REGION – The Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA) was formed in 2003 by approximately 30 growers and has more than doubled to 65 growers, 38 business supporters, and many members in the nine years since: "We are a strong collective voice promoting what our farmers do, what they grow, and the value of community farms," said RVGA Director Deborah DeWan who joined the association last December. DeWan has a Master of Science degree in Environmental Studies from Bard College, and has worked in the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions for the past two decades with community and regional non-profits on issues of environmental policy and community planning. She still serves as the environmental representative on the board of directors for the Catskill Watershed Corporation.
The RVGA, she says, is comprised of local farmers, residents, and businesses committed to strengthening the region's family farms and preserving active agricultural open space for future generations. DeWan's energies are dedicated, along with her staff's, "To supporting resiliency and encouraging innovation among Rondout Valley farm businesses by creating community among growers and facilitating agricultural education for both growers and the community."
She said the Rondout Valley has some of the best farmland in New York State and feels it's a great time to seize the moment to keep farming viable.
"With so much buzz about local food being critical to food security and good health, people are hungry for knowledge about our food base and yearning for fresh healthy food to feed their families," she said.
One of multiple RVGA goals is working at building new market connections and marketability for Rondout Valley farms. This includes collaborating with other organizations such as New World Foundation, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Pattern for Progress. DeWan explained that this ensures fair prices for farmers and enables schools and institutions to purchase and utilize fresh local food.
So what's been happening in 2012?
According to DeWan, the RVGA has launched a Farmer-to-Farmer Education Series that plans to hold conversational and networking meetings post-harvest and throughout winter on topics to include energy efficient farming, livestock farming tools and techniques, agricultural open space, and farm-to-restaurant table opportunities.
"We're also coming out with a new RVGA Growers Guide to local farms that will be available this summer," DeWan noted, adding that the Farm-to-Food Pantry project is now in its fourth season. "Last year, despite the devastating storms, over 46,000 pounds of fresh produce from RVGA farms was distributed to Ulster County food pantries and soup kitchens."
Also on RVGA's agenda is the continuation of its Farm-to-Community program, which expands awareness and develops stronger connections between farmers and valley residents. RVGA is also building upon last year's Farm-to-School program, led by farm-based education leader Nicci Cagan who is also the director of From the Ground Up. DeWan said Cagan is helping discover methods to bring more local food into area schools, as well as coordinating programming and hands-on learning between students and local farmers.
Adding to what's already up and running, the association has received a fundraising challenge grant from the New World Foundation, who will match $25,000 if raised by RVGA by year's end.
"With the active involvement of our board, we have launched a campaign to meet this challenge to help sustain RVGA, support our half staff, and bring more program and market opportunities to RVGA and our farmers," said DeWan. "We need help meeting this challenge but are buoyed by the enthusiasm and support we have already received."
Also sparking enthusiasm is RVGA's upcoming Tenth Annual Barn Dance on July 7, to take place at the 200-year old Kelder's Farm in Accord.
Said DeWan of this home-grown experience: "Kelder's Farm brings the Rondout Valley's agricultural heritage to life; it's a family farm that promotes active engagement of the community... Barn Dance event goers will enjoy hay rides, homegrown mini-golf, farm animals, as well as great local food by wonderful local chefs and cooks."
Live music for the dance will be provided by the Shoe String Band, and dancing enthusiasm will be sparked by a cash bar of wines and local beer from Keegan Ales, along with a 50/50 raffle to support a scholarship for a Rondout Valley High School graduate pursuing agricultural studies.
Tickets for the dance, and info on the matching grant and other RVGA programs, can be had by visiting www.rondoutvalleygrowers.org, as well as most RVGA farms and businesses up and down the Rondout Valley.