Talking Local Food and Farmland Protection with Cari Watkins-Bates of Scenic Hudson

Caption Photograph by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.

Scenic Hudson's purchase of a conservation easement made this farmland affordable for the transition to the young farmer entrepreneurs of Hearty Roots Farm. Hearty Roots provides fresh produce throughout the Hudson Valley and New York City.

Meet Cari Watkins-Bates, Assistant Land Conservation Director at Scenic Hudson where she directs the organization's farmland protection work. Scenic Hudson, which holds a key place in the history of the grassroots environmental movement, has become a national leader in designing innovative strategies to acquire and protect productive agricultural land necessary for maintaining supplies of fresh, healthy food. Among its successes, Scenic Hudson has conserved more than 40,000 acres, including 15,000 acres on over 110 family farms. "While many agricultural areas nationwide have seen a trend toward conglomeration and globalization," explains Cari, "the Hudson Valley has largely retained its family-sized farms - some operated by the same families for more than 200 years." Read on to learn what inspires Cari, how she got involved in Scenic Hudson and what she thinks about the challenge that climate change poses to agriculture in the Hudson Valley.

Please tell us about Scenic Hudson's mission.

Scenic Hudson preserves land and farms and creates parks that connect people with the inspirational power of the Hudson River, while fighting threats to the river and natural resources that are the foundation of the valley's prosperity. Established in 1963 to save iconic Storm King Mountain from a destructive industrial project, today we're the largest environmental group focused on the Hudson River Valley. Our team of experts combines land acquisition, support for agriculture, citizen-based advocacy and sophisticated planning tools to create environmentally healthy communities, champion smart economic growth, open up riverfronts to the public, and preserve the valley's inspiring beauty and natural resources. To date Scenic Hudson has created or enhanced 65 parks, preserves and historic sites up and down the Hudson River and conserved more than 40,000 acres, including 15,000 acres on over 110 family farms.

Tell us about your role and how you got involved in Scenic Hudson?

When I joined Scenic Hudson in 2004, I was thrilled to combine my passion for agriculture and my professional conservation experience to protect working farms in a meaningful way. At that time, Scenic Hudson was pioneering a "critical-mass" approach - preserving farmland in select Hudson Valley communities to ensure the viability of their agriculture-based economies while protecting their rural charm and agricultural heritage. Scenic Hudson also was one of the first land trusts in New York State to acquire conservation easements, compensating farmers for keeping their land open and available for agricultural use.

Cari Watkins-Bates of Scenic Hudson speaking with two colleagues. Credit: Jeff AnzevinoCari Watkins-Bates of Scenic Hudson speaking with two colleagues. Credit: Jeff Anzevino.

Today, as Scenic Hudson's Assistant Land Conservation Director, I direct our work in farmland protection - and I'm even more excited because we've become a national leader in developing innovative strategies to secure productive agricultural land essential for sustaining supplies of fresh, healthy food. I'm particularly energized by our groundbreaking Foodshed Conservation Plan, a blueprint for ramping up the protection of lands critical to meet rising demands for local food in the Hudson Valley and New York City. Underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the study is believed to be the first-ever comprehensive, data-driven plan to conserve farmland in a metropolitan foodshed. It has received significant buy-in from fellow land trusts, farmers, food policy and hunger advocates, leading chefs and restaurateurs, and government at all levels, including the New York City Council.

What does agriculture mean to communities throughout the Hudson Valley?

Farming is essential to the prosperity of many communities throughout the Hudson Valley. It's the engine of the region's $800-million agricultural economy and critical for sustaining many local businesses (such as farm supply stores and large-animal veterinarians) that depend on the success of neighboring farms.

By growing the majority of fresh produce consumed by local and New York City residents, valley farms also play an important role in promoting public health for some 12 million people. And through their participation in farmers markets, farms not only allow families to secure a variety of healthy food but provide opportunities for communities to gather.

Perhaps even more important, farms are central to the Hudson Valley's astonishingly beautiful landscape, which is largely responsible for the region's outstanding quality of life. Views of the rolling fields and orchards provide inspiration and solace; farms allow people to connect with nature by furnishing critical plant and animal habitat; and they contribute immeasurably to the valley's unique sense of place that attracts new residents and visitors from around the world.

What will it take for farming to thrive in the Hudson Valley? What role does farmland protection and conservation mean to the future of the Hudson Valley region?

The Hudson Valley is a paradigm of local agriculture. Its fertile soils, ample water and favorable growing season have allowed its farms to supply grains, fruits, vegetables, row crops, livestock and dairy products to regional markets for generations. And while many agricultural areas nationwide have seen a trend toward conglomeration and globalization, the Hudson Valley has largely retained its family-sized farms - some operated by the same families for more than 200 years.

