By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY Mark Ruffalo, Victoria Lesser, Bruce Ferguson and Laurie McFadden share a vision of the future that’s actually as retro as it gets.
“We have a tradition here that’s hundreds of years old and is in decline and doesn’t have to be,” says Ruffalo, a Callicoon resident and rising film star.
That tradition, of course, is farming still a top industry in Sullivan County, despite a precipitous drop in dairy farmers.
The average age of farmers in the area is 57, says Ruffalo, and many worry not just for themselves but for future generations. How will they make a living when they can’t now?
Farmhearts is one of several area groups that aims to answer that question.
“Our whole goal is to help our local farmers,” Lesser affirms.
“Our friends and neighbors,” adds McFadden.
As proprietor of the North Branch Inn, Lesser’s watched the county’s agricultural roots dry up, with gas drilling becoming some farmers’ only hope for survival even if they’d rather not lease their acreage.
Through Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Lesser, Ruffalo and company had already garnered major attention in their fight against the dangers of drilling.
But they weren’t finding unanimous support from the agricultural community.
“Me and Victoria and Bruce were trying to understand why a farmer who loves their land would come to a moment where they’d say, ‘I have to industrialize my land to go on,’” Ruffalo recalls.
So they talked to local farmers in Jeffersonville, Cochecton Center and Callicoon, and discovered that traditional farming was no longer paying the bills.
“Once we came to know these farmers, we realized you have to have an amazing heart to be a farmer,” Lesser relates.
A very tough heart, in fact.
“They’re not postcards,” Ferguson remarks of the pastoral farms that hide daily struggles. “... These are people trying to make a living.”
As Ruffalo puts it, saying “no” to drilling was insufficient.
“We said, ‘Let’s put as much energy into saying ‘yes’ to people,” he recounts.
And so Farmhearts was born last year, as a way for the community to find a sustainable future for farms and the people who love them.
A September fundraiser in New York City organized in part by local actress Debra Winger and husband Arliss Howard demonstrated there’s plenty of support both downstate and upstate raising around $25,000.
About half of that went to the Watershed Agricultural Council just this week, in the form of a fellowship for a young woman eager to cultivate new farmers in the region.
Some of the funds also went to the Sullivan County Farm Network, which is gaining prominence and influence in the county. More fundraising is in the works, as well.
The team behind Farmhearts says the demand is there for both the farmers and the food they produce.
“It’s about spending where you live,” explains Lesser. “... It’s about being able to support each other.”
So Farmhearts is now seeking funding while the group brainstorms ways to ensure the county doesn’t just sustain its agricultural heritage but transforms it into a thriving supplier of wholesome, healthy products to the millions of hungry consumers just two hours away.
“There’s a whole food thing happening in Brooklyn now,” Lesser relates. “Everyone wants to eat local.
“Upstate New York can actually be the supermarket for downstate.”
In concert with groups like the Sullivan County Farm Network and Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development (Farmhearts’ non-profit parent organization), Farmhearts aims to connect farmers to those downstate consumers.
“We need to wake people up in the city: this is how close your food is,” McFadden points out. “This is how close your water is.”
Ruffalo and fellow board member Michael Lang the man who brought the Woodstock festival to Bethel in 1969 are already spreading that word via their well-heard voices.
But Farmhearts has another, simultaneous goal: rebuilding the economy of Sullivan County.
“You can’t have healthy rural communities without healthy farms that are thriving,” Ferguson observes.
“Good food,” he adds, “is food that sustains the farmer and the consumer.”
To that end, Farmhearts is investigating connecting farmers to educational classes, broadband Internet, even a creamery and demonstration farm.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” explains Ruffalo. “We’re trying to support a community that’s already there.”
“It’s about helping farmers to survive and thrive,” affirms Lesser.
They’re eager for donations and ideas from anyone interested in the same.
For more information, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’d like to send a check right away, make it out to “SASD/Farmhearts” and mail it to McFadden at POB 224, Callicoon, NY 12723. (As an arm of the Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development, Farmhearts’ donations are tax-deductible.)
Farmhearts’ website, farmhearts.org, is operating but about to be greatly expanded. SASD, too, can be accessed at sasdonline.org.
“We’re looking for volunteers and ideas,” confirms Ferguson, “people who share the notion that this is a worthwhile enterprise.
“We love our family farms!”
Ruffalo’s love of home drives his involvement
By Dan Hust
CALLICOON Like the many other celebrities living in Sullivan County, Mark Ruffalo appreciates the “regular Joe” treatment he gets from the community.
No autograph hounds or paparazzi here just people who treat him like he treats them, with friendliness, compassion and decency.
“I fell in love with that,” Ruffalo admits. “I’m not an actor in this community. I’m just a regular guy, and that’s what I like.”
As a result, he’s become close friends with many of his neighbors. He’s also seen firsthand the kinds of struggles they face deep financial issues that he, as one of Hollywood’s ascendant actors, no longer needs to worry about.
Living on a portion of the old Kautz Farm in Callicoon, Ruffalo is deeply moved by the plight of the area’s farmers, which is why he’s become part of the Farmhearts effort.
“I feel a responsibility,” he affirms. “I owe something back to this community.”
And to himself and his family.
“I get my food from my neighbor,” he relates. “We have to fight for these things. We have to do it there’s no one else to do it for us.”
His aim is to lend his powerful voice to those clamoring for sustainable farms ones that not only provide good food to the world but a good income to those out in the fields, plus those eager to get out in the fields.
“There’s a whole group of young people out there who are dying to get into farming,” Ruffalo remarks. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel we’re trying to support a community that’s already there.”
Having come from communities in boom-and-bust economic cycles and without sufficient access to clean water, Ruffalo is fearful of gas drilling’s potential impact and hopes to stave off its advance by giving residents reason to choose the kind of life that, until recently, defined much of the county.
“We have to identify and frame who we are now,” he explains. “... I’m more interested in what Sullivan County is in the long run who are we, and what have we been in the past hundreds of years?”
It’s about ensuring a viable future for what Ruffalo calls “one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in the United States.”
“I know how special this place is,” he says. “And I think it’s important for us to give back.”