Support sprouts in Hudson Valley
for locally grown food
By JULIE MORAN ALTERIO
THE JOURNAL NEWS
November 25, 2007
Pound Ridge teenager Eliza Mutino is also to the school lunchroom, the food stamp
celebrating Thanksgiving weekend the program and ultimately the grocery store. It's
traditional way - with family, turkey and the
bounty of the harvest.
This year, the harvest is closer to home for
Mutino's family, with apples, squash and
pumpkins grown locally - if not within earshot
of the table where thanks is said, at least
within 100 miles.
Mutino, a senior at John Jay High School in the
Katonah-Lewisboro district, started eating
fruits and vegetables from local farms and
farmers markets for a science research project
After weeding the processed food from her diet
for four months - Goldfish crackers were the
hardest to cull - Mutino lost 17 pounds and her
cholesterol dropped by 40 points.
"I completely altered my way of eating," she Stephen Schmitt/The Journal News
said. "I ate whole foods that filled me up Peter J. Mutino, left, cooks with his daughter,
faster." Eliza, 17, in the kitchen of their Pound Ridge
home. The meal, red cabbage with apples, was
The results spurred her to keep eating locally made with produce grown locally.
after the project ended in September, and she
persuaded her family to celebrate Thanksgiving no accident that the price of soda fell nearly 25
the same way. percent from 1985 to 2000, while the price of
fresh fruits and vegetables rose nearly 40
"When I first thought about doing this diet, I percent. The high-fructose corn syrup that
didn't think it would be possible, but people ate sweetens soda is subsidized by roughly $9
like this 200 years ago," she said. "This is how billion a year that the government pays to corn
my grandmother lived. This is how my parents growers, while produce farmers get almost
lived in their childhood. That's what nothing.
Thanksgiving is all about - celebrating what's
in season." Partly because the five-year farm bill is
negotiated so rarely - the last one passed in
This harvest season, Mutino and other 2002 - and partly because its regulations are
advocates of locally grown food have turned so arcane that even experts have a hard time
their attention to the farm bill, a massive piece explaining their ramifications, the bill tends to
of federal legislation that in years past seemed slide off the menu for those who aren't
to come with a snooze button. awakened by roosters.
The farm bill's effects are far-reaching - Though New York's farm economy produces
extending not only to the pasture and field but $3.6 billion a year - planting the state roughly
in the middle of the field - less than 1 percent
of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farm
subsidies flow here. That's because New York - Chef Dan Barber, who runs Blue Hill at Stone
and especially the Hudson Valley - produces a Barns in Pocantico Hills, said everyone can
lot of fruits and vegetables, which the farm bill sway the political process by developing an
mostly ignores. appetite for local food.
And that production is why it was so easy for "We vote three times a day for good, fresh,
Mutino to shop locally for her Thanksgiving wholesome, delicious food," he said. "Those
dinner, including a turkey from Dutchess votes are pretty meaningful."
County. Within 100 miles of all of our holiday
tables, nearly all the components of our feasts Barber said fellow chefs - among them is
can be found growing and gobble-gobbling. Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif., who was one
of the first to advocate local seasonal foods -
Mutino said she was struck by the contrast have an impact both in their own spending and
between her holiday meal of local seasonal in their influence on diners.
produce and the crops that will be heavily
subsidized if the $286 billion bill is passed: "The choices I make as I sit down to order the
mostly commodities such as soy, oats and food for my menu for the next week have
especially corn - and not the kind we eat. profound effects on the food chain," he said.
"To the extent that I can have my menu reflect
The 17-year-old is on an e-mail list with the ecology of where we are in Westchester
professionals in the field who are closely and the Lower Hudson Valley, the better. At
following the farm bill. In the summer, she the end of the day, my most important job is
made calls to elected representatives, to make food taste good. That means buying
expressing her plans to vote with her fork, so local, organic, sustainable food."
to speak, when she turns 18.
Taste is the not-so-secret weapon of local
But supporters of New York agriculture aren't produce. Andrea Snyder Bolgar of Goldens
waiting for this farm bill or the next one to Bridge shops the weekly farmers market in
catch up to their aspirations. Even though nearby Cross River partly so she can buy
there's hope that the new bill will contain $5 vegetables that her two school-age sons won't
billion more for fruit and vegetable producers - reject, like "unbelievable" cherry tomatoes.
including $3.2 billion to add healthy options in
nutrition programs, such as school lunches - "The tomatoes from here, my son will eat more
local-food supporters are taking action. than from the store because they taste better,"
Farmers whose families settled here to work
the land more than a century ago are starting It's the taste of fresh-picked baby greens that
pick-your-own operations to attract city diners notice first at The Garrison, said Brian
dwellers ready for some rural R&R, plucky Bergen, who was hired this year as the first
newcomers are reinventing the farm full-time farmer at the golf and dining resort.
organically, and consumers demanding fresh,
local crops are keeping the pastoral ideal alive
"The challenge is to transform the aesthetic
in a region beset by development pressures.
desire to be local and eat healthier and to
know where your food comes from into
The American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit farm something more transformative," he said.
conservation group, considers the Hudson
Valley one of the country's most threatened
A one-time doctoral candidate in sociology who
has followed this year's farm bill negotiations,
Bergen said proposals to cap annual subsidies
But even here, in between subdivisions, farms are a good idea, but he wants more radical
abide. The last agricultural census in 2002 change.
