The Western New York Environmental Alliance is an umbrella group that is committed to the preservation and restoration of our regional environment. The work of the Alliance takes place in Working Groups focused on environmental topics.
To get involved with food, agriculture and gardening issues in Western New York, read on to learn more, join the Working Group listserv, and come to a meeting.
- Securing urban vacant land for farming and community gardening;
- Sharing resources for gardening and farming necessities; and
- Educating the broader community.
Working Group Chair
OUR WESTERN NEW YORK HERITAGE
Agriculture has been an integral part of the Western New York landscape over the past 200 years. In 1825, the Erie Canal was completed, and productive farmlands in Western New York were then only a few days travel from New York City, creating a wheat producing center. Previously remote and useless land could now be tilled and made to produce cash crops, increasing property values throughout the region. The increase in demand for land fueled more scientific farming methods and new inventions. The industrial farming revolution eventually would bring the economies of scale full circle beginning with the internal combustion engine and ending with the introduction of chemical pesticides which would make farming one of the world’s worst polluters.
Much like our ancestors, food and agriculture continues to play an essential role in our daily lives impacting our health (diet/nutrition), culture (ethnic heritage), economy and environment.
FOOD & AGRICULTURE TODAY
Three issues dominate the food and agriculture landscape in WNY: access to healthy food in urban areas, the protection of farmland in rural areas, and the demand for locally produced food across the region.
Both the region and the country as a whole are experiencing an unprecedented rise in obesity rates, increases in medical complications due to unhealthy eating habits and an alarming amount of bio-engineered food that is undergoing hyper-processing, making parents question if food can ever be wholesome again. Oftentimes, obesity is caused because of environmental factors that restrict access to healthy, reasonably priced, fresh food.
In a study conducted by UB professor Samina Raja, many low income neighborhoods of color were found to have far fewer full service supermarkets than in white neighborhoods. Instead of supermarkets, neighborhoods of color have an extensive network of small grocery stores. Often corner stores, they often carry an abundance of less nutritious snack foods and a limited supply of fresh produce, if any. Ensuring that everyone has access to fresh, nutritious food is important to the health of the WNY community overall.
Many urban agriculture and community gardening visionaries are putting their best foot forward to devise a plan for achieving and sustaining access to healthy food for low-income families. Some methods that are being developed include: formal food policy for cities and towns, zoning codes to allow for agricultural practices, and additional curb-side public services such as composting that can be provided by a municipality fostering additional opportunities for green-jobs and youth education.
Outside Buffalo, Western New York is largely rural. It includes the fruit orchards of Niagara and Orleans Counties and the rolling farmlands of Genesee and Wyoming Counties. Dairy farms and cheese factories are scattered throughout Cattaraugus County, and the vineyards of Niagara and Chautauqua Counties supply grapes for both wine and fruit preserve production. In 2007, Western New York counties generated more than $480 million in operating revenue, with Wyoming and Genesee counties ranking among the top 5 counties for sales in produce. Combined, the counties account for more than 10% of New York State’s overall agricultural produce.
Despite the large economic impact the agricultural industry has on our local economy, it continues to be threatened by increased competition for productive farm land among land developers, fueled by the demand for new housing and retail development, effectively pricing farmers out of the market. By supporting land protection plans we can ensure that these agricultural resources remain affordable for small family farms and future farming generations. In addition, WNY has begun to generate new innovative economies centered on agriculture that protect farmland. For instance, in the last decade, winery trails have become popular tourist destinations along the shores of both Lake Ontario in Niagara County and Lake Erie in Chautauqua County. Such initiatives both produce food and protect farmland from other development.
Local FoodBuying and consuming local food positively impacts people’s health, environmental quality and our local economy. Local food, such as that found at farmers’ markets, has traveled a short distance from farm to table. Thus, fewer preservatives are required to maintain quality and appearance, and less fossil fuel is expended in transporting them within WNY than from farms across the country or the world. Several community groups in the region are teaching people why eating organic and buying local foods are wise decisions. In addition, groups are encouraging people to grow food at home or in “community gardens” which offer healthy produce to low-income families while serving to beautify neighborhoods. All of this occurs in tandem with a national trend where good farm-to-fork practices are being praised and modeled.
HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Support Local Organizations
Presented below are brief summaries of several organizations within the City of Buffalo who are focused on providing food and agricultural resources for residents and neighborhoods alike, along with some tips on how you can help make a difference.
Community Action Organization of Erie County (CAO) has helped communities on the east side with several initiatives such as their own low-cost hoop house (built with the help of Will Allen of Growing Power) that grows fresh vegetables throughout the year, even in the winter. You can purchase their produce by visiting their headquarters at Harvard Place.
Field & Fork Network is a food farming organization based in Western New York. Their mission is to build capacity for a thriving regional food system. They strive to create a practical economic engine for local, sustainable agriculture and to provide our region with access to fresh, healthy food. They deliver a variety of programming, outreach, and information to build connections with local producers, food buyers, and consumers. Some of these programs include an annual Farmer-Chef Conference, the Seasonal Suppers farm-to-table dining series, their annual Food Matters Film Series, and various eat local resource guides. Currently, Field & Fork Network is spearheading a regional assessment of our local food supply and local food demand from a wholesale perspective. This study aims to quantify the current state of the local food economy, address the barriers farmers face when entering the wholesale channel, and research the feasibility of building a Local Food Hub in Western New York which will mitigate some of the bottlenecks in our current food system.
