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The ranching industry’s toxic grass problem

America’s “fescue belt,” named for an exotic grass called tall fescue, dominates the pastureland from Missouri and Arkansas in the west to the coast of the Carolinas in the east. Within that swath, a quarter of the nation’s cows — more than 15 million in all — graze fields that stay green through the winter while the rest of the region’s grasses turn brown and go dormant. 

But the fescue these cows are eating is toxic. The animals lose hooves. Parts of their tails and the tips of their ears slough off. For most of the year, they spend any moderately warm day standing in ponds and creeks trying to reduce fevers. They breathe heavily, fail to put on weight, and produce less milk. Some fail to conceive, and some of the calves they do conceive die. The disorder, fescue toxicosis, costs the livestock industry up to $2 billion a year in lost production. “Fescue toxicity is the most devastating livestock disorder east of the Mississippi,” said Craig Roberts, a forage specialist at the University of Missouri (MU) Extension and an expert on fescue.

In Elk Creek, Missouri, cattle stand in a pond to cool their fever caused by fescue toxicosis, which costs the beef industry as much as $2 billion a year in lost production.

By the early 20th century, decades of timber-cutting and overgrazing had left the ranching region in southern states barren, its nutrient-rich native grasses replaced by a motley assortment of plants that made poor forage. Then, in the 1930s, a University of Kentucky professor spotted an exotic type of fescue growing in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, which seemed to thrive even on exhausted land. Unlike most native grasses, Kentucky-31, as it was called, stayed green and hearty through the winter. Ranchers found the species remarkably resilient and, if not beloved by cattle, edible enough to plant. Over the next 20 years, much of the country’s southern landscape was transformed into a lush, evergreen pasture capable of supporting a robust cattle industry. 

As early as the 1950s, however, ranchers began to notice tall fescue’s disturbing effects. One study from that time showed that cattle had to be fenced out of other grasses before they’d touch fescue. When they did eat it, the cows saw only one-sixth of their normal weight gain and lost eight pounds of milk production a day. 

Between the cells in fescue grows an endophyte, a fungus living symbiotically inside the grass. The endophyte is what makes the fescue robust against drought and overgrazing, but it’s also what makes it toxic. When scientists engineered a version of fescue without the fungal endophyte, in 1982, its hardiness disappeared and ranchers saw it die out among their winter pastures. Farmers learned to live with the health impacts of the toxic version, and today it remains the primary pasture grass across 37 million acres of farmland. 

It’s a longstanding problem, and it’s spreading. Warming temperatures from climate change are now expanding the northern limit of the fescue belt, and the grass is marching into new areas, taking root on disturbed land, such as pastures. Northern Illinois and southern Iowa could already be officially added to the fescue belt, Roberts said, introducing toxicosis to new farming regions.

Illustration of the tall fescue endophyte made from a scientific photo. By Amelia Bates/Grist

“It’s becoming not just present but part of their normal pastures,” he said, noting that he increasingly gets calls from farmers in this region who are wondering what to do.

As more ranchers find themselves facing the challenges of toxic fescue, there are two strategies emerging to finally solve the decades-old problem, though in diametrically opposed ways. One involves planting a modified version of tall fescue — called “friendly fescue” — in which the toxic endophyte has been replaced by a benign one that still keeps the grass hearty and green all winter. Another would abandon fescue altogether and restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once dominated the region, helping to revitalize natural carbon sinks and fight climate change.

For a variety of reasons — some economic, some cultural — neither solution has really taken hold with most fescue belt ranchers. But the debate embodies the agricultural industry in the era of climate change: As ecosystems shift and extreme weather makes farming even more precarious, ranchers are facing tough decisions about how to adapt their land use practices. What is best for business, and will that ultimately be what’s best for the land and for the changing climate? 

Friendly fescue hit the market in 2000, developed by Pennington Seed, Inc. It looks identical to toxic fescue and behaves almost identically, thus requiring little change to the ranching habits of fescue belt farmers over the last 70 years. 

