Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field is a new offering of the ATTRA Web site featuring interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
The Regional Farm & Food Project
A discussion about local food and agriculture with founder Tracy Frisch
Interview by Tammy Hinman, NCAT Program Specialist
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?
- 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
- 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
- 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.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014