In 1930, Rockland County, New York was home to more than 900 farms. Today, the county is home to only a few. Local food sources are scarce, and the farm-to-city movement passes right over this lost middle ground. As land was bought up by developers, the county that once provided food to Manhattan became a landscape dominated by supermarket chains. For local farmer John McDowell, this trend wasn’t a runaway train with no chance of reviving small farms—it was a call to action. McDowell and his wife Alexandra operate Camp Hill Farm, which runs Rockland County’s first CSA. McDowell, acutely aware of Rockland’s lack of locally grown and sustainably farmed food, started mobilizing the community in 2007 and together with other farmers and dedicated individuals founded the Rockland Farm Alliance (RFA). Today the RFA has over 900 members, including Executive Director Heshi Gorewitz and "matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement,"author, Professor, environmentalist and gardener Joan Dye Gussow on the board of directors. The mission of the RFA is to preserve what farm land is left in Rockland and to bring back its small farms.
As it turns out, bringing attention to the lack of locally grown food in suburbia is no easy feat. Assistant Director of the RFA Naomi Camilleri explains:
“The reason this is groundbreaking is because the basic feeling about suburban areas is ‘why would you farm there?' Most areas are so over developed there isn’t any land.”
The government is much more likely to focus their attention on rural areas for farming, and they connect those rural areas to the cities. Camilleri continues:
“There are a lot of urban areas with CSAs and farm-to-city programs, but in the suburbs there is very little access to locally grown food. Farms here were considered a thing of the past, but our philosophy is that if there is land available here, why not farm it?”
Among all of the projects the RFA is currently involved in, there is one in particular that has captured the hearts and minds of Rockland locavores. Located on Little Tor Road in New City, Cropsey Farm was once a sprawling commercial farm that provided food to New York City and much of the rest of the country. Today, all that remains of the 150-year-old farm is a small family garden. The fate of the land was in the hands of Jim and Pat Cropsey, the third generation of Cropseys to call the farm home. About 10 years ago when the couple decided to retire, they sold the land to the local government, and it has remained dormant since. McDowell knew that the county was preserving this open space and jumped on the opportunity to establish a whole new standard for small farms: convert that space into a community farm. After years of negotiating, the RFA acquired a no-cost lease with the local government to cultivate five of the farm’s 25 acres.
McDowell and Camilleri know that the biggest obstacle to starting a farm in the Rockland area is the lack of access to and the cost of land. “The only way that we can bring community farms to areas like Rockland is this model where we are working in concert with the local government,” says Camilleri. “This is the paradigm that people have to start accepting. If we want food to be grown sustainably in a healthy, natural way locally, if we want to remove fossil fuels from the equation as much as possible, then we cannot expect this old model of the family farmer to continue because they just can’t afford it.” The new strategy, as the RFA sees it, is to push for no-fee leases on dormant land preserved by the government and then bring in qualified farmers, pay them a livable wage and encourage people in the community to come and farm. “I know it sounds like some 60s idealism, but I think it really can work. I think the standard is shifting,” Camilleri says excitedly. “We're seeing a lot of changes happening in this field all over the country.”
Now that the project has gotten the green light, the RFA’s efforts to bring Cropsey to life are in full-swing. The near all-volunteer organization broke ground in September, has planted a winter cover crop and has been making raised beds and planting garlic. Camilleri knows that it’s a long road before Cropsey can sustain itself. “We have lots of dreams and lots of goals, but realistically we're in the process of mapping it all out.” Camilleri hopes that once the spring rolls around the farm will have built up a strong enough community to hold open houses and volunteer days every weekend. The mapping process also involved hiring farmer Jerome Rigot, who brings to the farm a breadth of experience in farming and education, as well as a PhD in soil microbiology. Among Rigot’s dreams for the farm is creating an educational facility with a laboratory to train younger generations about microbiology and soil life. “We've been speaking with our local department of education and local schools here on all levels about setting up programs, having interns and work days for students,” Camilleri says.
In October, the RFA received a huge boost in both confidence and funds when they received a Hudson River Valley Greenway Grant for $20,000, “[t]he largest grant by far that they gave out,” Camilleri gushes. “Some people consider the Hudson Valley further north than us. We felt really honored that they gave us the most money down here in Rockland, especially when the executive director mentioned that we were his favorite project.” The $20,000 will help with start up costs, but the truth is the RFA still needs to raise funds for things like equipment, fences, buildings, repair, seeds and salary for Rigot. The group has just kicked off their Harvest Fund Drive, partnering with local restaurants and businesses with a goal of raising $75,000 by the end of the year. Camilleri and her peers at the RFA are optimistic, though, and see the farm being sustainable within a couple of years.
One thing that Camilleri and McDowell want to make clear is that their vision is much broader than Cropsey Farm. They've been assured by the local government that if Cropsey is a success they will have access to more land to farm. “Our goal is to have a community farm in every neighborhood in Rockland and to develop a successful model for small farms in all suburban areas,” says Camilleri. This model, developed in large part by Gorewitz, has been met with enthusiasm from the offices of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, not to mention the community the RFA is working to feed. “There is something in the air—people in the community are so excited about Cropsey,” says Camilleri. “We really feel like the wind is at our backs.”