My Small, Local Stimulus Package
I live in rural Columbia County, New York. Columbia County is about 25 miles SE of Albany, New York, in the Hudson Valley. It abuts Berkshire County, Massachusetts. And it's really beautiful. It's also experiencing the same recession as the rest of the country.
The current recession has already thrown the real estate market into a deep freeze, so that home sales are very, very slow. Fortunately, there have not been a huge number of subprime mortgage foreclosures, though there have been a few. Gasoline is down to $3.21/gallon today. Heating oil is $3.389/gallon. There was an announcement last week that the state was going to close the Hudson Correctional Facility, the second largest employer in the county, within a year. The Correctional Facility employs 277 workers. Local politicians of all stripes are fighting the proposal; I'm not optimistic that those jobs will be spared. Most likely, the jobs will be moved away.
Two decades ago Columbia County used to be filled with dairy farms. Those farms disappeared during Reagan's dairy farm liquidations. There are few dairy farms left. This has resulted in huge herds of deer, which browse land that was formerly pasture, and a large growth of second homes for people from New York City, New Jersey, Long Island, and Boston (all about 2 hours away). Two decades ago Columbia County had factories. Now there are very few. Mostly, the county is filled with rural, second homes, people who provide services, or telecommute, or commute to Albany, or to Hudson. There is no Starbucks in Columbia County. There is a Wal-mart. There is no Home Depot or Lowes. There is no large mall though one is planned. There is a lovely, new food coop in Chatham. There are many restaurants. There is theater, and an excellent film festival, and art and sculpture. There are amazing, organic farms. But I digress.
An important strategy for rural counties like Columbia County is to put land back into production for food. Not for animal corn. Not for soybeans. For food. Why? Because local, organically produced food is healthier. And it tastes better. And it does not need long distance transport, so its price does not depend on oil prices or the cost of transporting it or the cost of chemical fertilizers. But, alas, I'm not really a farmer. I raised sheep for about a decade, but ultimately gave that up: it was impossible for me not to lose serious money. I would have needed a flock of thousands, and to do that I would have had to give up my usual work. Instead, I quit raising them.
I have some lovely fertile land, land that will grow beautiful vegetables and flowers, land that for at least two decades has never had chemical fertilizers on it or pesticides. And I wanted to get it back into production. Know what? I don't care if I make any money from it at all. If I can get an agricultural tax exemption on my land taxes, that will be great, but that's not really the point. If I get the inside price of vegetables that will be enough. The point is to find ways to get local land into production of food that will be sold and consumed locally. That makes ecological and economic sense.
So I scouted around the local natural food store, the local food coop, the local organic, biodynamic farm, and I found an organic farmer who wanted to grow vegetables and flowers and was doing so successfully on other land nearby. A farmer who wanted more land. An organic, skilled farmer. And I made him a deal he couldn't refuse: I'd lease him between 5 and 10 acres for $1.00 a year for 5 years or longer if he'd put it into production, if he'd promise not to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and he could keep whatever money he made from the crop he grew. If he made enough that I could get an Ag exemption, great. If not, that's fine also. What I really want is for the land to be productive and to feed people. And I want the land to become more fertile, and better farming land as we go along.
My hope is that by doing this I can inspire other people who own land or who have abutting lots with enough vacant land (5 acres seems to be the minimum) to find farmers to put their land back into production of food. I want them to give the same deal I'm giving.
Is this a stimulus? Absolutely. It's a modest one to be sure. But it's a real stimulus. Unlike the one they're talking about in Congress, it's a real one. It's new production. It's turning fallow land into food. And does the money stay in the local community? Definitely. And does it decrease food prices for organic local vegetables? Sure. And does it provide a farmer with additional income that he will spend in the local community? Yes. In other words, it's a real stimulus. And my hope is that it's an example: we can find ways of making our lives better by being creative. And we can begin to change the way the economy runs for the better when we do that.