A Plan to Preserve and Strengthen Erie County Farmlands--Authored by UB Grad Students

It outlines specific changes to benefit farmers, governments and consumers

Release Date: March 20, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Eight graduate students in the University at Buffalo Department of Urban and Regional Planning have spent months mining the complex network of activities, actors and resources that enable the production, processing, wholesaling, distribution, consumption and disposal of the food in Erie County.

They did so at the behest of the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, with the aim of informing the development of a new farmland preservation plan for the county, which currently can produce only 12 percent of the food required by its population of 919,000.

The press is invited to attend the formal presentation of the students' report, "Room at the Table: Food System Assessment of Erie County," to members of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency March 28 at 8:30 a.m. in the IDA offices, 143 Genesee St., Buffalo, New York.

The report presents an ambitious plan for strengthening Erie County's $9.9 billion food system, and offers detailed reasons for doing so.

The authors say their aim is to assure economical and viable agriculture in the county, promote access to local food by county residents, ensure lasting food security in the county, promote the overall health and wellness of residents and educate the general public about the Erie County food system.

"Room at the Table" was produced by graduate students in a fall 2011 planning studio in the UB School of Architecture and Planning under the guidance of food security expert Samina Raja, PhD, associate professor of urban and regional planning.

In the report, the research team argues that the Erie County government is poised to rejuvenate the farming sector, promote health of residents and foster economic development. Specifically, they say, efforts must be made to call attention to the need to protect existing farmland; reduce the adult obesity rate in Erie County (which currently is at 26.9 percent) by promoting healthy local food, and increase local revenues by adding new cropland for local food production.

The plan also suggests a new and greater emphasis on Erie County agritourism -- the practice of attracting visitors and travelers to agricultural areas, generally for educational and recreational purposes.

Popular in Europe and throughout the U.S., agritourism already has a presence in the county. It can involve such things as farm stands or shops, U-pick options, overnight farm stays and holiday rentals, farm tours and on-farm classes, horseback riding, honey tasting, maple harvesting demonstrations, guest ranches, barn dances, pumpkin patches, youth camps, tree farms, fairs, festivals, orchard dinners.

All this helps rebuild a relationship between producer and consumer that has just about vanished with the rise of heavily-industrialized farming methods.

The report also observes that if the county were to satisfy federal food intake guidelines for its entire population, it would have to allocate 4.5 times more land to growing crops. It also points out that increased consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables would provoke significant economic impact.

The researchers say a 20 percent increase in total demand for locally-grown fruits, for instance, would result in an economic impact of nearly one million dollars, they say. Add locally grown fruits and vegetables to the mix and the impact would be two million dollars.

Among the plan's high priority recommendations are a county Web site on agricultural resources because currently there is no online food site to connect people in the food business or facilitate community feedback; the development of a master food system contact directory to highlight existing local networks and minimize food supply chains originating outside the county; the creation of a county food policy council, and the reorganization of business practices to express a preference for locally grown foods.

They also recommend that the county establish Food Charter or Food Action Plan, develop food procurement policies for public institutions, and set up a food system development fund.

The students were motivated by an underlying premise, that "thriving food systems ensure food security, agricultural and economic vitality, and county governments can do much to strengthen food systems through innovative policies and plans."

This, in particular, might be of particular interest to the many Erie County residents who suffer from diet-related diseases that disproportionately impact people of color. Erie County has a higher rate of adult diabetes (9.8 percent) and obesity (26.9 percent) than the rest of the state and the availability and affordability of healthy food is uneven across the county.

The authors of "Room at the Table" are Brian Conley, Jonathan Falk, Taylor Hawes, Yoon Hee Jung, Gun Hyoung Kim, Tony Maggiato, Jr., Naoka Takahashi and Tamara Wright. Hawes served as lead editor, assisted by Falk, Takahashi and Wright.

The report was prepared with input from a number of local farmers, academic, county, and private entities including the Lexington Cooperative Market, Promised Land Community Supported Agriculture, the UB Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, American Farmland Trust, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, planning experts from UB, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.

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