11/29/2010 07:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing Courses: A Farmer's Call to Action

My husband and I were at the Union Square farmers market in New York City yesterday and bought apples at the Breezy Hill Orchards stand. Liz Ryan, the farmer/owner of Breezy Hill, is an old friend of ours, going back almost twenty years. Her farm is up the Hudson in the fertile valley known for tree fruits -- apples, pears and peaches most notably.

Liz is incredibly hard working and one of the smartest people I know. A constant learner, Liz has never stopped studying how best to grow things in this region, how to manage pests and bad weather, how to sustain a business and a healthy whole farm system.

Liz is one of my heroes. Actually, I'm a big fan of most every farmer who is trying to make a living and do right by the land they work, especially given the changing climate. As Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, wrote in The New York Times, the extreme weather we have experienced in the last decade is "demonstrably more hostile to agriculture." No fewer than three "thousand-year rains" have occurred in the past seven years in the part of Minnesota where Hedin farms, according to state climatologist, Jim Zandio.

Climate change, Hedin writes, "may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life." A family farm like his may not be able to adapt quickly enough to such unendingly volatile weather. So, Hedin calls on farmers to adopt better farming techniques. If global climate change is a product of human use of fossil fuels, then farmers must join with everyone else to make serious changes in how they do business in order to produce less carbon. Nothing less than the nation's food supply hangs in the balance.

Liz Ryan understands this. She's been testing ecologically-based, resource-efficient production techniques for as long as I've known her -- techniques that build soil health, since healthy soil is the foundation of a more productive and more resilient farm system.

In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) launched a program to recognize farmers like Liz and Jack and others in the food sector supporting sustainable food systems. Called the Growing Green Awards, NRDC's nationwide contest aims to identify leaders who are advancing ecologically integrated farming practices, climate stewardship, water stewardship, farmland preservation, and social responsibility from farm to fork.

This is the third year for NRDC's Growing Green Awards, and nominations are being accepted until close of business on December 10, 2010. There are four categories under consideration, including Food Producer, Business Leader, Knowledge Leader, and Young Food Leader (for sustainable food pioneers who are 30 years old or younger). Cash prizes of $10,000 and $5,000 will be awarded in the Food Producer and Young Food Leader categories, respectively.

Check out these great videos on past winners, here and here. And then help NRDC identify the Growing Green leaders for 2011. To learn more about who is eligible, and how to apply, click here.