It would seem an ideal fit for an industry focused on maintaining the status quo amid climate challenges. But ranchers have been slow to embrace it. For one thing, friendly fescue, formally known as “novel endophyte fescue,” costs twice as much as the toxic variety — $4 for a pound of seed versus $2. And replacing one grass with another is labor-intensive; a 2004 report by the University of Georgia said it would take ranchers who made the switch about three years to break even. Matt Poore, a professor of animal science at North Carolina State University, chairs the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, a national organization dedicated to eradicating toxic fescue. Yet Poore, who also raises cattle, has only converted 30 percent of his fields, preferring to do it slowly. “The fear of failure is a big deal,” he said. “You’re sticking your neck out there when you go to kill something that looks really good.”

An overgrazed fescue pasture in Elk Creek, Missouri. Many ranchers are reluctant to abandon fescue, despite the problems it causes, because the fields stay lush and green through the winter.

Many ranchers would like to avoid the risk of total pasture makeovers, if they can. Until now, they have found ways to scrape by, relying on a parade of treatments that have come out through the decades, promising relief from toxicosis. 

They can supplement their cows’ diets with grain (an expensive remedy), or cut and dry their fescue and feed it to them as hay, which reduces its toxicity somewhat. They can dilute the toxicity of their fields by planting clover among the fescue, or clip the especially toxic seed heads before cows can graze them. They can try to genetically select cows with moderate fescue tolerance, which can salvage as much as a quarter of their losses. Poore counts over 100 such remedies. “If you do enough of those things you can tell yourself you don’t really have a problem,” he said. Meanwhile, the lush ground cover that fescue displays in winter is seductive.

A lack of trust, too, is a problem. In the early 1980s, when researchers introduced endophyte-free fescue, it was hailed as the answer to toxicosis, a way to save the industry. Ranchers trusted the scientists, and they lost a lot of money when that version withered in the fields. The sting of that debacle persists as researchers try to convince ranchers to trust friendly fescue. “The sins of the past have come back to haunt us,” MU’s Roberts said. “It’s going to take a while to overcome that screwup.”

Every March, Roberts and other scientists travel around the fescue belt giving workshops on friendly fescue to anyone who will listen. He tries to assuage ranchers who are worried about the expense and labor of pasture conversion. 

There aren’t good numbers on adoption rates because seed companies are guarded about how much they sell. But Roberts says he knows it’s rising. Some states promote it more than others, by offering cost-shares, for example, and hosting workshops like those Roberts leads.

A clump of native grass that has been browsed by bison in one of Amy Hamilton’s native grazing fields in Elk Creek, Missouri. The roots of native grasses reach three times deeper than fescue roots, making them drought-resistant as well as efficient carbon sinks.

It doesn’t help that endophyte-free fescue — the one that fails in the winter — remains on the market. The state of Kentucky even provides cost-share funding for ranchers who switch from toxic fescue to endophyte-free fescue. And several Kentucky ranchers said they were still unclear on the differences among toxic fescue, endophyte-free fescue, and friendly fescue. Farm supply stores often don’t even stock friendly fescue seed, as it’s less shelf stable.

Roberts noted that toxic fescue exudes fluids that “pretty much destroy the food web,” poisoning insects that quail and other creatures feed on. A 2014 study showed that climate change could increase the endophyte’s toxicity. Friendly fescue soil, by contrast, has more microbes than toxic fescue soil. And water quality is better with friendly fescue, too, since sick cows don’t have to congregate in streams and ponds to stay cool.

Despite the confusion and slow uptake, Roberts is optimistic, noting the 30 years it took for farmers to embrace the revolution of hybrid corn in the early 20th century. And he can point to some wins. Darrel Franson, a Missouri rancher who remembers the endophyte-free fescue debacle, nevertheless decided to take the risk, converting his 126 acres to friendly fescue. He loves the results. “It’s hard to argue with the production potential of tall fescue and the length of season it gives us,” he said.

Roberts’ employer, the University of Missouri, is betting that a modified version of exotic fescue will appeal to ranchers more than the idea of converting to native grasslands. “What we’re promoting is environmentally friendly as well as economically sound,” he said. “When you seed a nontoxic endophyte and add legumes [to dilute pasture toxicity], that works as well as anything, and we have a lot of data on it. It may take another 20 years for it to catch on, but it’s not going away. It’s too good.”

