July 7, 2011 —
By SONJA HEDLUND
As summarized in part 1 of this article, a number of interesting and innovative agricultural developments are already taking place in Sullivan County. The next question is, what kind of steps can we take now to systematically encourage, support and plan for this type of development. The goal is to expand all types of farming. The strategy is to create a vibrant results-oriented coalition of new and existing farm producers, agricultural businesses and public servants who work in agriculture and economic development.
Consider these actions:
• Safeguard unused agricultural land. Over several decades, more than 200 dairy farms stopped shipping milk. Much open land has been purchased by non-farmers. Much of this acreage remains unused. These pastures could feed beef cattle, sheep, goats and swine, all in demand locally and regionally.
• Encourage towns to implement Farmland Projection Plans.
• Bring affordable high-speed Internet connections to rural communities. Without it, rural residents are at a great disadvantage in learning of agricultural innovations and advertising their products on the web.
• Welcome new farmers. Develop links with state agricultural schools so as to entice graduates to Sullivan County. Lease, at no cost, unused publicly owned land to these graduates and those completing new farmer training programs offered by Cornell University and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of NY. Encourage farmers to take on interns through www.attra.org  or other web-based sites. Expand their training through the Catskill Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT).
• Inventory the teenage children of farmers. Identify their interests in farming and what it would take to keep them working on their family farm.
• Enable farmers to develop value-added products: cheese, butter, yogurt, kefir, grass pellets, wood chips, compost, free-range chickens and eggs, rose beef, you-pick fruit, jams and jellies, mushrooms, high tunnels for out of season production. Build on the spring 2011 Sullivan County Community College workshop series on value-added opportunities. Enhance the college’s culinary program to include food tourism linking farmers, restaurants and consumers around local food. Encourage the Sullivan County Visitors’ Association to earmark as much as 20% of their media budget to farm related tourism.
• Build the red meat slaughter plant now. In planning for almost a decade, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been set aside for this project. Meat animals would be slaughtered and USDA inspected at this plant close to home and the meat sold for a higher price locally and in the metropolitan area. The Industrial Development Agency (IDA) is now in charge of this project.
• Build a creamery to process local milk and dairy products. Start small with a unique label and targeted marketing plan. Sell locally and in the metropolitan area. Learn from the experience of the small dairy created by Hudson Valley Fresh.
• Reshape the county’s economic development agencies and their budgets in order to better serve agriculture. Ensure that staffs continuously expand their knowledge of agriculture, the perspective and needs of the farm community and advocate for them. Revamp the Millennium Revolving Loan fund offered by the IDA, reduce hiring requirements and applicant fees and make the application a truly “farmer friendly” document.
• Convene an agricultural development leadership workgroup. Nowhere in the county do employed civil servants and not-for-profits meet regularly to commit to implementing a few agricultural projects. Wouldn’t such a body make progress in agriculture more likely?
Finally, renewable energy makes a natural and synergistic partner for agriculture, and one that obviously has a key place in the economic priorities of the 21st century. These partners together have the potential to build a vibrant, sustainable economy in Sullivan County.
[Sonja Hedlund (email@example.com ) is one of the founders of the Sullivan County Farm Network, and co-owner of Apple Pond Farm.]