increased funding for farmland preservation and conservation programs, research, market development and promotion.
“The challenge here is containing business costs, like the rising minimum wage and high taxes that ultimately hurt farmers and fellow small businesses.
“At the Federal level, we are hoping to see the Farm Bill passed this year which provides a number of critical programmes for farmers, including crop insurance and dairy risk management programmes.”
Running a herd of 40 Pure Brown Swiss cows, Caitlin Rusnisca is passionate about bringing farming to those in the city.
With a college degree in Diary Science, she farms across 130 acres and is in contract with the National Farmers Organization (NFO) with their milk mainly going for spot loads on the open market.
She says: “The average American is at least three generations removed from any sort of agriculture.
“The divide makes it very challenging to educate people not only in urban areas but also rural areas where people are not submersed in any kind of farming.”
The creation of urban farms is something however that Caitlin supports, acknowledging how it can be easily integrated in to the education system.
“I think urban farming is great,” she says.
“Getting that immersed in schools should be a top priority. There are so many sectors of agriculture, and they can be managed small scale as a teaching resource. I think that any chance to lessen the gap between the farmer and consumer is very important.”
In America, dairy has been at the forefront of much debate and have recently faced a dairy price crisis.
Key problems include too much supply and not enough demand, as well as the fact that dairy is not currently seen as a healthy food option.
She says: “I feel as though our Government has dropped the ball in supporting our industry. We are past the point of a temporary fix to the current milk pricing crisis. At this point our system needs major reform.
“The short-term outlook for dairy is very unsettling.
“As a young farmer I try to stay as positive as I can but it’s a very trying time for all farmers, not just dairy.
“I truly believe if we can create a better connection between farmer and consumer, our industry could turn around, however we need to be the leading force in making that change.”
Like in the UK, the need to inspire and promote the industry to the next generation is vital, but for Steve, it’s more about preserving a part of their heritage; it is about championing the hard work of America’s family farms.
“We hope there will always be a need for family farms, which is the overwhelming majority of farms in New York and across the U.S,” says Steve.
“They are bound by generations of love for the land and this way of life that has fed the country for centuries.
“We have members of the NYFB with a next generation who don’t want to continue the farm.
“There are programmes in New York looking to support young and new farmers starting out, and it is important that we continue to invest in the next generation, not only on the farm, but those whose jobs may support farmers through research, technical assistance, communications, marketing and more.”