Farming for Our Community, Climate Change

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 5-26-21

By Mothers Out Front Tompkins

Regenerative farming’s distinct approach centers on soil quality and paralleling natural systems.  Local small-scale farmers use minimal or no tilling as well as cover crops to keep carbon in the ground, rather than releasing it to the air as CO2, a greenhouse gas.

Their plant diversity and crop rotation promote microbial health in the soil. A variety of crops also makes them more resilient to the extreme rain and droughts that occur unpredictably as our climate changes.

And these practices affect climate change as well. In his book, “Drawdown,” Paul Hawken ranks regenerative farming at #11 of the best 100 methods to counteract climate change.

Here we feature three more local small-scale farms using regenerative practices.

Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg is run by Paul Martin and Rosie Newton. Most of their 20-acre farm produces a wide variety of vegetables as well as perennial and biannual fruit. The remainder of the land is devoted to cover crops, such as legumes, that return nutrients to the soil.

Carlos Aguileras (right) and his son collect apples at West Haven Farm. Photo provided.

West Haven Farm is run by Carlos Aguilera and Lorena Mendoza, who are originally from a farming community in Mexico. Their 10-plus-acre farm is located at EcoVillage in Ithaca, and the land is protected by a Finger Lakes Land Trust easement. They grow a variety of vegetables and fruit and are certified organic.

Main Street Farms in Cortland, which recently merged with Early Morning Farm, is run by Bob Bonagura. This 60-acre farm grows “almost every vegetable you can think of,” as well as hemp. The farm grows crops year round in passive solar high tunnels. Like several other farms, they use high hoop houses to farm year round.

These local farmers, like those described in our first article, “Farming from the Heart,” farm with the community in mind. They produce nourishing food for their customers and aim to develop a working relationship with them.

In addition to the important Farmers Market outlet, many use the innovative tool Consumer/Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to sell their products and develop ties with their customers.

West Haven Farm was the first in the county to offer CSA, where consumers buy directly from farmers and do so by purchasing shares of the harvest in advance. This provides farmers with a degree of financial security, while consumers assume a share in the risk that is linked to the increasing unpredictability of farming.

The community connections of CSAs are important to these farmers, as Meagan Wright, the director of West Haven Farm’s CSA, explained.

“[We] work with CSA members so they can understand the challenges we face,” she said. “The CSA members take the ups and downs [along] with the farmers. … We keep a direct line of communication with our customers. We’re finding that our community is willing to work with us.”

Wright said she has a weekly CSA newsletter telling members what to expect.

“Each week, we give them an estimate of the value of their share,” she said. “We want them to see the value, both of the food and to their wallets.”

Through this relationship, the consumers can see themselves as fellow community members and also learn more about the reality of farming today.

And the reality of farming during climate change is increasingly challenging. As Bonagura of Mainstreet Farm pointed out, “Farming is hard work to begin with. To have these extra challenges of severe weather events only adds to the challenge. … Luckily, farmers are pretty resilient people. … They not only have to have a plan B but also plan C, D, E.”

While advertising encourages us as food buyers to focus on price, forgetting about how food is produced, the CSA enables participants to learn about the quality of their food, where their food comes from and who produces it: “Know your farmer; Know your Food.”

Sweet Land Farm even encourages their CSA members to come to the farm to pick up their shares so they can see firsthand how their food is grown and participate in events like “u-pick greens” and community farm gatherings.

Often people don’t realize the hidden costs of cheaper food from big agriculture. These include its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, intense use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and consolidated land ownership.  This industrial farming degrades the soil, water, air and eliminates habitat. It is not sustainable.

“The nation’s Corn Belt has lost a third of its Topsoil,” B. Dzombak wrote in the April 14, 2021, issue of the Smithsonian Magazine.

As consumers learn about the implications of their food choices, they can make informed choices.

“When you buy organic, the farmer is probably actually getting a living wage, unlike supermarket food, which is kept artificially cheap on the backs of migrant workers who are not getting paid enough money and often have terrible, unhealthy working conditions,” said Karma Glos from Kingbird Farm. “This expectation of cheap food is a problem. It is grown on huge, monocropped farms that are damaging the ecosystems around them and damaging the health and well-being of the farmworkers.”

“The more people we can feed, the more efficient we will be,” Bonagura said. “It’s economy of scale. … If they buy it, we can grow it. That’s not just for our farm but for all the organic, regenerative farms in our community.”

Food buyers have influence.

“If everyone in the country said ‘We’re done buying conventional food,’ the whole farming — the face of vegetable farming — would be organic in two to three years,” Martin said.

To make their products more affordable, most of these farms participate in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s “Healthy Food for All” program making their produce available to WIC or Food Stamp eligible people at a 50% discount.

A new project, Equity Shares, results from a partnership among West Haven Farm, Healthy Food For All, and the Traditional Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Healing. It is intended for Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC).

These shares consist of a sliding payment scale and much lower up-front payments so people can choose what they can afford. The cost of healthy, fresh produce is lowered, and the opportunity to promote health and learning about farming and food is expanded.

“Equity Shares are opening so many doors,” Wright said. “But we need to get the word out.”

These small-scale, local organic and regenerative farmers are leading innovators in food system change. In learning how to adapt to climate change in our region while growing nutritious food, they are generating greater resilience for all of us.

They are transforming how, why and how well food is produced and they do it with the Earth and the community in mind. In a variety of ways, they reach out to all of us in the community. Let us reach back toward these farmers, our neighbors, and actively support them. We have a large investment in their success, and hopefully, we can see that more clearly now.

There are many more farms like these. For information about them, go to this list compiled by Sustainable Tompkins on the Sustainable Finger Lakes Map. Visit this New York Senate webpage to express support for Assembly Bill A5386A, a robust bill aiding regenerative agriculture.

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