For decades, Amy Hamilton and her late husband Rex fought fescue toxicosis in Texas County, Missouri, the heart of the Ozarks. They watched their and their neighbors’ cows lose tail switches, hooves, and parts of their ears to gangrene. Finally, they’d had enough. 

But the Hamiltons didn’t reach for an artificially modified version of the exotic grass. Instead, in 2012, they converted 90 acres of pasture to native warm-season grasses, using their own money and cost-share funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. The effects were immediate; the next year they documented increased conception and weaning rates in their cows and calves. Since then, they’ve converted another 75 acres. A former soil conservationist with a degree in agronomy, Hamilton’s mission became to annihilate fescue, on her property and across the fescue belt.

Amy Hamilton, seen here in a patch of prairie blazing star in one of her native grazing fields, has made it her life’s work to eradicate fescue.

I visited Hamilton’s ranch in November 2022, where they run about 45 cows and 150 bison. She and her daughter Elizabeth Steele, who helps run the family’s native seed company, walked through a pasture where fescue grew 15 years ago. Now big bluestem, little bluestem, and sunflowers fill the main body of the pasture, and freshwater cordgrass and ironweed decorate a creek’s edge. Quail have returned for the first time in decades. 

Unlike the Hamiltons’ neighbors’ pastures, however, this field was not green; most of the plants had gone dormant for winter. Hamilton reached through a thick mass of bluestem and pointed to two diminutive, green plants: wild rye and a sedge species, cool-season grasses that provide a native analogue to fescue — and, crucially, winter forage.

“This is what would have been here pre-settlement,” said Steele, referring to the land before Europeans arrived. “A functioning grassland with different plants serving different functions. Nature’s design is not for monocultures.” 

To understand the fescue-native debate requires an understanding of the ecological tradeoff between warm- and cool-season grasses. Simply put, warm-season grasses grow in the summer, harnessing the strong sunshine to grow tall and robust; then they go dormant in the winter. Cool-season grasses do the opposite, putting their evolutionary resources into frost-tolerance. As a result, they tend to be smaller than their warm-season counterparts, providing less biomass and less food per plant for the cows that graze them. 

Hamilton and Steele have decided to bet on biodiversity. Instead of a year-round monoculture of fescue, they have a biodiverse mix of warm- and cool-season grasses, along with wildflowers. It’s not as visibly lush as a fescue field, but the benefits to cattle health, soil health, and climate resistance make it worth it. “It is a kind of faith that these prairies evolved for the good of the native species that were here,” Hamilton said.

Even with the leaner cool-season grasses, their native fields produce twice as much forage as the old fescue fields and generate a much higher amount of organic matter, enriching the soil and allowing the pasture to hold more water. A soil-health specialist from NRCS tested their soil’s organic matter content before the 2012 restoration, then again five years later. The result was pastureland that holds up to a half gallon more water than a typical fescue field. 

In a warming climate with more extreme droughts — much of the Ozarks was in severe drought last year — that extra water storage can make a critical difference for cattle and soil health. The southeastern U.S., the heart of the fescue belt, faces a future of more intense drought and floods. The Hamiltons’ biodiverse style of ranching helps address both extremes, and they expect their native ecosystems will be more resilient to climate change.

Elizabeth Steele, with help from her niece and sons, gathers native flowers for a bouquet near their ranch in Elk Creek, Missouri. “Nature’s design is not for monocultures,” she says.

“[The extra water] trickles into our stream through the year, as opposed to running off in a flood,” said Steele.

The roots of native grasses also reach three times deeper than fescue roots, making them drought-resistant as well as efficient carbon sinks. Grasslands are uniquely good at carbon sequestration. Unlike forests, they store more than 80 percent of their carbon underground, where it’s more safely sequestered than in aboveground trees where the carbon can potentially volatilize and return to the atmosphere. What’s more, intensive grazing of monocultures makes it hard to sequester carbon. A 2019 study, published in the journal Nature, showed that native, biodiverse, restored grasslands hold more than twice as much carbon as monocultures. The deep roots of the Hamiltons’ native species lock carbon deep underground, where it can take hundreds or even thousands of years to return to the atmosphere.

