Local anchors

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
–The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16

Late last Tuesday afternoon, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (HVFH) presented a program entitled “Celebrating Grains in the Hudson Valley” at the Senate Garage in Kingston. The event was half victory lap and half progress report on an ambitious, complex and intricate five-year agricultural initiative. In farming, the pace of change cannot easily be hurried.

The HVFH was the first major project in Ulster County for the NoVo Foundation as direct or indirect funder. Now, five years later, NoVo is poised substantially to increase its degree of local community involvement .

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The hope is that properly structured philanthropic initiatives will enhance local democratic experimentalism. 

In the past five years, the NoVo Foundation, co-chaired by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, has adjusted part of its focus. NoVo, funded by gifts of Berkshire Hathaway stock by Warren Buffett, Peter’s father, now sees itself as playing a larger role in helping local anchor organizations to reconstruct community fabric. It’s starting with Kingston, New York. 

For NoVo, the community, the shining city on the hill, can provide both a spiritual and a practical nexus. “In an effort to model what becomes possible when people put community first,” the NoVo website now declares, “we are helping to incubate local efforts in Kingston, New York by supporting such projects as the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Radio Kingston, the Good Works Institute and many others. We also support organizations such as Family of Woodstock, The Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley and the YMCA of Kingston that serve as long-term local anchors for community-building.”  

Jennifer and Peter Buffett reside in Ulster County. They are members of the community they support.

That NoVo is now concentrating some of its philanthropic work in the Hudson Valley doesn’t mean the foundation is surrendering its fierce allegiance to fighting social marginalization and injustice everywhere.

According to Inside Philanthropy, NoVo recently announced $34 million in grants to 19 groups doing social-justice work around the world. Its Radical Hope Fund seeks to ensure that “marginalized voices, and the wisdom of their lived experience, are at the center of decision-making from start to finish.”  

Much of American food and drink these days come from a large-scale supply chain, and “the relationships and knowledge to make grain products have been lost locally,” said the slick brochure containing the program for the grains research event last Tuesday. But all is not lost. “Here in the Hudson Valley, there is a community of growers and artisans focused on rebuilding local knowledge and partnership.”

For such a community, the rebuilding has not been an overnight process. It can’t have been. For the past five years, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub has been experimenting with the revitalization of local grains – historically a backbone of the region’s food system. Rigorously conducted on-farm research trials have accumulated an impressive base of knowledge. 

New organizational relationships have been explored. The evolution of the relationships among the players and their willingness to work together have been tried and tested. The communal enterprise involves farmers, bakers, brewers, marketers and consumers. 

“Grain strengthens an interdependence with each other,” panelist Sharon Burns-Leader of Bread Alone declared on Tuesday. If demand could be created, she felt, the chain of supply would follow. 

The HVFH said it was now prepared to declare the small-grain project feasible in principle. Yes, the food system could be re-localized. 

Grain grown in the Hudson Valley once had a larger place in the American  food system. Prior to the Erie Canal opening inexpensive access to grain from the Midwest in the 1820s, the Hudson Valley had historically been the breadbasket of New York State. Its geographic propinquity to the New York City metropolitan area has always been important. Christian Malsatzki of Cornell Cooperative Extension and June Russell of Grow New York City both pointed out that, as Russell put it, “there’s no shortage of people to feed.”

The HVFH has now spent at least $20 million ($13 million for the purchase of the 1255-acre former Gill Farm in the Hurley flats.) HVFH director Brooke Pickering-Cole noted that foundation help has been used to invest in equipment, train young farmers, conduct research, provide consulting help to farm-related organizations and pursue other activities.

Recently NoVo announced it would contribute $1.45 million for land banking in Kingston and $4 million to improve access to education, healthy food and recreation, and restorative justice in Ulster County. There have been other local grants. There is also the funding of continued operating expenses for supported organizations like Radio Kingston and the HVFH.

Stanford professor Rob Reich has just published a book entitled “Just Giving” contending that big philanthropy is an exercise of power, the conversion of private assets into tax-advantaged public influence. For foundations to redeem themselves, Reich argues, the goal should be long-time-horizon innovations that enhance democratic experimentalism. “Foundations,” he is quoted as saying in an Atlantic Monthly story, “should be making long-time-horizon experiments in social innovation that the government won’t do and the marketplace is unlikely to do.”

NoVo would probably accept that role — and the responsibility that goes with it.

     

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