The Shape of the World

by Jill Isenbarger

The food we eat is one of the most powerful drivers determining the fate of our planet. Cancer-causing pesticides. Nutrient runoff that strangles rivers and estuaries. Greenhouse gas emissions. Healthy food is about more than just eating the right nutrients.

This past winter, a top nutrition committee working with the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA on revisions to the national dietary guidelines recommended that environmental health be considered when advising Americans on what constitutes a “healthy” diet. The committee argued that a diet higher in plant-based foods is not only better for human health, but also reduces our impact on the world that sustains us.

Such broadening of the notion of what constitutes human health is making a lot of waves, and the panel’s guidelines are not fully adopted yet. But it’s important that the government is beginning to delve into what sustainability means; that it’s breaking down the artificial barriers between the health of one species—humans—and the health of the whole planet.

Of course, the type of agriculture that is practiced also matters. And the type of agriculture that has the least environmental impact is the kind that is practiced overwhelmingly by small and midsize farmers. While the vast majority of USDA funds and attention are still given to conventional “Big Ag,” a small but important USDA program is looking to and investing in the future of a different kind of agriculture.

The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program was created in the 2008 Farm Bill to help more aspiring small and midsize producers. This year, Stone Barns Center’s Growing Farmers Initiative was one of 39 recipients of a total of $18 million in funding grants awarded under the program—and I could not be more pleased.

What this grant allows us to do is not only continue to deliver and improve our training programs designed to give aspiring farmers the experience, resources and guidance to succeed. But it will also help us to create a stronger enabling environment for more farmers to thrive in the Hudson Valley. It’s going to help us foster new programs and relationships with others, such as the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation and the American Farmland Trust’s Hudson Valley Farmlink Network, so that we are leveraging our strengths and creating a more supportive infrastructure and network for farmers.

That’s the kind of government leadership that makes a difference on the ground—where farmers and ranchers are shaping the future.