In the years since the Hamiltons converted their fields, the use of native warm-season grasses has gained momentum in the ranching industry. The University of Tennessee — firmly in the fescue belt — opened a Center for Native Grasslands Management in 2006 aimed at getting ranchers to incorporate native warm-season grasses (known as NWSGs) into pastureland. The Missouri Department of Conservation conducts workshops to familiarize ranchers with NWSGs. Research by the native grasslands center found that pastures of native switchgrass financially outperform fescue pastures. 

And Patrick D. Keyser, the center’s director, said native grasses significantly outperform fescue in climate resiliency. Fescue, he says, wants it to be 73 degrees and rainy every other day. “Think Oregon or Scotland,” he said. Native warm-season grasses in the fescue belt, on the other hand, can go weeks with blistering heat and drought without a problem. “To them, the worst climate projections that we’re getting really aren’t a big deal. From a resiliency standpoint, they absolutely win.” 

If replacing fescue with natives is moving slowly in general, replacing it with native cool-season grasses, to get year-round forage, remains nearly unheard of. As with friendly fescue, cost is partly to blame. Elizabeth Steele’s “cowboy math” estimates that a native conversion today would cost around $365 per acre, a scary number for ranchers. Proponents of native conversion also face a more complicated obstacle than cost as they seek buy-in from ranchers. The debate over how beef cattle are raised is caught up in the culture war over climate change. By some estimates, meat production accounts for nearly 60 percent of the greenhouse gasses generated by the food system, with beef as the leading culprit. Even as the concept of “regenerative ranching,” a method of cattle farming that tries to restore degraded soil and reduce emissions, has secured a toehold in the industry, “climate change” remains a political term in farm country, one that is largely avoided.

Ranchers like Amy Hamilton risk getting marginalized as “progressives.” So while she believes diverse native grasslands will make pastures more resilient to climate change, she doesn’t mention that when proselytizing to fellow ranchers. Instead she talks about increased water infiltration, more abundant wildlife, and improved soil health — things that matter to ranchers no matter their thoughts on climate change. 

She also tells them that native conversion pencils out. Hamilton doesn’t fertilize her pastures, and she rarely uses hay, as most ranchers do to supplement their cows’ fescue diet. And Steele estimates that, because native pastures produce more forage than fescue monocultures, increased forage and resulting weight gain makes up for the initial conversion costs in less than two years. “The more you emulate natural systems, the less money you have to spend on stuff like baling machines, herbicides, toxicosis effects, and fertilizer,” she said. That extra forage also allows ranchers to feed more cows. So if a rancher wants to expand their herd size, they can either expand their fescue acreage, for $3,000 an acre, or spend $365 an acre to convert the land they already have to natives. 

Saving money matters in the fescue belt. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, 60 percent of farms in Texas County, Missouri, run a deficit, and every state in the fescue belt loses money on agriculture, except for Illinois, which is largely a crop state. 

“Agriculture is so hard that if you don’t do it with your pocketbook in mind, you can cause people to go broke. I don’t want to do that,” Hamilton said. Hamilton estimates that more than 100 other fescue belt ranchers she’s in touch with are in the process of converting some or all of their pasture to native grasses. One of them, Steve Freeman, co-owns Woods Fork Cattle Company with his wife, Judy, in Hartville, Missouri. Freeman has converted 80 acres of fescue to natives, with plans to convert 180 more in three years. In total, that will make a third of his pasture diverse native grasslands.

Hamilton’s bison herd browsing in one of her native grazing fields in Elk Creek, Missouri.

“Almost all my inspiration has come from going to [the Hamiltons’] field days every year and seeing what this land could be,” Freeman said. For him it’s not just about eradicating fescue toxicosis, it’s about the whole suite of benefits for biodiversity, soil health, and water retention. “I realized we’re not going to get there with the grasses we have.”

