12/10/2013 10:57 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

From Farm to City

When it comes to supplying fresh, local food to our cities, there's good news: Over a third of U.S. farms are located near our cities, and they're responsible for two-thirds of America's agricultural production.

But the very farms integral to sustaining these supplies, not to mention our cities' food traditions and culture, face enormous and mounting pressure from scattershot development, global market forces and land prices often beyond the reach of young farmers trying to get started.

This pressure exacts an enormous toll -- 3,000 acres of our nation's productive farmland are lost to development each day.

Can this vanishing act be stopped? At Scenic Hudson, an environmental organization and land trust based in New York's Hudson River Valley -- the epicenter of New York City's "foodshed" -- we think so.

Earlier this year, we released a groundbreaking blueprint for securing the region's most important agricultural lands critical for supplying New York City with meat, fruits and vegetables and dairy products. Entitled "Securing Fresh, Local Food for New York City and the Hudson Valley: A Foodshed Conservation Plan for the Region," it's the first plan of its kind to develop a comprehensive, data-driven methodology to conserve a metropolitan area's foodshed.

Funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Foodshed Conservation Plan utilized geographic information systems and soil-quality data to identify and prioritize unprotected Hudson Valley farmland within 150 miles of New York City. Of the 5,000 farms it identified, 614 were ranked of the highest quality for conservation. The cost of preserving the 163,673 acres on these farms hovers around $720 million.

In addition to focusing farmland protection on those lands that will make the biggest difference in meeting demands for local food, the plan emphasizes that current partners in conserving this land -- the valley's farm families and land trusts, along with local, state and federal governments -- can't carry this load alone. It makes a case for New York City to invest in protecting its foodshed, just as it is conserving the watershed around its upstate reservoirs. The plan also urges increased support from private philanthropy, which traditionally has not invested in conserving farmland like it has parks and open space, as well as investors hoping to capitalize on the public's interest in fresh, local food and who are driven to achieve "triple bottom line" (social, environmental and economic) outcomes.

Scenic Hudson undertook the study after recognizing the need for a strategic initiative to ramp up farmland conservation in the 11-county Hudson Valley region. More farms from the valley supply food to the city's GreenMarkets than from any other area. But a 2010 report by city Council Speaker Christine Quinn estimated that unmet annual demand for regionally produced food already exceeds $600 million. With this demand, and a projected 1 million increase in the city's population by 2050, the last thing we need is further erosion of our agricultural land base.

To date, farmland protection efforts throughout the Hudson Valley have saved more than 80,000 acres (including over 10,000 acres Scenic Hudson has preserved working with six dozen farm families). This is a remarkable accomplishment, but it represents just 11 percent of the region's 730,000 acres of farmland.

The Foodshed Conservation Plan not only communicates the urgency of preserving the highest-priority farms, but ensures the greatest possible benefits from their protection. Placing conservation easements on farmland put needed capital into the hands of family farmers to reinvest in their local economies, and also can make it more affordable for the next generation of farmers, which is critical since an estimated 70 percent of America's farms will change hands in the next 20 years.

Among those who have commended the plan are Slow Food USA Executive Director Richard McCarthy, noted author Michael Pollan, nutrition expert Marion Nestle, and New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg. Listen here for a piece about the plan that aired on WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

The study could be replicated in other areas of the New York City's foodshed -- New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut -- and in other regions of the country. Land Trust Alliance President Rand Wentworth stated, "This innovative plan is a model that cities nationwide can use to ensure that our precious farmland will be here to stay."

We have a unique and exciting opportunity to harness growing public interest in fresh, local food to ensure that we have the most basic ingredient to keep our local food culture intact. Whether in New York, L.A. or cities in between, now is the time to act!