Grassroots Gardens Buffalo functions largely as the liaison organization between the City of Buffalo’s administration and Buffalo’s community gardeners. They establish leases with the City of Buffalo and indemnifies the properties, enabling gardeners to take on the challenges of establishing and maintaining the gardens without the added burden of liability for gardeners and visitors. In addition, whenever possible, Grassroots Gardens assist the gardeners’ efforts through modest financial support and other resources including the distribution of plants, seeds, bulbs and other supplies. If you are looking to lease a vacant lot near your home through the city’s Homesteading Program, Grassroots Gardens is a great resource to help you with initial questions and other needs you might have.
Massachusetts Avenue Project's (MAP) mission is to nurture the growth of a diverse and equitable community food system, to promote local economic opportunities, access to affordable, nutritious food and social change education. Located on Buffalo, NY’s West Side, MAP implements its mission primarily through its Growing Green Program, an urban agriculture and job training program for youth, focused on sustainable food production and regional food system development. Since 2002, Growing Green has provided green job training to hundreds of inner city youth, ages 14-20, increasing their knowledge of food sources, how to grow, process and market organic food, as well as the impact food has on their health and that of their community. As part of their training, Growing Green youth plant and harvest organic food at our urban farm, running two aqua-ponic greenhouses, and producing vegetables, herbs, eggs and fish for the Buffalo area throughout the year. At Growing Green Youth are trained using the popular education model as full participants in community and civic life. In addition to the urban farm, Growing Green hosts a youth-run social enterprise, a Mobile Market, provides educational workshops for schools and community groups, and policy initiatives to address healthy food access and support local farms.
NY Sustainable Agricultural Working Group offers workshops, field days, seminars and other educational events, as well as engages in media outreach, to expand knowledge of sustainable agriculture and sustainable agricultural systems; their structure, methods and benefits. NYSAWG works in partnership with other organizations including our funders, with educational institutions, and with farmers and consumers, to provide high quality, informative experiences for those who take advantage of our services. NYSAWG's work often focuses on sustainable farming and food systems, including food justice in both rural and urban communities. But our work is not limited to food, just as agriculture is a much larger industry than food.
The Western New York Land Conservancy is a regional, not-for-profit land trust that permanently protects land in Western New York, for the benefit of future generations. With increasing demand for local foods, agritourism and local farm products, the Land Conservancy strengthens the conservation infrastructure between WNY's urban, suburban and rural communities. The Land Conservancy also assists municipalities and towns in evaluating properties for permanent protection, while establishing the protection of local farmland parcels with federal dollars. Membership support enables the Land Conservancy to annually monitor the conservation easements they hold for each property, while stewarding the land it owns, accruing over 2,000 miles each year, and to meet with landowners to discuss issues as they arise. The organization envisions a future in which working farm lands, natural areas, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty are cherished and protected as part of the landscape and character of Western New York and is one of 1,700 land trusts nationwide, including 90 in New York State, which have protected 40 million acres over the last 20 years.
Urban Roots Community Garden Center is a consumer cooperative business whose mission is to provide quality products for gardening in the City of Buffalo and be an active and enriching member of the community.
Wilson Street Urban Farm is a pilot project in urban agriculture (through the city’s Homesteading Program) for the City of Buffalo. The Stevens’ family on Wilson Street on Buffalo’s east side sells freshly grown produce twice every week at the farm that also has a low-cost hoop house built with help from the CAO.
Make Your Voice Heard
Learn more about food and farm policy with organizations such as the American Farmland Trust Action Network. Let policymakers know that you care about food and farm policy and are willing to support farmland planning initiatives.
Take your activism to the local level and weigh in on farming issues in your area. Your voice can impact decisions made by your community’s local zoning board or planning commission. To learn more about the tools and techniques commonly used by governments across the U.S. visit the Farmland Protection Toolbox.
In addition to reducing your carbon footprint, local farms tend to offer sustainable organic produce and they circulate more of their money back into the local economy, benefiting you and the community. To find a local farm, farmers’ market, pick your own produce location or a local food event near you, visit either Local Harvest or Field & Fork Network.
You can also find Farmers Markets based on your county on the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets page here.
Another way you can support local farmers is through buying shares in their seasonal harvest. This is called Community Supported Agriculture, where fresh produce is guaranteed from a farm close to your home and you reserve the opportunity to purchase produce during harvest season with a small deposit. A simple principle that works well for several farms around the region including Native Offerings and Porter Farms. By partaking in this process you can expect to receive the very best of what they sell (which includes meat, honey, seeds, hay, grain and vegetables) for a great price.
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING:
- Agriculture, Farms & Farming in Western New York - ALLWNY.com
- American Farmland Trust Action Network
- Buffalo in Bloom
- Buffalo Growing
- Community Action Organization of Erie County
- Cornell Small Farms Program's Guide to Urban Farming in New York State
- Farmland Information Center
- Farmland Protection Toolbox
- Field & Fork Network
- Gardening Resources - Cornell University
- Grassroots Gardens
- Local Harvest
- Massachusetts Avenue Project
- Native Offerings
- NY Sustainable Agricultural Working Group
- Porter Farms
- Slow Food USA
- The Western New York Land Conservancy
- Urban Roots Community Garden Center
- Wilson Street Urban Farm