Celebrating our past and envisioning a sustainable local food system for the future
By Greg Sandor
As a California native, I am struck daily by the abundance of water surrounding us from our brooks, creeks and rivers to our estuaries, lakes and reservoirs. I am fascinated by the flow of water through our woodlands, across our farmlands and ultimately supplying thousands upon thousands of people with drinking water in our nearby metropolitan areas. I know the majority of the waters in Sullivan County flow westerly to drain into the Delaware River Basin where they join with the waters that flow easterly into it from Pennsylvania.
At the beginning of the 19th century, early settlers, mostly of Dutch and German descent, cleared land for timber and started quarries to mine the abundant bluestone rock formations found in the upland regions of the river valley near Hancock. These materials, along with the abundant coal that was mined in Pennsylvania cities around Scranton and Carbondale, was transported on barges through the Delaware Hudson Canal to New York City. The Delaware and Hudson Canal was built in 1828, connecting Honesdale, PA to Kingston, NY; it ceased to function as a means to transport of these materials in 1898. Instead, railroad lines developed, some along the same lines as the Delaware and Hudson Canal, and continued to transport goods including agricultural products to the growing metropolis—New York City.
As manufacturing flourished in Pennsylvania around the mining towns, farming also grew in the outskirts to feed the growing communities. In Sullivan County, the tourist and resort community fueled farming as well, with the growth of farm boarding houses and bungalows where visitors could escape the heat and pollution of the city. Dairy and other livestock, including hogs and chickens, were raised on the upland type soils well suited to this type of production. The flats and floodplains along the rivers and estuaries provided rich soil for limited vegetable crop production. Apples and berries were also suitable to many valley locations.
Farming and agriculture has impacted our region in so many ways and Cornell Cooperative Extension is proud to have played such an important role in insuring the success of this vital industry. Cooperative Extension was founded in 1914 with the mission of “bringing the world class research of Cornell University to the residents of Sullivan County.” As we celebrate our past 100 years, we also pause to look back over time and realize the amazing progress that has been made. Extension has provided many services to our residents over the past decades and helped define modern day agriculture. In addition, we have seen many transformations, especially as we moved into 21st century farming, with more conventional agriculture taking root and moving to a more global food system.
Today, as we look ahead to the next 100 years, we see many exciting opportunities and challenges on the horizon. As we look at the many diverse areas throughout the region, we see the future of the Upper Delaware River as playing an important role in the serious need for helping to build a more local or “regional” food system. The concept of aggregating agricultural products from nearby and more distant farms for a central regional distribution system is known as a “food hub,” and the Delaware River Valley is ideally situated to serve New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey in this capacity. Food intakes can be sourced as far away as central Pennsylvania and western New York such as the Finger Lakes. These products can include cheese, cheese curds, yogurt, ice cream, butter, eggs, fresh and frozen meat as well as value-added, processed foods from small-scale producers. Food security and economic growth will be insured by such a system. These products will be transported by truck and by rail (there is still freight running along the river) to our cities to feed our urban citizens better with our own regionally grown food. As in the past, the food demands of the metropolitan areas are critical to our plan of success. Cornell Cooperative Extension’s efforts will be crucial in helping to build this food hub by bridging urban and rural connections and by assisting with the marketing and sales components of this newly revitalized food system.
Recently we received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant for $33,000 to help build a community/commercial kitchen in the basement of our headquarters in Liberty. The EaT (Entrepreneurial & Teaching) Kitchen will provide a commercial kitchen for new businesses, and training and assistance for those who want to add value to their farm products. This is a small project, but will connect to all the other great work being done throughout the region that will help build this sustainable food system we envision.
In closing, we know we can build a successful and thriving local farming industry, through education and combining resources with partners throughout the region. We must ensure that the products that are grown here result in profits for the farmers and other producers who can return those profits to our local economies. I am pleased to see our farms flourishing again to serve the needs of our New York and Pennsylvania communities by providing them with real, farm-fresh food. Cornell Cooperative Extension stands poised and ready to continue to provide leadership and vision for helping to build a sustainable local food system.
[Greg Sandor is executive director of Cornell University Cooperative Extension Sullivan County.]