Monday, September 17, 2007

Protected Farmland + ? = Secure Local Food System

Let me get something off my chest: My suppressed desire is to be a farmer. I’m not sure where it came from, but it's why I talk about food and farming so much here at Sustainable Sakonnet. But as my wife likes to say, "I didn’t marry a farmer." So for now, I get by with a small garden and big dreams.

To me, there's nothing nobler, more respectable than rising each day and growing that which nurtures and sustains your neighbors. Getting your hands dirty, smelling like rich, fertile soil all the way to your bones; learning how to be a better farmer with each passing season.

I was reminded of this when I received the Tiverton Land Trust's fall newsletter. The cover story, “Will buildings be our last crop?” was all about the need for preserving farmland and averting development, especially in Tiverton. Content is taken from an apparent interview with Mr. Tom Sandham, District Manager of the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District. The most surprising stat: "Less than five percent of RI’s consumption of edible products is produced in RI." How amazing it would be if we could put in place a plan to grow that.

But saving farmland is only half of the solution. The other: Getting more people to embrace farming as a career and USE that saved farmland. I know that is much easier said then done. But people are doing it. Look at Andrew Orr in Westport.

There are two other ways that we could help chip away at the back half of that equation. While ideally they could work as a one-two punch, we could operate with one or the other (to begin with, of course).

The first is introducing some sort of agricultural education component into our schools. As the TLT highlights, we have that long history of farming here in town. So why not put in place a program that actually teaches that? A couple examples come to mind here:

• Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, CA, showcases the soup-to-nuts possibilities of getting kids growing their own food AND eating it.

The Food Project lies right outside of Boston in Dorchester and is connecting kids with the land to drive social change.

• And if we ever had a formal agricultural educational component in our schools, we could start up a Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter. By what I've seen and read, this development program is creating our farming leadership of tomorrow. There are already six local FFA chapters in RI. We should be the seventh.

The second way of fostering the development of future farmers is to create some sort of farm incubator program. These are basically training grounds, where new farmers can hone their skills, and develop and market their products in a more secure environment. Why not take one of these pieces of protected farmland and build that kind of foundational component? Again, some good examples:

The Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, is a huge, multi-faceted program – and a great success story.

The Farm School in Athol, MA, literally teaches kids and adults how to become farmers through intensive hands-on programs.

What I'd like to know is if anyone out there has been a part of or knows of people who have been a part of these types of ventures. Or, does anyone know if these conversations have happened at all in town? If so, I'd be interested in talking to you more.

Bottom line: We do have a rich agricultural heritage in Sakonnet. Saving the land is a great first step. But to truly be stewards of the land, we need to develop that skill and talent to work and cultivate it for future generations.

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