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ATTRA Entèvyou ak Fondatè RFFP, Tracy Frisch

Pa: Tammy Hinman
Piblikasyon: Sèvis Enfòmasyon Agrikilti Dirab/Nasyonal pou Agrikilti Dirab
Pibliye: 08/03/2006

Conversations from the Field: ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the
sustainable ag movement

The Regional Farm & Food Project: A discussion about local food and
agriculture with founder Tracy Frisch
Interview by Tammy Hinman, NCAT Program Specialist, tammyh@ncat.org
August 3, 2006

The Regional Farm & Food Project (RFFP) is a member supported, farmer
focused, non-profit organization serving New York’s greater
Hudson-Mohawk Valley foodshed.

The Regional Farm and Food Project was founded in 1996 in Albany, NY.
Growing out of an annual sustainable community dinner featuring local
foods and an inspirational speaker, its initial effort was to create a
directory and map of farmers using organic and non-chemical production
practices. Over the years the organization developed a comprehensive
array of activities to promote local foods and help farmers succeed.

The project promoted farmer-to-farmer learning through farm tours and
workshops and later started a mentoring program and farmer networks.
While these “real world” peer learning models are quite common today,
the group’s initiatives were very innovative at the time.

As Tracy describes the movement, “The organic farm and grazing
movements offer good early examples of farmer-to-farmer education. Ten
or twenty years ago, university research in these areas was generally
slim to non-existent. In most states, farmers could find little help
with organic growing or pasture management from university faculty or
extension because they knew very little. Consequently, farmers had to
learn from each other.

“Farmer-to-farmer learning—at least the way we practiced it—tends to be
more holistic. It involves the whole of a farm, rather than single
techniques taken in isolation, so it is more grounded in the context.
It respects the uniqueness of each farm but also tries to make explicit
the inside and outside factors that make that farm what it is. It
allows farmers to get past buzz words, and apply the concepts to their
own systems.”

RFFP also sought to create change beyond the farming sector with
outreach efforts and initiatives to involve the general public. The
group formed a dynamic, producers-only farmers’ market with well over
50 vendors. Called the Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market, it became the
first to operate year round in the region. This market has introduced
thousands of people to the broad variety of local foods available.

Throughout its first decade, the organization continued its yearly
local foods dinner. It also started a more upscale celebration to
engage local chefs in using local foods while simultaneously raising
money for the group. RFFP’s quarterly newsletter and monthly radio show
both addressed broader food and agriculture issues in-depth, without
propaganda.

What follows is a conversation with Tracy about her involvement with
the Regional Farm and Food Project and her perspectives as a leader
within the local food and agriculture systems movement in the
Northeast.

Q. As the former director of the Regional Farm and Food Project, how do
you think this organization has impacted the local food and sustainable
agriculture movement?

A. When the group first started in 1996, institutions that are quite
commonplace now were not in place. Concepts such as farmer-to-farmer
learning, farmer mentoring, and grass-fed livestock production were
absent in the region. While there were pockets of activity elsewhere,
these approaches were almost completely absent in the Northeast.

From the consumer side, the idea of eating locally and searching out
grass-fed animal products were not yet in vogue. For example, we
developed one of the first maps of local farms that used sustainable
practices and direct marketed their products, then one of a kind in the
region.

The RFFP took these approaches to local food and farmer education and
ran with them. The approaches had a ripple affect elsewhere throughout
the region and U.S., where other organizations and agencies applied
these concepts to their own efforts.

Q. What does sustainable agriculture and local foods mean to you?

A. Sustainable agriculture: Farming would be an attractive occupation
for a significant sector of the population. The farmer and community
would have an integral and reciprocal relationship. Farming should
leave the land in better shape for future farmers, by building topsoil
instead of losing it to erosion and degrading its quality. It would
minimize impacts on the ecosystem and protect water sources. While
agriculture will always have some impacts on wild lands, the farmer
should make choices that benefit the health of people and the
community. To this end, sustainable agriculture should provide healthy
and nutritious food—a component too often left out.

Local food systems: A local food system connects people more directly
with farmers and farm products with multiple ways to gain access.
Fruits and vegetables are not the only local foods—there are also meat
and poultry, dairy, and even grains and beans. Value-added/processed
foods made locally and under local control are also available,
especially if the raw materials come from local farms.

Farmers’ markets and CSAs provide good exposure to local farms and
meaningful experience to eaters, but a local food system has more
components. When we try to include institutions like schools and
hospitals in this mix, it often becomes somewhat problematic as these
large entities can be quite complex to deal with and inaccessible to
small-scale agriculture. For these relationships to work, buyers must
be willing to be more flexible, offering a fair price and arrangements
that are practical for small, local farmers.

Q. What is one of the biggest issues or obstacles facing local foods
and sustainable agriculture today?

A. In terms of the need to expand market outlets for sustainable
farmers, one of the biggest challenges is that fewer and fewer people
cook or even eat together as a family. Another is that only a
relatively finite amount of direct marketing opportunities exist in a
given area at this point in time. A brilliant marketer or a well-funded
campaign can ratchet up the demand for local foods, but we’re often
dealing with a near saturation point in many areas. So one extreme is
high population areas where good markets often exist but the price of
land is cost prohibitive for farming. The other extreme is rural areas
with more farms, yet less access to markets, especially ones that pay a
decent price.

Here in the Northeast failed land use policies have caused development
pressures to increase disproportionately to population growth. These
situations force farmers to sell out due to high taxes and because it
is not easy to farm when the services are gone. It is difficult for
beginning farmers because land is unaffordable and many of them do not
know how to farm.

