Land and Food
Holly Rippon-Butler is Land Campaign Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, owner of Farmers Cone Creamery, and an Adirondack Land Trust board member. Following are her remarks from the Adirondack Land Trust's 2021 annual meeting on the relationship between farmland and the unique Adirondack food system.
I grew up on my family’s dairy farm in Schuylerville, NY, just outside of the Adirondack Park. My first experiences with the Adirondacks were hiking in the mountains and exploring lakes and streams. It wasn’t until I was older and living in the Champlain Valley that I began to appreciate the rich agricultural landscape that is woven into the fabric of the Park as well.
In my role as an advocate with the National Young Farmers Coalition, I have had the opportunity to travel around the country for the past seven years, meeting farmers, talking with elected officials, and working with land trusts. After each trip, I have returned to the Adirondacks to see farms beginning, dwindling, transitioning, and growing alongside the businesses that support them. I have gotten to be a small part of this evolving food economy in starting my small ice cream business, Farmers Cone Creamery, here.
From this perspective, I can say that this region is truly special. There are three things in particular that stand out to me about food and farming in the Adirondacks. The first is the vibrancy of agriculture and the uniqueness of our food system. The second is the role that people—the stewards of the land—play in building this vibrant system. And third is the critical support those growers receive from community-led organizations, such as the Adirondack Land Trust.
A Growing, Vibrant Food System
The geography of the Adirondack Park is defined by a landscape and climate that produce a short and unpredictable growing season. These factors limit population density and travel; shape how food is grown, distributed, and enjoyed; and set the region apart.
The result is a tightly-knit network of producers who grow high-quality food that is largely available within a few miles of its source. This is summed up for me in the joy of eating a burger after a long hike with local meat, cheese, and tomato, sandwiched between a freshly-baked bun made with grains grown within the Park.
The food system here has an influence beyond the Adirondacks too. Trucks leave daily carrying food to surrounding metro areas, and other regions are looking to and emulating this model of how a collaborative food economy can work.
I have come to see agricultural land in the Adirondacks not just a liminal area between the mountains and water, but an integral part of the whole landscape. No farmland, no post-hike burger. This interconnection is unique to this region, and worth celebrating.
Stewards of the Land
The fact that you can finish a hike and eat a local burger is fortunate, but it’s not fortuitous. It is the result of very intentional labor, knowledge, and risk taken on by a lot of people.
Stewardship of this land is part of a long legacy that includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Abenaki, and Mahican people. Non-native occupants of the land owe a deep debt to these original stewards and have a responsibility to work towards land-based justice that acknowledges this history. The brightest future for agriculture and our climate is one in which access to land is equitable and indigenous voices are centered.
The current farming community in the Adirondacks is rich in expertise and new energy—a unique and vibrant combination. Young farmers are tenacious and innovative, and they benefit immeasurably from the people who have spent a lifetime learning and working the land here. More than just neighbors, friends, and faces at the farmers market, these individuals are leaders and innovators, demonstrating how commitment to place can translate into livable, resilient communities.
Nationally, we are in a moment of farm transition as the average age of farmers is increasing and millions of acres of land are expected to change hands in the next few decades. This creates urgency, but also opportunity. This moment requires intention—we must name what we want the future of agriculture to look like in the Adirondacks, see its interconnection with national trends, and take action. The good news is there are a lot of people and organizations already taking these steps.
Land Trusts Are Critical
Farming is a tricky business. The economics are tough and success is far from guaranteed. But the biggest challenge is the land. Secure land access is critical for farmers to do the work that they do, but it is increasingly out of reach.
The Adirondacks are special in that there is a lot of land—more than 58,000 acres of farmland according to the most recent USDA census. But that doesn’t make it a place that is immune from the larger trends sweeping the country. In fact, it is in many ways more vulnerable.
As the climate crisis intensifies and population grows, the Adirondacks have become a more desirable place to live. Changes in technology and norms are also making it possible for more people to work remotely, something the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated. Farmers are experiencing unprecedented prices and competition for land, making it nearly impossible for them to access the long-term security they need.
As community-led organizations, land trusts work for the collective good and have deep connections in real estate and farming communities, as well as access to public dollars. These are the kinds of resources we need to create solutions that respond to our environment, support the individuals who are doing the work of land stewardship, and ensure secure land tenure is available to farmers. Land trusts around the country are stepping up to play this role, and I am excited to be a part of this work with the Adirondack Land Trust as a member of the board.
A recent report from the Essex County Food System Strategic planning effort points out that, “A holistic approach to improving Essex County’s food system requires connecting the dots between land in agriculture, long-term food production, farm viability, supply chains with restaurants and stores, access to healthy food, food security, diet-related health problems, and the economic opportunity that results when all of these components are tied together.”
That is a lot, but it is also exciting!
I hope you will join me in seeing yourselves as part of building this holistic land and food system. In becoming collective stewards of the Adirondacks, with farmland and those who steward it as a critical component. In supporting the critical role that land trusts and community organizations play. And in engaging with policy advocacy to create a more just future. Most importantly, I hope you will join me in purchasing and celebrating local food, and enjoying that burger.
Photograph by Meqo Sam Cecil