Cooperative Conservation on Farmland Protects Land and Water Quality in the New York City Watershed
A fisherman pauses from casting to wave to Tom Hutson, the farmer who owns the fields surrounding a stretch of the Delaware River in upstate New York. In a nearby pasture, a bald eagle watches over three nestlings in a sycamore tree. Both eagle and sportsman are spotted regularly on Hutson’s River Haven Farm, which is rich with flat river-bottom land, verdant hills and a healthy ecosystem that supports a wealth of wildlife and recreational opportunities.
Hutson’s dairy farm is part of the Catskill-Delaware watershed, where reservoirs supply drinking water for millions of New York City residents. Working with the locally-based Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC), Hutson and neighboring farmers have kept the watershed pristine enough to satisfy federal drinking water standards, sparing New York City the cost of a billion dollar filtration plant. He and fellow farmers have participated by conserving their land and implementing conservation practices with technical and financial assistance from WAC. The nonprofit organization was established in 1991 as a partnership between New York City and the local farm community to administer agricultural and forestry programs that protect the watershed.
When WAC first needed pilot farms to demonstrate how its conservation programs could work, Hutson was one of the first to volunteer. He established rotational grazing for his cows, built manure containment systems, developed a forest management plan and installed filter strips near his waterways to slow runoff and erosion. “Somebody has to be first,” Hutson says. “One of the chief reasons I chose to be a pilot farm is to show that farming is a preferred land use for the watershed. For the workable partnership we have between farmers and downstate residents, we don’t need regulation.” For his conservation ethic and leadership, Hutson was named AFT’s 2006 Steward of the Land.
“We’re in a unique situation in that we get support from New York City because they are worried about the effects of development in the watershed,” Hutson admits. Still, he hopes that the New York City watershed can serve as a model for conservation efforts in other regions. “The success of WAC is due to local involvement and a common sense approach to conservation problems,” he says. “WAC is farmers dealing with farmers. That’s the whole key to it: local involvement, local farmers on board. The lessons learned here should be able to be replicated in other watersheds.”
So far, more than 10,000 acres of watershed farm and forestland have been permanently protected, and 90 percent of watershed farmers are participating in WAC’s programs. “There are many lessons to be learned from the achievements of WAC and farmers like Tom Hutson,” says Jimmy Daukas, AFT’s Farm Policy Campaign Director. “Locally led partnerships offer one of the best means for addressing our nation’s conservation needs. Because so many natural resource concerns occur beyond the boundaries of individual farms and ranches, the nation as a whole needs a cooperative conservation program that encourages farmers to work together, as they are doing in the Catskill Mountains.”
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