Also, the sustainable agriculture movement has only weakly addressed
agricultural chemicals, soil conservation, and other impacts of
high-yielding, chemical intensive production and factory farms. Nor
have we found ways to really grapple with consolidation in agriculture,
besides a bit of consciousness raising. In my experience in the
Northeast, we have tended to steer clear of dealing with these issues,
though attempts have been stronger in the upper Midwest.

Part of the problem is that our constituency has been alternative
farmers whose primary goal is to thrive in their small niche, not
protect the planet or even their community. Moreover, we don’t know
strategically how to take on these enormous challenges.

Q. As an organizer within the movement, what are your suggestions?

A. * Don’t feel you have to do what other people are doing. There is
room for a wide range of tactics and projects and different types of
organizations in our work toward a more sustainable food and
agriculture system. Assess your situation and your personality and
resources as an organization, and then identify the role and niche that
empowers you to catalyze the most change.

* Leave tried and true methods and ideas to institutions to
replicate. Small organizations (such as the RFFP) are typically more
flexible—and able to change course if something isn’t successful—than
big, established entities. We are also more comfortable experimenting
with novel strategies and untested ideas. Without the burden of a
bureaucracy and with less to lose, we need to be in the forefront.
Besides the satisfaction of forging into new territory, we also reap
the rewards by appealing to and engaging larger numbers of supporters
when we are creative and take risks.

* Build relationships with individuals and learn about their needs
and strengths in order to develop your programs and organization. As an
organizer I helped create the goals and direction of the Regional Farm
and Food Project and build its membership out of thin air. One-on-one
contact with people who had expressed an interest was essential to
bringing this about.

* One danger of becoming an entirely grant-driven organization is
drifting from your mission. Being a “foundation darling” can be very
comfortable, but the foundation can become more of the audience than
the people you have a mission to serve, assist, and mobilize.

* Be cautious about trying to work with too many “stakeholders” in
situations where this could dilute your work. Sometimes involving a
wide range of organizations, agencies, and/or businesses can compromise
your impacts and hold you back.

* Similarly, be wary about being bought off with crumbs. The
organic movement as a whole has benefited from a large increase in
funding from state and federal agencies, but meanwhile the overall
direction of agriculture has continued on a trajectory that is
antithetical to organic—with genetic engineering, a factory-structure,
high chemical use, etc.

Q. What do you see as the future of agriculture and the local foods
movement?

A. I see climate change, sprawl, and peak oil as potentially
devastating forces on the future of farming. Rising oil prices may
serve to localize more food production, though other pressures make
this difficult in many areas.

The very structure of agriculture, and the fact that both markets and
key inputs (i.e. seed) are dominated by small handfuls of corporations,
is squeezing farmers past their breaking point. How can they stay in
business when prices are low and production costs keep rising, except
with government subsidies, off-farm jobs, and an eye glued to the
financial bottom line? One option has been conversion to sustainable or
organic farming, but relatively few farmers have been able to make the
cognitive leap and take the financial risk. The constant economic
pressure and the winnowing out of more and more farmers don’t bode
well. With this shift in who farms and a narrowing of controls within
the food system, we have lost tremendous vernacular knowledge and
reduced our options as a society.

On the up side, the local foods movement continues to grow and there is
a constant need for farms to produce for local markets. If they are
able to distinguish themselves from their big imitators, farmers have
the possibility to obtain the majority of the food dollar from those
who purchase their food. The hope lies in the kinds of innovations that
have gone on and continue to go on in the sustainable agriculture
movement.

Q. What are you doing now and how do you see it relating to sustainable
agriculture and the local food system?

A. I have been building a passive solar house that will soon be off the
grid with the use of only 400 watts of photovoltaic panels. I designed
it to be energy efficient with super insulated walls. It is built with
local materials such as a slate roof (I’m 20 miles from a slate quarry
area) and lumber from small local sawmills.

This year I have begun writing feature stories and investigative
articles, primarily on agriculture and land-use topics. I write for
regional newspapers and magazines, mainly ones with a progressive or
alternative slant. These include Graze and Growing for Market and a
Hudson Valley magazine called The Valley Table that focuses on food,
farms, and cuisine. By writing, I am able to explore issues that I
think are important and to educate myself and others in the process.
It’s something I always wanted to do.

I have had the opportunity to learn from people who are immersed in
land-use issues. In the four months that I have been doing this, I have
discovered that these issues need to be addressed from several angles.
For example, I am not sure that planners are aware of how strong and
far-reaching land-use policies have to be to protect agriculture. I
have been forced to question a lot of the land-use policies that I had
superficial perceptions of. For example, cluster development is often
considered to be good for farmland protection, but it displaces a farm
in the process and makes it difficult for farmers in the vicinity of
that development. Working on these issues really reveals the extent to
which our democracy is functioning. It also shows how commonly held
ideological beliefs—such as the sacredness of private property—are not
serving us. I hope to get people to think about at what point another
people’s land-use affects their own quality of life and even their own
property values.

Within the current food system, with such an abundance of food, it is
difficult to engage people. Most of the public does not perceive the
plight of farmers and the global integration of the food system as
affecting them. Farming as a land-use issue is more tangible here in
the countryside where I live where we are beginning to be threatened by
rapid, uncontrolled growth.

Q. Why do you think people should be buying locally produced foods?

A. When farmers are able to sell locally, it gives them a chance to
survive as well as the personal satisfaction of seeing others enjoying
what they are producing. On the consumer end, it is thrilling to know
where your food is coming from and to see and try the variety of local
foods available. It enriches our relationship with food to have an
experience with the producer. And it is an experience that many people
do not even know they are missing.

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