(#211) — Nothing contributes to the sustainable local economy of our future as immediately, directly and with as much value as naturally, locally grown food.
This column focuses on the need for new partnerships to recruit, train and fund start-up vegetable and fruit producers.
This narrow focus is imperative because this is the sector of food production where the greatest economic opportunity already exists and where we have the least product for local and external market sales. Recent progress in value-added dairy product development and expansion of the number and size of meat producers is occurring already with a lot of room to grow.
The demand for fresh and naturally grown fruits and vegetables is far greater than our region can supply. Distribution systems are increasing in number and effectiveness. Funding for one food hub is in hand and another is expected to be funded this year. Retail and wholesale prices offer profitability. Public sector programs to give preferred place to local, naturally grown foods are increasing. Affordable land via multiple-year leases or small acreage acquisition is available.
However, there is a problem. There is a lack of product. Current fruit and vegetable growers, with a few exceptions, do not want to substantially increase production. This leaves the obvious need for many more, new, full-time, trained, highly committed vegetable and fruit growers who can provide product to local stores, eateries of every kind, our schools, caterers, as well as sell into the major metropolitan markets..
It will take the formation of a very focused new set of partners to achieve high numbers, (20-30 every year) of new vegetable and fruit producers. It is much more difficult to achieve this goal than to secure grants for food hubs, etc.
The requisite organizations are in place. Our school districts, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Sullivan County Community College, Sullivan Renaissance, Sullivan County Agricultural Advisory Board, Sullivan County Farmers Network, the Farm Bureau, the Watershed Agricultural Council, the Steering Committee of the Sullivan County Comprehensive Economic Development Plan and many other sources should be convened for the single purpose of developing an action plan to capture the economic, social and environmental benefits from and for a 20 or more per year increase of fruit and vegetable growers.
Most of these new Sullivan County farmers will opt for season extending production of fruit and vegetables through the use if what is called high tunnels – plastic covers over metal or pvc hoops. Some will opt for glass but the numbers on profitability and affordability indicate that plastic hoop houses produce at least 65% of the product of glass covered structures at 10% of the cost.
Season-extending food production may be for 8-10 or even 12 months. Heat will be necessary and the goal should be established to use little to no fossil fuels like propane or natural gas. Solar electric, solar thermal and a new class of small wind turbines attached to conventional and new more efficient heat appliances complete the design of this new major opportunity for expansion of Sullivan County agriculture.