On Columbus Day weekend the Agricultural Stewardship Association hosts its 11th annual Landscapes for Landsake art show in a beautifully restored barn just outside the village of Cambridge. The show, which features the works of local painters, potters, photographers and woodworkers, celebrates the land that ASA works to protect and raises money to help ASA do that work. Those are both good reasons to head this way on Saturday, the 6th, for the opening event.
I trust you can figure out why it is worth coming to Washington County to see good art for yourselves. I have not prepared a defense of the value of aesthetic experience in order to convince you of that. And if you don’t like art I doubt any argument I could make in its favor would change your mind anyway. But I am prepared to explain why you should want to support ASA. Prepared in large part because, as some of you may recall, I have already stated my case in the newsletter in previous years. I often get the uneasy feeling–a sense of deja ecrit–when I am writing the newsletter that I already covered my topic in some previous newsletter. In this case, I know I have. But I am going to write about it again because I care about and support what ASA does, and I think others should too.
Not necessarily all others. Oh, it would be nice if everyone in the world sent a small contribution to ASA. If all six billion of us each sent a penny, ASA would have the means to place and maintain easements on all the good agricultural land in the area. But there are plenty of other worthy causes in the world, many of which might be of more pressing concern to people who don’t live anywhere near here.
You may be thinking that you don’t live anywhere near enough to here either to have a reason to care about protecting our farmland. Sure, it is nice to think that somewhere not too far north there’s a scenic, viable agricultural community. But does it really matter how far away it is or if it even exists at all in the region?
Obviously, preserving Washington and Rensselaer County’s prime soils for agricultural use matters most to those of us who live on those soil–and particularly those of us live off those soils. Without good soil it is hard to have a productive, profitable farm. And making good soil in the quantities required for farming is not really possible. It takes a fair amount of work simply to maintain the quality of the good soils we have. So we need to protect those soils if we want to have farms–and in Washington County we do because farms drive the economy and sustain the way of life that people around here choose to lead.
We tend to talk about development as if it were inevitable. Like it or not, here it comes. It is certainly hard to stop, obviously. But not every place has to be like Clifton Park, just as Clifton Park does not have to be like Detroit. For those who like Clifton Park there should be Clifton Parks (and Detroits for Detroit fanciers). And for people who want to live in a functioning agricultural community there should be places like Washington County.
Just because people can make a lot of money putting houses in farm fields does not mean that we should necessarily let them do that to every farm field–especially since once the houses go up those fields are unlikely to ever be farmed again. We need to give some thought to what sort of community we want to live in and then act to ensure that our community at least approaches that form rather than simply letting “progress” and “market forces” have their way. By helping people around here place conservation easements on their land (including in many cases offering farmers vital capital in return) and committing to uphold the terms of those easement in perpetuity, ASA gives us a powerful tool with which to shape the future of our community.
It is a powerful tool, but an expensive one, and this is not a rich community, and the state program that helped fund lots of the easements has been curtailed. ASA needs help from people throughout the region to continue its vital work. And people in the region should consider helping. But why?
Because farms are where real food comes from, and there are huge economic, culinary and health advantages to having a local source of real food. We have already lost a significant portion of the good agricultural soil in this region (a great swath of it lies beneath the Northway). It is time to start protecting what remains, particularly in areas still populated by people who want to and know how to use good soil to produce real food.
Because people working to take some control their community’s development deserve support wherever they do it. It is a worthwhile effort in and of itself, and a vibrant–and I would hope inspiring–example to others to do the same. We have experimented with largely unplanned, uncontrolled development in the region for long enough. It has worked to the advantage of too few and created a landscape less attractive and sustainable than we could and should have.
Because the working agricultural landscape of Washington and northern Rensselaer Counties remains beautiful. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I have yet to hear any visitor to our farm complain about the landscape. We have managed so far largely through good luck and obscurity to keep it looking this way, but we cannot rely on that forever. If we value a landscape like this we should act to protect it, not just sit back and hope that against the odds it is still there for us and future generations to enjoy.
And in this case acting to help protect this landscape and the farms it supports involves no sacrifice at all. You can just take a lovely drive into Washington County, enjoy a really nice art show, and help ASA (though you should also feel free to do more, as some of you already have (for which I thank you).
For more information on Landscapes for Landsake and on ASA’s work, go to Agstewardship.org.