Tomorrow’s Farmers: Hilltop Hanover Farm’s Most valuable Crop by Far is the Next Generation of Farmers

By Tracy Basile

U-pick organic veggies at Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center

The average age of the American farmer is 57 years old, raising the important questions: Who will grow our children’s food when these producers no longer can? And who will be the next generation of farmers?

Most of us never stop to think about where our food comes from and who grows it. In the industrial model of agriculture that is so pervasive today, farmers and consumers rarely meet, and apples sold in New York can come from as far away as New Zealand. But finding the shortest route from farm to table is the key to finding solutions to many of the problems we face today, including health and environmental issues, energy and water dilemmas, and the need for more green jobs.

Perhaps there is no greener job than being a farmer, and no better way of learning to love the land than by nourishing and nurturing it. But as older farmers retire, their ranks are not being filled. Recognizing this potential shortage, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a recent NPR interview that, “…we have to begin to discuss ways in which we can encourage younger people, the next generation, to be interested in and create the opportunity for them to be farmers. And that’s farmers of commercial size, but also the small and medium sized operations.”

Organically-grown seedlings at Hilltop Hanover Farm

This presents a very real dilemma because, in the areas where most people live—urban and suburban regions—farming is typically viewed with nostalgia as a thing of the past. If we have fewer and fewer farmers, we’ll have fewer and fewer farms. We must therefore ask ourselves if this is the kind of world we want to leave for our children. And, if not, what are we going to do about it?

For starters, we can bring the farm to the people. Imagine if everyone could have access to a working farm where they can easily and affordably learn how to plant a backyard garden, build a green roof, harvest rainwater, conserve energy, keep bees, or compost household scraps. Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center in Yorktown Heights provides all these services and more to residents of Westchester County, opening doors in ways that spark lifelong vocations and avocations.

Best of all, Hilltop Hanover Farm belongs to each of us since it was purchased by the county in 2003. It’s also the only U-pick organic farm in the region. U-pick is a great way to build community by exchanging recipes with new acquaintances while harvesting beets, kale and tomatoes. The staff and farm interns ensure that everyone who comes to the farm has an enjoyable experience and leaves with valuable new knowledge about growing healthy food.

Unfortunately, in a wave of budget cuts that swept across the county last fall, Hilltop Hanover Farm lost 25% of its already lean budget. This has spurred the farm to initiate a bolder strategy for a greener tomorrow. The newly formed nonprofit, Friends of Hilltop Hanover Farm, is working hard to fill a $100,000 budget shortfall and make the farm self-sufficient in five years. According to Friends of Hilltop Hanover Farm President Helen Brady, much of this funding will come from new income-generating projects, such as Community Supported Agriculture and expanded programming in money-making areas like composting.

Fortunately for New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo understands that agriculture is a critical sector of our economy. Many of his new initiatives regarding energy and agriculture have much in common with Hilltop Hanover’s mission, especially the “NY Cleaner, Greener Communities Program,” the “Share NY Food” Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, and a new $3.2 million grant program to help farmers reduce energy usage.

Our future depends upon farming and the future of farming depends upon the vision of places like Hilltop Hanover. That’s where we’ll find tomorrow’s farmers, learning from the ground up.

For more information about Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center, visit  hilltophanoverfarm.org, email hhf.farm@gmail.com, call 914.962.2368 or search for Hilltop Hanover Farm on Facebook. The farm is located at 1271 Hanover Street, Yorktown Heights, NY.

Tracy Basile teaches English and Environmental Studies at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y and serves on the board of Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center. She and her students have enjoyed volunteering at the farm.

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