Fresh Food for All
Like any farmer patrolling the back 2,000, Dave Weiss steers his pickup with two fingers, seat belt unfastened, eyes on his fence posts. "Why don’t you love me like you used to do?" he croons. "How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?" Weiss grins, revealing the absence of several teeth, the handiwork of a bull no longer bellowing. Loose tools and pens skitter across his dashboard, which is coated in dust so thick it looks like red velour.
Built like an ox, wearing a blue plaid shirt with homemade short sleeves and a camo cap, Weiss is a man of seemingly irrepressible good humor. "How was that?" he asks eagerly. "I can also do Cash." He points across a wooded intervale to a herd of black-and-whites knee-deep on a grassy hillside. "Those are mine," he says, for the umpteenth time. We drive on, he growls "I Walk the Line," and for more than an hour claims ownership of fields, forests, and cow flesh.
Born on his farm to city-bred parents who learned farming through mail-order courses, Weiss is the largest landholder in Sullivan County, New York -- the heart of the Catskills, a hundred miles northwest of Manhattan. He milks 260 cows a day and sells to a major dairy cooperative. But like any farmer, he says he’s getting killed. Milk prices are low, feed prices have tripled (thanks to the corn ethanol boom), labor is expensive, and fuel costs are through the roof. Sixty years ago, the county had 400 dairy farms. Today, there are just 22. Standing downwind of his 1.4-million-gallon manure tank and no longer singing, Weiss asks, "How can we compete with the giant farms with their monster machinery, their good genetics and high plant yields and immigrant labor?"
It’s a familiar refrain. But Weiss is actually lucky to be farming in a unique place at a unique time in urban and agricultural history. With interest in eating high-quality local food (broadly defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food raised or produced within 400 miles of the consumer) higher than at any time since local food was the default, the Catskills are perched on the threshold of perhaps the greatest food-marketing opportunity in North America. Less than three hours away are 22 million stomachs and many thousands of foodies happy to pay $8.59 a pound for Bourbon Red turkey raised within commuting distance. Perhaps even more important for the region are the thousands of city institutions -- schools, hospitals, prisons, senior centers, and shelters -- looking to feed their constituents food that’s fresher and more sustainably grown than what’s currently on offer.
Never have so many individuals, nonprofits, and local politicians been so intent on connecting the bounty of small and medium-size farms with urban consumers. Among these forward thinkers, the message has been internalized: eating more food that’s grown regionally and sustainably will improve public health, protect the environment, and provide economic sustenance to farming communities. (For every dollar spent on a New York State agricultural product, roughly two dollars are returned to the local economy, and for every new job created in food manufacturing, an additional three jobs are supported in food service, food sales, and other related industries.)
But the impediments to this triple-bottom-line harmonic convergence are not, alas, trifling. Upstate, farmers are calling for more food-processing, aggregation, and distribution capacity. From government, they want policies that favor local procurement; and on the ground, they require bricks-and-mortar outlets where they can sell their products wholesale. In other words, what’s needed is a sweeping reinvention of the hub-and-spoke model that comprised regional food systems before agricultural businesses consolidated, forming vertically and horizontally integrated behemoths that put smaller processors, packers, and distributors out of business.
The Catskills’ capacity to produce a great deal of food is undisputed. The region has gentle slopes, reasonable weather, lush grasslands, and abundant pure water (water so pure that New York City drinks it, after a 125-mile journey through aqueducts and pipes, unfiltered -- one of only five large U.S. cities permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency to do so). And while the soils may not be ideal for growing specialty crops (that fuzz on Weiss’s dashboard is evidence of what lies beneath: red sandstone), the land is ideal for livestock, dairy, and poultry operations, hay, and some grains, such as rye and barley. Statewide, there are three million acres of unused pastureland. That’s enough, according to Ken Jaffe, who raises Black Angus and other grass-fed breeds about an hour and a half north of Weiss’s farm, to produce all the beef consumed in New York City -- on a grass-fed diet.
"The Catskills are known as the city’s watershed, but we want to brand it as the city’s foodshed too," says Jennifer Grossman, a former vice president for land acquisition at the Open Space Institute and a consultant to the New York Regional Food Initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth). By protecting its watershed from new vacation homes, casinos, ski resorts, and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (much of the region overlays the Marcellus Shale), the city avoids the prospect of building an enormously expensive filtration plant to purify the 1.2 billion gallons of water it uses every day. A largely intact landscape, which includes 700,000 acres in the biologically diverse Catskills Park, is, so far, doing that work for New Yorkers. And by helping out farmers like Weiss, who continues to buy up property and convert it to pasture or woodlot, the city would win again, with meat and dairy products produced closer to its grocery shelves.
"There are a lot of new farmers here because land is cheaper than other farming areas," Grossman continues. "It’s perfect for livestock and perennial crops, and there’s a great opportunity for fiber from goats and alpaca. In the 1950s, Sullivan County was the largest egg producer in the world. In the late nineteenth century, there were a hundred breweries in the five boroughs [of New York City] -- we can grow hops up here too."
Weiss is down with hops -- and with anything else that might help his bottom line. He acknowledges his operation is old school, a large herd producing strictly for the dairy commodity market, which pays farmers for quantity, not quality. But he’s eager to embrace the new paradigm. "I already bought a no-till drill," he says, "and I’m thinking about growing some grains" for the new breweries that are popping up. "I’m selling a little hay and some topsoil" -- he waves his hand over the vat of semi-hardened manure, which he works into his fields. "And I’ve got a little sawmill and some stands of red pine."
Weiss is also considering reducing the size of his dairy herd and transitioning to grass-fed Black Angus, a potentially lucrative product if he can get his meat processed and distributed cost-effectively. "But what we really need," he says as his Holsteins slam their metal feed barriers open to pursue silage, "is a local creamery. We could make cheese and other products, and we’d employ 30 to 40 people year-round. There’s a lot of people to sell to between here and New York City."
Indeed there are. By Weiss’s lights, the only things that stand in his way are a lack of capital and masses of red tape. "There have been lots of feasibility studies of a creamery," he says, "but they’re all just sitting on a shelf! If we were in China, we’d have a creamery built in two months."
Other farmers in the region have other asks. (How do we know this? Feasibility studies!) More slaughterhouse capacity, so farmers can process all those (theoretical) pasture-raised animals without having to book a slot one year in advance. A cold-storage facility. Grants to help build hoop houses that will extend the growing season. (And how about some grant writers too? It’s the rare farmer who has time to fill out applications and leap logistical hurdles. "They want your whole life story!" Weiss fumes.)
"Farmers are extremely open to understanding new opportunities," Todd Erling, executive director of the nonprofit Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation, says. "But it has to be economical. It’s a double-edged sword: farmers have to pay attention to market opportunities, but they also have to run their day-to-day operations."
The list of potential fixes goes on: a packinghouse, perhaps with an instant-quick-freeze machine that stretches summer and autumnal bounty into year-round income. Some marketing expertise, so potential customers will link the word Catskills with grass-fed beef instead of borscht, free-range duck instead of Dirty Dancing. Refrigerated trucks, to move those products to market. Others desire a fairly priced distributor who can help smaller operations aggregate their product and avoid the schlep into the city. "Supermarkets and institutions need a large, steady supply of produce at a good price, so that’s where aggregation and processing come in," Grossman says. Many medium-size regional farmers covet a permanent wholesale market, with refrigerated storage, so they can sell to supermarkets and restaurants keen on buying local food.