This Thanksgiving, you may be staying home with your family to enjoy a traditional meal, or you may be traveling and choosing to join a celebration at a relative’s or friend’s house. Perhaps you choose to participate in a gathering sponsored by a soup kitchen or church. Some may have even preferred to go to a restaurant that offers a Thanksgiving buffet with all the trimmings. (The most attractive restaurants these days seem to be those that feature a menu inspired by local farms.) Regardless of where you spent Thanksgiving Day, we are reminded that our American Thanksgiving is centered on the notion of giving thanks for the earth’s bounty and the abundance of the harvest. This year, I give special thanks to our local farmers and the many enlightened community leaders and environmental groups who have worked hard all year to educate legislators, farmers, producers and consumers in caring about our soil, forest and water resources that are nature’s support of agriculture here.
Contrary to popular belief, the number of farmers in the United States is growing, and the Northeast is no exception. We have hundreds of beginning farmers in New York State alone, and that number continues to increase. Many start by helping to cultivate land as interns on existing farms or on their own land, which might be a backyard in a suburban setting. City rooftops are turning green and barges in the Hudson River are growing food in greenhouses.
I admire the existing dairy farmers and their families, in New York and Pennsylvania, who are developing strategies to remain profitable. They diversify their operations by raising grass-fed meats, developing on-farm processing facilities and marketing milk through direct sales. Many have become artisans adding value to their already excellent milk by producing exceptional cheeses, cultured dairy products and frozen desserts that rival the finest imported specialties and far surpass any that are mass produced and overly processed.
There are beginning farmer programs sponsored by USDA and administered through the cooperative extension offices and land-grant universities, as well as private non-profits such as the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), Pure Catskills and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture ( PASA).
In 2012, we watched school gardens grow, tended by children, teachers and a corps of youth hired through the Center for Workforce Development. Farmers’ markets, farmstands, specialty stores, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares of a farm’s bounty, as well as eating establishments promoting locally produced food, continue to take a large share of consumers’ food dollars, dollars that are immediately returned to the local economy. Beyond providing wholesome and consumable products, our farmers enrich our lives on a daily basis by creating jobs that generate economic activity.
When I moved to Youngsville over 30 years ago, I dreamed of living in an environment where I could live in harmony with my neighbors and the environment while growing much of my own food. Today, more than half of that dream is recognized. I can walk down my road and legally buy a bottle of raw milk from my neighbor, or go to the neighborhood markets and buy exquisite fresh mozzarella and aged cheeses produced at farms very close by. My chickens produce the finest eggs anywhere, as they forage on grass and insects in the yard. The organic garden continues to yield abundant fruits and vegetables.
This Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful for seeing so much accomplished here by our farming community. I look to the future and see a viable economic system of an affordable, local food distribution system that will serve everyone in our community, where no one is left behind, including the growing population of seniors, many who are shut in at home or in nursing facilities; school lunchrooms; and government institutions including prisons.
Today, I am thankful to be surrounded by people with the abilities and resources to produce so much abundance. My dream is that we can all participate in sharing our local harvest. We are getting there. Let’s continue to make this Thanksgiving and 2013 a step in that direction.
[Maria Grimaldi is the Catskill Regional Representative for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (www.nofany.org ) and an educator with Catskill Delaware Permaculture (www.catskilldelawarepermaculture.org ).]