Page 29 - The Valley Table - Fall 2021
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                                 IN SOUTHERN ORANGE COUNTY, CROSSING over the border into Northern New Jersey, lives 26,000 acres of muck soil with a profoundly dark hue. This is known as the Black Dirt Region, and it is home to some of the most fertile soil in the world.
Larry Tse runs his farm, Dig Acres, in this region with a crew of eight. His depth of knowledge, not only about farming but about the Black Dirt itself, is mesmerizing.
Tse explains that typical organic farm soil might be comprised of 3-5 percent organic matter. High-performing farms could boast a composition closer to 10 or 12 percent. “Here, our baseline — with me not doing anything to the soil — is at like 40 to 50 percent,” says Tse.
Tse’s farm, a project started by the restaurant franchise Dig, is one tenant at the Chester Agricultural Center (CAC), a nonprofit that owns 270 acres of Black Dirt farmland intended for affordable long-term leasing.
The CAC was founded in 2014 by a handful of investors, primarily Mountainville’s Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Inc., an environment-focused charity led by Lisa and Bea Stern. Its guiding principles all center around one topic: food justice.
“The mission is to help grow an equitable and inclusive regional food system,” says Lucinda Poindexter, the center’s executive director. “We see a future where land is affordable to a diverse group of aspiring farmers, where food is accessible to all, and where we respect and steward the unique soils and ecosystem in our care.”
The CAC’s primary goal, offering renewable and affordable 30-year farmland leases, is most helpful to starting farmers. Poindexter says, “We’re not trying to make a profit.”
Land access is notoriously one of the most difficult hurdles for young or starting farmers, and prices skyrocketed in the Hudson Valley due to demand during the pandemic. “It’s a really ideal place for young people to begin their operations,” says Tse. “But the land prices are out of control.”
Affordable land is just one of many programs the CAC supports in the name of food justice. They also reinforce language justice — the practice of building multilingual spaces so that everyone’s voice can be heard — to promote regenerative agricultural practices and connect new farmers with training programs. Ultimately, the center aims to create a farm space that prioritizes community learning, unity, and support. Currently, eight farms are leasing land there. Here are three of their stories.
 This Chester agricultural center pursues food justice in the Black Dirt Region. By Jonathan Ortiz Photos by JD Urban Photography
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