Freeman notes the power imbalance between the informal effort to promote native grasses and the universities and beef industry groups that are pushing modified fescue. “There’s no money that backs this,” he said of native restoration. “The novel endophytes and those kinds of things, there’s a lot of money to be made. They’ve helped the universities. I think [Hamilton] is starting to change people’s minds, but it’s been 15 years of doing this.”

For his part, MU’s Roberts hears the subtle dig at his work. “Friends of mine in conservation groups think the university professors are hooked on fescue,” he said. “They’re not. What they’re hooked on is a long grazing season, good yield, and good quality. They’re hooked on criteria, not on a species.”

Either way, change on this scale takes time. The University of Missouri claims that 98 percent of pastures in the state are still toxic, with ranchers slowly opening up to either friendly fescue or native forage. “I’m sure there are ranchers out there that think we’re absolutely nuts,” Hamilton said. “But some of them are interested in thinking about new ways of doing things.”

As we drove out to visit her cows, we passed some of her neighbors’ fields. In one, a herd of emaciated cattle had grazed a fescue field down to stubble. In another, all but a few cows stood in the middle of a pond, trying to cool themselves on a mild, cloudy day. 

“These are good people,” Hamilton said. “They’re just trying to make a living.”

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Council adopts resolution calling for permanent ceasefire in Gaza war

ITHACA, N.Y. — The Common Council adopted a ceasefire resolution in a 9-2 vote at its meeting on Wednesday, calling for a permanent end to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The resolution also includes language supporting an end to U.S. tax dollars being directed to Israel in military funding. 

The City of Ithaca is now among at least 48 other U.S. cities that have passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire in an effort to collectively put pressure on state and federal elected officials. 

The Common Council’s chamber at City Hall in downtown Ithaca was just shy of reaching capacity on Wednesday, with approximately 50 or so residents present to watch the vote. 

City Manager Deb Molhenhoff told residents city employees “rearranged furniture and reconfigured the room” to fit as many people as possible.

Over 30 residents spoke in support of adopting a resolution that includes equal mention of both the atrocities occurring in Gaza and those that occurred Oct. 7 of last year, when the widely-designated terrorist group Hamas attacked Israeli civilians in their homes. 

This kickstarted the conflict that’s claimed the lives of 31,224 Palestinians and 1,139 Israelis since then, according to Al Jazeera’s live tracker

A majority of speakers in support of the resolution described themselves as Jewish, many born in the shadow of the Holocaust. They grew up hearing first-hand accounts from family members who detailed their horrific experiences of genocide and ethnic cleansing. 

Like David Halpert, a doctor and grandparent who’s lived in Ithaca for 35 years. He said he grew up on Long Island “surrounded by Holocaust survivors,” hearing stories of “loss, escape and their lifelong scars.” 

Halpert said that support for a ceasefire is a pro-Jewish position, citing what he called “the biggest lesson” he learned back home. 

“Never again means never again for anybody and everybody,” Halpert said. “They taught me it’s up to us to speak out loudly and urgently against such destruction whenever and wherever we see it.” 

Many of the other Jewish-American residents who spoke in support of the resolution on Wednesday repeated Halpert’s sentiments. 

Many speakers and council members were in agreement about the city’s responsibility, regardless of its size, to add pressure to federal politicians by adopting a resolution calling for a ceasefire. 

Nikhil Sahoo, a young man who wore a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh — a draped and distinctly patterned black-and-white scarf — explained on Wednesday that to him and many others who spoke, the resolution is “not simply symbolic, but deeply impactful.” 

Sahoo spoke of the power in collective resistance, a theme also mentioned by former Alderperson Jorge DeFendini at the meeting. 

Sahoo said that by adopting the resolution, Ithaca would be apart of a movement, “a growing faction of cities across the country that have refused complicity in genocide by calling for a permant ceasefire, not a temporary easing of tensions.”

“The U.S. stance is shifting towards a permanent ceasefire and towards lasting peace, DeFendini said. “We are part of making that shift happen. Be brave. Use your voice and call for peace.”

While the resolution was ultimately adopted by the Common Council, the lengthy and emotional discussion amongst council members revealed a clear divide in opinions around how to frame the resolution, as well as the language that should be included. 

The build-up of tension in the room started early on in the meeting, before the public comment section began. 

