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Counting On Every Acre

Even with a surge of interest in "local food" and its central relationship to individual, community and global health, somehow it remains difficult for many of us to make the connection between the food we eat and the land that is required to grow it.
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Within the world of an increasingly localized food movement, we are ever more familiar with buying a peck of heirloom apples, serving up a pound of grass-fed beef, decorating with a bouquet of seasonal flowers, and adding a pinch or a dash of our local agricultural products to any meal. A number of groups, like Slow Food and Wholesome Wave have promoted food culture reform by helping communities recognize the importance of healthy, local food production to their on-going happiness, health, and well-being. Similarly, in line with national concerns, many organizations have begun to promote agriculture by increasing awareness of its impact on economic stability and international security. But even with a surge of interest in "local food" and its central relationship to individual, community and global health, somehow it remains difficult for many of us to make the connection between the food we eat and the land that is required to grow it.

So what is the value of this land? How much can we do with just one acre?

Common Ground is an urban farm, high school, and education center in New Haven, Connecticut, that teaches young people leadership skills and environmental stewardship with a single acre of farmland. The school and students keep one acre of land in agricultural production, and what they do with that acre is remarkable. Every year, the students at Common Ground grow more than five thousand pounds of produce including forty-three varieties of vegetables. They also tend thirty chickens, five ducks, five turkeys, two pigs, two goats, one rabbit, one sheep, and one farm cat. The acre also creates jobs. The project has two paid summer internships and school year jobs for fifty teenagers. With its single acre, Common Ground shows us what farmland really means for America.

Farming a plot 1/7 the size of a Manhattan block, Common Ground reminds us about the cultural value of land. Working the land is a distinct part of American culture and heritage. Dozens of teenage students who work in the fields learn the value and challenge of hard work and perseverance as they tend to their work crews throughout the seasons. Many of our nation's early leaders were agriculturalists. In a 1787 letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will, in the end, contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness." In short, farming produces not only food, but also the foundation for a good life.

Common Ground illustrates, on a small scale, how an acre of farmland creates jobs. Their students and interns take part in production, processing, distribution, and waste management of the farm and its produce. In the state of Connecticut, home state to Common Ground High School, agriculture represents $3.5 billion dollars of revenue a year, and generates 20,000 jobs -- about 5 jobs for every 100 acres of food production.

As the students at Common Ground well know, a single acre can grow a lot of food. In terms of food production, an acre can be used to grow vegetables for 20-25 families for a 21 week season. With good soil, weather, and conscientious management, one acre can produce 8,000 pounds of broccoli, 26,000 pounds of carrots, or 30,000 pounds of field tomatoes in a growing season -- or more than 2 gallons of milk per day.

At Common Ground, students' hands-on-learning includes lessons about the ecological role of farmland. An acre of land provides countless ecosystem benefits that help to render clean water and breathable air and could not be reproduced or substituted by technology. These benefits include water filtration, flood reduction, and carbon sequestration. And, what's more, farmland provides nesting habitat for many species of birds and wildlife.

Connecticut, and the Northeast remain a region of small farms, where each acre of farmland is caught in a tug-of-war between farming and more glamorous uses -- from housing developments to parking lots. With growing demands to pave over farmland it is simply hard to picture just what we mean by an acre of farmland and perhaps even more importantly, what an acre of farmland means to us. The rolling vistas of farmland and barns, silos and pasture, are not just pretty postcards. They also connect our present with the agricultural past that built our nation. Even today, they represent true production and productivity and serve to link us to each other in community.

How do you value an acre of working family farmland?

* This post was inspired by Cris Coffin's November 16th, 2011 presentation at the 11th Annual meeting of the Working Lands Alliance. Cris Coffin is the New England Director at American Farmland Trust. Regionally and nationally, the mission of American Farmland Trust to Save the Land that Sustains Us is captured in their iconic bumper sticker: No Farms No Food. Special thanks to Melissa Spear, for her leadership as the Director of Common Ground, and for her continued support as a member of the steering committee for the Working Lands Alliance.