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Columbia grad students studying local ‘foodshed’

By Dan Hust
FERNDALE — February 12, 2010 — In certain spots, the Delaware River valley has proven to be fertile ground for farmers over the years.
So it has, as well, for Columbia University Professor Richard Plunz, who with his students has mined information from the region for two studies dealing with the NYRI powerline’s and gas drilling’s potential impacts.
Now he’s returned, bringing with him about a dozen graduate students of Columbia’s Urban Design Lab. They hail from Pakistan, Peru, Bulgaria, South Korea, China, India and the U.S., many of them architects and planners, all of them insatiably curious researchers.
And their focus this time is, in fact, on that fertile ground.
This past Friday and Saturday, they got a firsthand look at the challenges and rewards of tilling the soil of Sullivan County, courtesy of area farmers and Catskill Mountainkeeper, which obtained the grant to fund the publication of a study about the “foodshed” surrounding New York City.
On Friday, Plunz and crew gathered inside the CVI Building in Ferndale to first get a feel for the issues facing agricultural enterprises in the area.
Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon and Agricultural Economic Development Specialist Paul Hahn kicked off the session, pointing out that the county’s 384 farms provided $82 million of economic value in 2008.
“It really is the foundation of our economy,” said Aragon.
But that’s only part of the story.
“Farming here in Sullivan County is not just a business venture,” explained Wes Gillingham, Mountainkeeper’s program director and a Youngsville farmer himself. “It’s really a lifestyle venture.”
Gillingham brought with him two other farmers to bolster that notion.
Cochecton Center’s self-described “ornery” farmer, John Gorzynski, relayed his decades of organic farming experience to the students, telling tales of horrendous flooding but also amazing successes at NYC farm markets, where he sells the bulk of his vegetables.
Gorzynski in particular stressed the importance of biodiversity, noting with some alarm that “only ten vegetables make up 90 percent of farm production.”
He also advocated for small-scale farming sans mechanization – just old-fashioned, handpicked goodness.
“I believe it brings a totally different quality to the table,” he explained.
He found no disagreement from Hancock farmer Mark Dunau, who traded a life in the city for one of hard but peaceful work on five Catskill Mountain acres.
“You can make it off of five acres,” he told the students, pointing out that his focus on greens and root vegetables – which he sells to upscale restaurants downstate – has allowed him and his family to make a decent living… and take three months off during the non-growing season.
He detailed his farm’s innovative planting concepts, including a polyethylene mesh that has increased his output by 50 percent.
“I sell lettuce from the first week in June to the Sunday before Thanksgiving,” Dunau explained, adding that this past year he actually extended that selling period into December.
But thanks to burdensome taxes and government regulations, the next generation of farmers may not materialize, worried Dunau, Gorzynski and Gillingham.
“One new farm is a big deal,” affirmed Challey Comer, who handles the Farm-to-Market Program for the Watershed Agricultural Council.
The unified message Friday thus was that agriculture offers sustainable living for all, but awareness – and support – must increase for it to survive.
Otherwise, warned Dunau with a wry grin, farming will remain “the virtuous dream of the virtually damned.”
The next day, the class took tours of Gorzynski’s organic operation, a similar farm in Abrahamsville, PA, and the Dirie dairy farm in Youngsville.
“It went well,” Gillingham said this week. “They got really excited.”
The resulting study, he added, will likely be out in June, at the end of the current semester. It will focus on the current and future state of vegetable, dairy and meat farms around New York City.
The study’s publication is a joint effort that includes, among others, the Open Space Institute, American Farmland Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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