But our farmers today face myriad challenges. While there are many elements to a sustainable regional food system - supportive public policy, efficient distribution networks, successful marketing - the most important is a stable land base. Agricultural land in the valley faces continuing threats not only from development but the increased number of farmers approaching retirement and land prices beyond the means of most young farmers. That's where implementing our Foodshed Conservation Plan is key: It prioritizes unprotected farmland throughout the valley, allowing stakeholders to focus on preserving those farms most critical for sustaining supplies of local food.

By working with partners to increase the pace of protecting farmland, we're safeguarding the region's ability to produce fresh, local food. At the same time, easements we've acquired have put more than $55 million directly into the hands of farmers. They often reinvest these funds in their operations - buying additional land and equipment, adding renewable energy systems, etc. - which has a multiplier effect on the local economy. The easements also make the land more affordable for future generations of farmers.

A great testament to its success in forging collaboration, the Foodshed Conservation Plan was key to securing $20 million in state funds from Governor Andrew Cuomo for farmland protection in the region.

Climate change is a major focus right now for a variety of reasons. How would you characterize the challenge that climate change poses to agriculture in the Hudson Valley?

The New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) has modeled the potential impacts of climate change based on historical, local-level climate data and the most current climate science. NYSERDA concluded that farms - including those in the Hudson Valley - will face significant challenges associated with the increase in global temperatures, precipitation and extreme weather events.

In response, Scenic Hudson has pioneered the Hudson Valley Conservation Strategy. It provides a rigorous framework for landscape-scale conservation in the region that meets multiple ecological objectives. It identifies the most efficient and synergistic network of properties - including productive and scenic working farmland - whose protection will ensure long-term climate resilience, biodiversity and landscape connectivity across the Hudson Valley. The HVCS builds upon our Foodshed Conservation Plan and was also supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

What should we keep in mind about the relationship between our food system and water?

Many of the Valley's farms contain wetlands and Hudson River tributaries or sit upon aquifers that ultimately supply drinking water to local communities. Farmers steward both land and water and it's important to balance their successful operations with maintaining the health of these vital water resources. When protecting farmland with a conservation easement, we're also protecting the streams and wetlands with "Resource Protection Areas" that codify riparian buffers important to maintaining clean water.

What are some specific smarter/sustainable choices people can make when it comes to their food?

If promoting local agriculture and eating the healthiest food are important to you, here are some ideas:

  • Eat "seasonally." Once or twice a week, create a meal solely from food currently in season.
  • Shop at farmers markets. In addition to being the best venues for procuring fresh food, they give you an opportunity to interact with the people producing it. Ask questions - farmers usually welcome them - about how the food is grown. 
  • Join a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture farms are an excellent way to secure a full season of local foods. You get the benefit of having products selected for you and can create a relationship with a specific farm. 
  • Pick up or pick-your-own. Many farms have onsite farm stores where you can pick up products directly. Want more of an adventure? Enjoy the experience to pick-your-own that's often available at orchards and berry farms. 
  • Finally, ask your grocery store to identify products supplied by local and regional farms. Choose these foods over similar items with a larger carbon footprint.

What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day-to-day?

On a near-daily basis I continue to be inspired by the Hudson Valley's farmers. From seasoned growers backed by generations of knowledge to beginners, their dedication, resilience, entrepreneurial ability and typically humble nature consistently renew my passion for working on their behalf.

Photograph by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.Northwind Farm produces a variety of local meats for the Hudson Valley region. Preservation of their high quality agricultural lands is integral to Scenic Hudson's groundbreaking Foodshed Conservation Plan. Credit: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.

I'm also inspired by the fact that thanks to Scenic Hudson's farmland protection tools, we play an important role in local farmers' ability to produce fresh foods and maintain stewardship of lands that benefit so many. There's also the more tangible gratification I get from choosing a half-gallon of milk or fruit from a farm that Scenic Hudson helped to protect, knowing we played a small role in its production.

What advice do you have for high school and college students interested in a career in farming or within the environmental field?

It's important for students to recognize there may not be a single, linear path to the career they envision. I encourage them to find unique opportunities to engage with farmers. For example, they could volunteer with a CSA farm. I also encourage them to venture beyond the midway at the county fair and explore the agricultural exhibits - they offer a great introduction to local farms and farmers. In school, choose as many courses related to your interests as you can, but don't overlook other necessary skills. Remember - if you want to be a farmer, you'll also likely serve as the marketing executive, accountant and IT professional for your operation!

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