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Bill Owens: Drought Versus Abundance

News stories over the past several weeks have raised awareness of extremely serious drought over the southwestern United States; with particularly dire forecasts for California.  NASA scientists and other experts predict that the condition will persist over decades, and that larger sections of the country will be affected. The northeast, however, will also likely experience more moisture.  Hopefully, it won’t all fall as snow along the northeast coast!

This change in climate can be viewed as problematic, or an opportunity.  California exported agricultural commodities worth $21.24 billion in 2013.  Included in that sum, are strawberries for $2.2 billion, lettuce for $1.7 billion, tomatoes $1.2 billion and nursery plants $1.2 billion, for a total of $6.3 billion.  A ten percent (10%) reduction in California’s production would create a $630 million opportunity for us here in the northeast.

One option would be to put water on aqua trains or have it flow through the Adirondack aqueduct and ship it to areas suffering drought.  That seems both impractical and imprudent.  Why not put that water to good use here in the North Country? The growing season is getting longer as evidenced by the ability to grow soybeans in Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties.  We haven’t even begun to explore opportunities for hydroponic and aeroponic growing.  My friend Kate Fish rekindled this idea at a recent meeting.  We have massive acreage in upstate New York ready for agricultural use- “shovel ready” so to speak.   Most counties in upstate New York have Right to Farm Laws, and in Washington County a land use plan was adopted to strengthen their existing agricultural economy.

Technology for agriponic growing is being developed at Clarkson University and there is abundant evidence that it works.   We have lots of open space, and empty buildings that could be converted into enormous year- round growing facilities.  Farmers could dedicate some existing land to this use- potentially doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling production..  We would create jobs constructing these facilities, and more maintaining them, tending the plants, delivering them throughout the northeast, making pallets to ship the products, and many other jobs.  We are within a day’s truck drive of 25% of the U.S. population.  The clean jobs created would benefit our local economies, and if we look at a $630 million potential marketplace which we should certainly make an effort to fill the void, this just makes sense. 

We also know that the Chinese will import almost ? of all food available in the world by 2030.  That means we have to get better at production if we are going to keep prices reasonable, and sustain our own communities with high quality food.

We need to reach out to our farmers and other members of the AG community, and to investors who might seize an opportunity to help the North Country, and the nation as a whole.   This may be a project for the Governor’s $500,000,000 grant competition.

I believe we should keep the water here, use it to grow food and jobs, and create a stronger economy.

Former congressman Bill Owens represented New York's North Country from 2009 until retiring from the House in 2015. The Democrat is now a strategic advisor in the Washington Office of McKenna, Long and Aldridge, and a partner in the Plattsburgh firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher and Trombly.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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