East Hill Notes: The inclusive power of agriculture and Cornell Cooperative Extension

By Sandra Repp and Ken Schlather

 

Photo provided by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. At left, Fay Bunnell, left, a meat locker subscriber, with Matt LeRoux of CCE-Tompkins.

For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear “Cooperative Extension” is agriculture.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County has been working with local farmers to help improve production and marketing for more than a century, and drawing on Cornell research to meet that end. A key component of this work is creating and maintaining initiatives to make food accessible, affordable and sustainable.

Four related examples on how CCE-Tompkins works with Cornell University:
-The Finger Lakes Meat Project supports farmers, increases access to affordable meats, and protects farmland and water, using land in Tompkins County unsuitable for crops as grassland for livestock.

To help livestock farmers expand their more profitable “freezer trade” – i.e. direct bulk meat sales to consumers, that is less costly for consumers – the FMLP holds workshops on how to buy local meat in bulk, manages an online directory (MeatSuite.com) of 200-plus farm listings, and rents freezer space for bulk meat storage. One-third of freezer users are senior citizens on fixed incomes, including a retiree who had been buying her organic meat by the cut. After taking an FLMP workshop, she is now saving $200 a year by buying in bulk.

-Community Supported Agriculture was started by CCE Tompkins at a 2007 fair to strengthen farmer-consumer connections. This initiative allows potential subscribers to meet with local CSA farmers, and learn about their operations. The fair has grown each year and an estimated 2,500 Tompkins County households now subscribe to CSAs, resulting in an estimated $1.36 million in local food dollars going directly to producing farmers.

These “farm shares” also reach families with limited incomes through Healthy Food For All, a project started by CSA farmers in partnership with CCE Tompkins’s agriculture and nutrition programs. Through HFFA, Women, Infants and Children and food stamp-eligible households can purchase a “share of a farm” at half the regular cost, and receive a box of fresh, organic produce each week during the growing season.

Farmers receive a subsidy from HFFA to cover the remaining cost of the share, raised through grants, donations, and special events. A special focus of that program aims to provide access to CSA shares to single mothers in Tompkins County, guaranteeing access to healthy food for the largest group of households in poverty in the county. Additional funds raised this year will provide 50 families with winter CSA shares to help them get through the toughest months when other food assistance programs – pantries, soup kitchens, etc. – rarely have fresh produce. Now ending nutritional hunger for close to 200 families, HFFA is recognized as one of our region’s leading community food security programs.

-Seed to Supper was launched in 2017 after CCE-Tompkins offered a free series of five vegetable gardening classes for beginners on a budget. This effort modeled the University of Oregon’s “Seed to Table” curriculum, adapted to New York conditions by staff from CCE and Cornell University Horticulture Program. CCE Tompkins trained 34 volunteers to run classes in their own communities that were offered in 11 locations across the county and advertised through food pantries, laundromats, apartments and community centers.

Most of the 120 participants said that the course met or exceeded their expectations. A representative positive outcome of the project emerged at Poet’s Landing, a low-to-moderate income apartment complex in Dryden. After seeing the residents’ interest in vegetable gardening at the classes, the management agreed to install a fenced vegetable garden at the complex. Residents helped design the new garden. built raised beds, and will manage the garden themselves.

-Farm Tours reflect the success and vitality of the local food system that depend, in part, upon keeping existing farm land in production, and land-use policies that support local farming. In addition to ongoing work with local Agriculture Farmland and Protection Boards, CCE Tompkins hosts an annual bus tour of area farms for up to 50 municipal leaders, who have a chance to walk the fields, meet individual farmers and hear about their experiences and concerns first-hand. Other annual events such as AgStravaganza! on the Ithaca Commons, and a new two-day Open Farm Days event, help the general public learn about local agriculture and better appreciate farming’s contribution to the local economy.

Do you have ideas for improving our food systems in Tompkins County? CCE Tompkins is always interested in supporting local initiatives. Call (607) 272-2292 or visit CCETompkins.org.
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Repp and Schlather are on staff at Cornell Community Relations of Tompkins County. East Hill Notes are published the second and fourth Mondays of each month.