GrowNYC staffer Maria Rojas of Greenmarket's FARMroots program gave this incredible speech at the United Nations Development Program's Adaptive Farms: Resilient Tables event on April 3, 2017.
My last four years of work at GrowNYC have been dedicated to preserving family farms, strengthening the local foodshed, and keeping our rich agricultural land in production. I first became interested in farming at my grandparents’ farm in Colombia. There I was exposed to the beauty and the hardship of farming. Before I was born, a volcano had swept through my family’s town and destroyed everything my grandparents had built -their home, their friends, their farm. They, like other farmers before them, chose to rebuild and it was this thriving farm where I spent my days.
Farmers have always been on the frontlines of nature and political whim. They hold the distinction of being highly vulnerable to climate change and at the same time offering a solution to the problem.
Despite these and many other challenges farmers remain stewards of the land, feed others, and build communities around them.
Over the past 120 years there has been a 2.4-degree increase in average temperatures in the Northeast. We have added 10 more frost free days to the season and have had to redraw our hardiness zone map to reflect that winters are now warmer that they used to be. Spring’s arrival is happening 4-13 days earlier, and we have had a 5-inch increase in precipitation, yet last year we had a severe drought in many parts of the state. The warmer winters might seem like a benefit to many, but not to farmers who lost 40-60 percent of their apples and almost 100 percent of their peaches and plums last year due to unprecedented temperature fluctuations. The average New Yorker would not be able to tell you that frost now comes 10 days later than normal, but a farmer would!
These changes are not insignificant and, unfortunately they are only the beginning of a wave of high impact deviations that the changing climate is set to bring. With it we can also expect changes in pest and weed pressure andplant and animal disease, as well as variations in crop yields. It is, by and large, a bleak picture as farming is set to become increasingly harder as our climate crisis worsens.
Farmers, although they operate as individual businesses, make up the agricultural foodshed upon which we rely on every day--increasingly so in times of disaster. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, it was this network of farmers that got into the hard-hit places and provided much needed food relief to the families that had been impacted. In the days following the storm, groceries stores were empty or closed but the farmers’ markets were up and running within 72 hours. The mobile terminals at the market used for processing EBT were some of the few places a family on a limited income could use their SNAP benefits. Farmers brought in 180,000 lbs of food which with the help of volunteer organizations was turned into hot meals. They brought not only food but also much needed fuel to help power up our trucks to make last mile deliveries to New Yorkers in need.
This is not a one-way relationship. When storms and other disasters have affected farmers, the community that has built around them has not stood by the wayside. In 2011, when Hurricane Irene swept through the northeast and flooded many of our farmers’ fields, New Yorkers came together to help them rebuild. In one-month, Greenmarket shoppers raised $135,000 that was then redistributed to 33 of the hardest hit farms. These small grants helped farmers keep the lights on, the fuel running, and jump start the rebuilding process.
The community that forms around local food is at the core of what makes the NYC foodshed resilient. The exchange of support and ideas and the determination to thrive together is the truest definition of community. At the markets, farmers bring with them not only produce, meat, cheese, and cider, but also news of the weather--of how their soil responded to last week’s rain event. They bring news of how their rural communities are being impacted by policy. They tell tales of what the farm was like when it started in 1921. In return, a NYC shopper originally from the Dominican Republic might bring a farmer some seeds of cilantro macho for the farmer to try, or tell the farmer of how her family depended on moringa in times of drought. A few might begin volunteering at the farm on weekends hoping to one day leave the city life to try their hand at farming themselves. This exchange is as rich as the soil the farmers grow on, and it is key to the existence of each. The farmers' market is a catalyst for community connection and for reconnecting with food that is not only good for us but also for the planet.
Tonight’s event is another model for how the building of communities and the exchange of ideas is critical to our survival in the face of a changing climate. The United States, having caused a disproportionate amount of emissions to the rest of the world, has a moral responsibility to transfer wealth, knowledge, and technology to developing countries. The United States also has a moral responsibility to listen to and learn from the climate change adaptation projects represented tonight and from farmers across the world who have always been the stewards of the land.
When I think about sustainability and food security, I think about the people that make up these systems. And as people who eat, we all do! I think of the neural-like system of influence traveling up and down the Hudson Valley--much like neurons, those connections are what forces us to grow, to change, and to adapt. And as we reinforce those pathways and human connections, we can only become ever more resilient.