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OPINION: Save the farms, feed the people

David Haight is New York director of the American Farmland Trust.


It's late winter in New York - a time when we dream of the warm days of summer and the fresh, locally grown strawberries, tomatoes and sweet corn that the season will bring. But in a time of such economic and global instability, we should also stop and ask the question: Can New York grow enough food to feed itself?

The short answer is likely to be "No." According to Cornell University research, New York's 7 million acres currently in farming can feed only 6 million of the more than 19 million people who live in the state, and that's only if New Yorkers eat less meat and reduce their fat intake.

Our ability to feed ourselves is being further compromised as farmland is being developed in New York and across the nation. More than 75 percent of the fruits, vegetables and dairy products produced in the United States are grown on farms in metropolitan areas, such as Suffolk County, where farmland is threatened by development. Across the state of New York, a farm is lost to development every three days.

During a time when food can be shipped thousands of miles across the country and over international borders, why should New York bother strengthening its ability to feed its residents? Because nutritious, locally grown food is good for combating the public health problems facing our society, while keeping more of our food dollars in New York will strengthen the state's economy and help reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with transporting our food.

Suffolk County exemplifies the economic potential for farming and food production. Sales of fruits, vegetables, sod, nursery stock and other products are greater here than in any other county in New York. In 2007, the county had more than $243 million in farm sales.

Working farms provide jobs and are closely connected with the many tourism businesses that benefit from the scenic landscapes and desirable experiences found at wineries, U-pick farms and farm stands. A 2007 market study found that more than $30 billion is spent annually on food purchasing in New York City alone. Keeping more of those food dollars in-state would provide increased economic opportunity for our farmers and create new jobs for New Yorkers.

Over the past 12 years, New York State's Farmland Protection Program has awarded funds to protect more than 300 farms encompassing 74,000 acres needed to grow our food supply. The program receives funding from the state's Environmental Protection Fund, a dedicated account that includes more than 30 environmental programs that protect land, air and water - the natural building blocks of a healthy food system.

These state environmental dollars help stretch local funds from the East End towns and Suffolk County, which were the first in the nation to develop programs to permanently protect farmland. Today, the county continues to be a pioneer as it adapts its farmland preservation program to balance the business of agriculture, the growing market for locally produced food and the need to retain open space.

Unfortunately, Environmental Protection Fund dollars for next year are proposed to be cut by 35 percent, and roughly $500 million has been taken from this dedicated environmental fund to cover other state expenses. Lawmakers in Albany now have a critical opportunity to demonstrate leadership on behalf of the state's environment, farms and food supply. Restoring funding for the fund and committing to a plan to repay borrowed environmental dollars makes good economic sense. Protecting land to grow our food and keep our drinking water clean also meets the basic needs of state residents, while protecting the natural resources and scenic landscapes needed to sustain us in the future.


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