Alderperson David Shapiro exited the room after passionately exclaiming his discomfort with rhetoric painted on a sign a resident was holding in the audience that read “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” 

Shapiro called the sign “racist,” “hateful” and “very antisemitic” out of procedural turn, at which point Mayor Rob Cantelmo attempted to call the room to order. 

“There are racist signs here, we would not be allowing [racist signs] of other religions, of other cultures. We would not be allowing people to stand here with ‘All Lives Matter’ signs,” Shapiro said. 

Mario Hernandez, who held the sign, said in an interview that he intended for the sign to call for the free future of Palestine and to condemn Zionism and Israel’s offensive in Gaza, but was “totally separate” from any commentary on Judaism. 

Alderpersons Kayla Matos and Phoebe Brown drafted the resolution without direct input from other council members, according to newly elected Alderperson Patrick Kuehl. 

Kuehl introduced another version of a ceasefire resolution on Wednesday that Matos, Brown and multiple residents during public comment called a “watered-down version” of the original draft. 

The two versions of the resolution are different in nature and use conflicting language to explain the conflict and the bloodshed reported in Gaza. 

Kuehl’s version, which Alderperson Clyde Lederman defended on Wednesday as well, is centered around the Biden-Harris Administration’s recent call for a six-week ceasefire, and doesn’t describe the conflict as a genocide. 

After further debate, the adopted version became a combination of the two. It includes amendments presented by both Matos and Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who pushed to include a sentence from Matos’ version about the body’s support to ending U.S. military funding to Israel. 

Alderperson Tiffany Kumar also proposed an amendment striking the word “terrorist” from the resolution, which passed. 

“I think that I speak for a lot of my colleagues when I say I feel a little bit dissuaded,” Kuehl said on Wednesday about Matos’ version of the resolution. He said later in an interview that two weeks ago, the last time the body met, council members agreed to create a working group tasked with crafting the resolution. 

The working group would have included input from representatives from every ward, Kuehl said, so they could craft something “that’s truly Ithaca.” 

Kuehl said before the meeting, he heard from multiple council members who felt “ambushed” by the resolution put forward and “excluded from the conversation about these things.” 

Matos told The Ithaca Voice in an interview she was clear she didn’t want to wait any longer than necessary to introduce and adopt a ceasefire resolution. 

While crafting the resolution on the floor isn’t normal procedure for any governmental body, Matos doesn’t mind how it occurred. During the meeting, Alderperson Pierre Saint-Perez described the process of amending a resolution on the floor as “messy.”

“It was never my plan for it to play out like this,” Matos said. “I do think we should be discussing amendments and hashing these types of things out on the floor, rather than behind closed doors.”

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Lettuce and Yams for Students An Hour After Harvest: 30 Percent of Red Hook School Lunches Are Now Sourced Local

For the second year in a row, Red Hook schools meet the demanding threshold of 30 percent of food sourced locally (photo courtesy Larry Anthony).

In the cafeterias of Red Hook’s public schools, a small revolution is brewing. Where far-off frozen meats, peas, and canned peaches once dominated, students’ trays are now filled with a rainbow variety of locally sourced watermelon radishes, paired with locally made pasta and tomato sauce, and meatballs made of beef raised mere miles away. 

This shift, in the making for years, is in part the brainchild of Red Hook Central School District Food Service Director Larry Anthony, a Hudson Valley native who has been on a mission to source locally at least 30 percent of the lunches of the three districts he serves. Red Hook is on deck to achieve the target for the second year in a row. 

To Anthony, sourcing locally is simply “the proper thing to do, especially in this area,”  chock-full of renowned farms. “Students and parents deserve to know where the food is coming from,” he said.

The 30-percent local initiative, commonly referred to as The 30 Percent, is not just Anthony’s personal goal, but part of a statewide effort. In place since 2018, the initiative incentivizes New York schools to source from New York farms, thereby promoting a stronger local economy and healthier meals for students. A 25-cent reimbursement for every school lunch versus the typical 6-cent remit, is provided to schools that meet the 30 percent goal. Each meal costs the district between $1.65 to $2 to produce. 

