Students Author Plan to Preserve, Strengthen Erie County Farmland


Published March 22, 2012

Eight graduate students in the 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 students will present their report, “Room at the Table: Food System Assessment of Erie County,” to members of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency on March 28. They were enrolled in a fall 2011 planning studio in the School of Architecture and Planning under the guidance of food security expert Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning.

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.

In the report, the research team argues that Erie County government is poised to rejuvenate the farming sector, promote the 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 the 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 in Erie County on 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 and 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 $1 million, they say. Add locally grown fruits and vegetables to the mix, and the impact would be $2 million.

Among the plan’s high-priority recommendations are a county Web site on agricultural resources because there currently 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; creation of a county food-policy council; and reorganization of business practices to express a preference for locally grown foods.

The students also recommend the county establish a food charter or food action plan, develop food-procurement policies for public institutions and set up a food system development fund.

They 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 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 and 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 and Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, as well as planning experts from UB, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.