“Supporting Farmers & Farmworkers” forum at Mohonk tackles challenges to sustainability

Panelists (left to right): Araceli Rodriguez, farmer and farmworker; Kira Kinney, Evolutionary Organics Farm and CSA; Efrain Zavala farmworker, Bradley’s Farm; Richard Witt, Rural Migrant Ministry; Kevin Terr, Red Barn Produce, Inc.; Matt Igoe, Rondout Valley Growers Association and Maryellen Whittington-Couse, Mid-Hudson Migrant Education Program at SUNY New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

“Better Together” was the announced theme of Mohonk Consultations’ Spring Forum hosted by the Mohonk Mountain House last Sunday, titled “Supporting Farmers and Farmworkers in the Hudson Valley.” It featured a panel discussion including farmworkers, farm-owners, produce distributors and advocates for agricultural workers in our region, followed by breakout sessions in which attendees brainstormed strategies for enhancing the success of small farms and those who keep them going.

The event was an outgrowth of the organization’s 2018 Autumn Conference, “Pastures of Plenty? Food, Justice & Labor in the Hudson Valley,” an all-day gathering facilitated by Spanish/English translators. Participants in the November conference had identified a need for additional focus on specific challenges facing small farmers and ways to address them via what Mohonk Consultations board member Evelyn Heinbach termed the “interconnective relationship” of stakeholders in the community food system. “If we really want to effect change, we need to think bigger,” she said.

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Following the screening of a short filmed documentary about Mohonk Consultations, its mission and recent projects, Heinbach presented some basic facts about the current state of agriculture in the Hudson Valley. At present, there are about 3,100 farms comprising 474,000 acres, but those numbers are declining, although “craft” agriculture such as cideries and distilleries is a growth area. Most of these farms supply fruit, vegetable and dairy products; meat, poultry and eggs are secondary areas of production. Only about five percent of their sales are direct to the consumer via farm markets and the like.

Climate change and severe weather events have powerful effects on these farms’ productivity and resilience. On a marketing level, small and midsized farms must compete with lower-cost products available, due to economies of scale, from large industrial farms. Limited accessibility to packaging, storage and value-added processing facilities in the region is an additional challenge.

Heinbach also shared demographic statistics pointing up the relevance of contemporary political discourse on the subject of immigration to the viability of farms in our region. Of those who do actual hands-on farm labor in the Hudson Valley, 63 percent are native to Mexico, 21 percent to Jamaica and 12 percent to Guatemala, with single-digit representation from El Salvador, Ecuador and the US itself. Of these farmworkers, a stunning 71 percent are undocumented immigrants.

Cara Lee, recently retired from the Nature Conservancy, served as moderator of the panel discussion. Panel members included Rondout Valley Growers’ Association (RVGA) board member Matt Igoe; Kira Kinney, owner of Evolutionary Organics Farm; Araceli Rodriguez, co-owner of Three Sisters Farm; Kevin Terr, co-owner of Red Barn Produce; Maryellen Whittington-Couse, director of Mid-Hudson Migrant Education at SUNY New Paltz; Richard Witt, executive director of Rural and Migrant Ministry; and Efrain Zavala, a farmworker at Bradley’s Farm.

In both the panel discussion and the breakout sessions that followed, several themes arose repeatedly with regard to the difficulties of sustaining small farms. Migrant farmworkers are often poorly integrated into local society, largely on account of language barriers, the lack of public transportation and frequently disrupted schooling for their children. Attendees suggested a variety of ways to make them feel more welcome, including bilingual signage and larger roles in food festivals and agritourism events.

Farm-owners, for their part, face many difficulties in marketing their produce, due largely to systemic resistance to buying locally on the part of supermarkets and school districts. Even Mohonk Mountain House itself, noted RVGA’s Maria Reidelbach, uses a blind bidding system that effectively screens out small-scale local food producers from supplying its dining room. Competition from mail-order “farm-to-table” suppliers and the high cost of undergoing redundant inspection processes from various federal regulatory agencies to obtain certifications were also cited as factors making it very difficult for small farms to stay in business. “If we don’t find ways to market what we produce, we’re going to lose out,” said Igoe.

Following summaries of the brainstorming sessions by representatives of each breakout group, the forum ended with a spirited singalong rendition of Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes” by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. A listing of ideas for supporting farmworkers generated during the discussions has been posted on the Mohonk Consultations website at https://mohonk-consultations.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/MC-2019-Forum-Table-Discussion-Report.pdf.

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