“Agriculture, manufactures, commerce and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.”
If Thomas Jefferson were alive today and living in the Hudson Valley, he’d be on the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. He’d be gratified by the emphasis these days on eating locally-produced foods and strengthening our regional farms because he wanted America to be a self-sustaining republic capable of producing its own products on its own land. He wouldn’t be so happy to learn many farmers here don’t own their own land and are scraping out a living only through a combination of creativity and perseverance.
Charles Noble is one such farmer. His Movable Beast Farm is literally that: a herd of 74 cattle that he and wife Francesca move from one grazing ground in the Rondout Valley to another. Land is expensive — too expensive to farm. “Its price reflects its value to someone who’s coming up from New York City who wants a second home,” said Noble.
In order to deal with that challenge, he said, “we work with about 10 different landowners and move our cows from property to property.” In addition to running his grass-fed beef business, Noble is a board member of the Rondout Valley Growers Association. A number of young people are interested in going into farming, he said, “but until we can make it economically viable, it’s not going to be sustainable. A lot of the farmers are only able to farm because either they or their spouse has a second job to subsidize the farm.”
Local farmer Joe Aiello doesn’t own his own land, either. Aiello said he always wanted to farm, like his father before him and his grandfather, too, who immigrated from Naples, Italy in 1912 and became a farmer on Staten Island, but for a long time it just didn’t seem a practical profession to go into. Eventually, however, Aiello bartered for land and started Mangia Bene Farm in Glasco, which he operates with his wife Laura.
It hasn’t been easy. “The books on farming tell you how they started and where they’re at, but they never tell you about the in between part,” he said. “They never tell you about the hundred times a week you think, ‘this is crazy, I’d be better off going to get a job at Lowe’s.’
Aiello and Noble spoke at a panel discussion in Saugerties last week on the topic of re-visioning local food production. A day of drenching rain didn’t discourage several dozen people from coming to the Saugerties Performing Arts Factory that evening to talk about ways in which the local community can support its regional farmers and even learn how to feed itself through growing food in a community or home garden. They talked about World War II-era “victory gardens,” which eased the pressure on the public food supply and boosted civic morale as well, giving home gardeners a feeling of personal empowerment.
The panel discussion was hosted by Sustainable Saugerties Transition Town, the local chapter of an international group dedicated to making communities self-sustaining. “All of us are in this together,” said Larry Ulfik, a member of the regional organization overseeing the local group. “We want to be a resource people can come to, that they can rely on.”
With the strengthening of the local food system a common goal, the group is partnering with the Saugerties Farmers Market. “Keeping farmers in farming benefits all of us, not just the individual farmer or farm property owner,” said Judith Spektor, co-founder and director of the market. One way to support local farming, she said, is for people to come to the market every week. “Make shopping there a habit. The bottom line is, if we don’t have enough customers there won’t be a market.”
Aiello credited the Saugerties Farmers Market, where Mangia Bene Farms is a mainstay, with enabling him to make a living for his family, but said, “it has to continue to grow. Buying farm-to-table keeps what we do viable and it makes it possible for us to continue doing it.”
Kathy Gordon maintains a space at the Farmers Market, but said she has ambiguous feelings about what she called “the two-tier system” of all farmers markets; “one for the wealthy and one for everyone else. We have wonderful, organic, fresh locally-grown food available through farmers markets for those who can afford it and a horrible food system that most Americans have to suffer through.”
A woman in the audience disagreed. “I think the wealthy shop at Sam’s Club just like everybody else,” she said. “I don’t think it’s just a matter of resources: it’s the way people use their resources.”
Joe Aiello agreed: it’s about priorities. He noted that while some may consider the $4 he charges for a dozen eggs to be too expensive, there are those who pay two and a half times that for a pack of cigarettes. “And eventually it’ll kill ’em,” he added. “It’s a choice.” He referenced his heritage, saying that Italians have a cultural mindset that no matter what their income level, they want the best meats and vegetables. “It’s a kind of attitude and way of thinking that we don’t have here,” he said. “When that starts to change, people will make certain choices in order to have those foods. The system wasn’t created by those of us who run a farm. I’m just trying to grow excellent food and make a living.”
While acknowledging that the organizers of the Saugerties Farmers Market do hear the complaint that prices are too high there, Judith Spektor said that at peak of season, prices are actually better at the market, and while it may be true that there are price differences in some instances, there is so much value added buying at the Farmers Market that the consumer has to factor in all they’re getting when they choose to spend their money there. “We see farm food from local farms as a different product than what you would get in an ordinary grocery store or big box store,” said Spektor. “It’s about extraordinary taste, and freshness, and it’s about nutrition. It’s about knowing where our food comes from, and the trust there. You can talk directly to the farmer and ask questions and get answers. It’s about the environmental concerns: you’re decreasing the transport of goods from across country. It’s also about genetic diversity and land stewardship.”