found 129 farms in Westchester County that
produced $8.85 million in crop and livestock
"We're just scraping the surface. The basic
sales. Rockland's 29 farms generated $3.2
structure is staying the same. It really needs
million, and Putnam's 52 farms yielded $2.4
to be a 180-degree turn in terms of getting
federal money down to the lowest level, down
to the grass-roots level," said Bergen, a
The region's harvest includes apples, sweet Putnam Valley resident who farmed on
corn, vegetables and forage for animals. borrowed land before joining The Garrison. "I
know of no federal money or programs that
were available to me or could have contributed who remembers Rockland's farms numbering
in any way to my success when I was working in the hundreds when he came home from
on my own." Cornell University in 1952, said he has
developed an entrepreneur's viewpoint about
Robert Stuart, whose family has been farming his vocation.
in Granite Springs since 1828, said New York's
farmers aren't on the federal agenda. "We're not selling apples. We're selling
recreation," he said. "We are very fortunate
"I think Washington thinks there are no farms because of our location. Most farms can't do
on the East Coast, especially in New York," he this."
On fine fall weekends, 500 cars line the road
Rep. John Hall, D-Dover Plains, noted that the by the farm, and a couple thousand customers
farm bill was a compromise brokered among from nearby counties and New York City come
435 members of the House of Representatives to pay $25 a half-bushel.
and 100 senators, all fighting for their own
territory. "We're getting a very good price for our
apples, and we're not having to pay labor to
Hall said he managed to insert an amendment pick it. We're not having to pay to take it to
that would provide soil conservation money to market," he said.
onion farmers in Orange County, who plant
their crops in the rich black dirt known as The farm's stand, which sells sweet corn,
"muck soil." tomatoes, lettuce and carrots, is also lucrative.
"Would I like to have less money go to big "People pay 55 cents an ear. It's crazy. We
factory farms in the Midwest? Probably," Hall really get top dollar for everything we grow,"
said. "Would I like to have more to family he said. "It's $2.99 a pound for tomatoes. It's
farms? Yes." outlandish. People will pay it if the quality is
Stuart, who was among the top 10 recipients
of federal farm bill money in Westchester, Davies is no fan of agricultural subsidies, which
received just $26,913.14 between 1995 and he sees benefiting giant corporate farms and
2005. Those funds came after his crop was wealthy people, such as philanthropist David
ruined by natural disasters, including Hurricane Rockefeller Jr., who received $553,782 in
Floyd in 1999 and a freak freeze in May 2002 federal funds between 1995 and 2005, mostly
that killed the apples on the trees. in corn, soybean and wheat subsidies for land
he owns in Columbia County.
"We just made enough to pay some bills, but it
wasn't enough if we had to survive on that," he "Is this really fair? I don't think so," Davies
Absent more help from Washington, Stuart Instead of looking for subsidies, Davies is more
said, his family farm is making it today concerned about competition from China.
because of the new interest in eating locally.
"We cannot compete against Third World
"We notice lately, with the people pushing to nations," he said. "There is apple concentrate
lower their gasoline intake in the world, they're coming in from China by the barrel that is
saying 'buy local' instead of buying from grown by growers who pay their labor nothing
overseas," he said. "I noticed this year in and who use pesticides that were banned years
particular people are buying more local ago."
because they want to support the local
farmers. And I know in this area in particular, Small farmers and consumers are finding
the local people are very beneficial coming common ground in the worry over food safety,
here and supporting it. People don't want to particularly in light of the recall of
see us leave." contaminated pet food and other scares.
Across the river, apple farmer Niles Davies Jr. Last year, when dinner plates were devoid of
also relies on pick-your-own at Dr. Davies spinach thanks to an E. coli outbreak, Hilary
Farm in Congers. Davies, a farmer for 55 years Rosenfeld of South Salem was still feeding her
family the leafy green - bought at the farmers
market in Cross River.
"When they were having the food scares, we
would come here and get fresh spinach
because we know the farming practices are
better," she said.
Consumers who meet a farmer face to face are
willing to pay more, said Glenn Niese, who
hosts pancake breakfasts combined with tours
of his sugarhouse at his syrup farm in Putnam
A seventh-generation tapper of maple trees,
Niese sells 500 to 600 gallons of syrup a year.
"When you educate the public about what
you're doing and why - producing maple syrup
or any other product that's grown - then they
start to realize what that involves and how
important that is," he said. "That's important
for all of us, for the public. They need to know.
When I do a tour of maple syrup and I get
done, the first thing the adults say to me is,
'You're giving it away.' Because when you walk
into the store and you see a gallon of maple
syrup for $45, it's expensive when you look at
it that way. But when you look at it from the
perspective of how it was produced and what it
took and the man-hours, it's really cheap for a
Those who can't make it to a farm are
tapping into a new business from
Maryanne Hedrick of Peekskill. She
started MyPersonalFarmers.com in May as
an online farmers market to connect
Hudson Valley growers with customers in
Putnam, Westchester and Fairfield
County, Conn. She makes 25 to 40
deliveries a week to consumers and
ecologically minded businesses.
"One, people are starting to wake up to
the fact that local food is as healthy and
delicious as you can possibly get, whether
it's organic or not," she said. "And two,
people don't want to lose the farms of the
Hudson Valley. We are losing about 7
acres a day of farmland to development. I
considered it to be part of my mission to
be aware of that."