Red Hook is among only 7 percent of all districts in New York State that have reached the 30-percent local sourcing benchmark. Anthony is among only six other food service directors meeting this goal in the Hudson Valley.

Larry Anthony is leading the charge in Red Hook to serve locally sourced foods in school lunches (photo courtesy of Larry Anthony).

After learning about the initiative when it debuted, Anthony worked for years to meet its stringent requirements, which require thorough documentation of every item in each lunch, from the milk – Red Hook’s comes from Hudson Valley Fresh Dairy, processed in Kingston – to the butternut squash, sourced through Germantown’s Hudson Harvest. All of this careful counting goes into the documentation Anthony sends to the state each year, which has to prove that he has spent at least 30 percent of total food costs on food produced in New York state. After meeting the 30-percent initiative in Red Hook last school year, and skating in just below the margin in Rhinebeck and Pine Plains, where he also runs the schools’ food programs, Anthony estimates that this year, at least 40 percent of his Red Hook menu is locally sourced, and the share is continuing to grow.

Anthony now juggles incoming crates of veggies, meats, and dairy from over 22 local producers to include in the 600 lunches his team serves to Red Hook students each day. Energetic by nature, he says that experimenting with what he serves keeps his, and his team’s, motivation, high. “Institutional food is not glamorous,” Anthony said, but “that shouldn’t take away from finding the freshest possible food we can.” A veteran and former cook for the Navy, and a cook at the Culinary Institute of America, Anthony found his way into school districts in the early 1990s and developed a love for working in schools and providing hands-on experiences with food for students. He has, for instance, become well-known for his tastings, through which he has introduced students to everything from fiddlehead ferns, a Northeastern delicacy that grows wild in spring, to live calves from local milk producer Hudson Valley Fresh Dairy of Arlington. 

Sourcing locally, instead of through large food distributors like Sysco and the USDA is, by every measure, harder, said Anthony. Anthony juggles 22 suppliers to source his meals, while schools relying on the USDA for fruits and vegetables have just two. On top of this, Anthony has to balance a budget with more inputs due to more suppliers. Local food also inherently has higher costs than food from major distributors delivering canned vegetables or pre-packaged meals. A 2020 article in the agriculture news website, Civil Eats, reported that in Buffalo, the hot dogs and hamburgers sourced from small New York producers cost three times the price of commodity meats. Anthony also needs to find distributors or individuals to move crates of food from local farms to school kitchens, which adds cost, as well.

The economics of school lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have always been complex and have relied on cutting costs by providing low-cost food. The NSLP was signed into law in 1946 to provide low-cost, or free, nutritionally balanced meals for students, and has the same aim today along with the same constraints around keeping costs low. Last year, the government spent $10.23 billion on school lunches, according to statistics from the Education Data Initiative. There is “a lot of the red tape here,” to procure food from outside of the NSLP, Anthony said. “It is disheartening how little priority [the government] puts into school nutrition,” he added. 

Among the projects at Sam Rose’s Four Corners Community farm are programs where young growers learn to farm (photo courtesy of Sam Rose).

Just across the way from Red Hook’s youngest learners at Mill Road Primary School, Four Corners Community Farm aids Anthony’s mission to get fresh produce into the hands of students at Red Hook schools. Founded in the early days of the pandemic, Four Corners is a community garden that features 42 community garden plots for seasonal adoption by local residents. Rose, who has two children at Mill Road Primary, said that farming less than half a mile from the school motivated him to consider ways to get Four Corners’ produce into school meals.  

In August 2023, Rose began dedicating parts of his garden to the production of salad greens just for Mill Road; he then harvested them and carried them down the road throughout last fall. “I literally go across the street and within an hour of harvest, they’re in the cafeteria,” said Rose. “It doesn’t get any fresher.” 

Rose said he has found the process of supplying produce to Mill Road easier than he expected. Due to the small size of his farm, there are fewer legal barriers and regulations than a large, 1,000-acre farm or grocery store might have to supply food to schools. “It’s really hard to trace a contaminated bag of lettuce back to its source unless you have these regulations – bar codes, handling procedures, protocols for record-keeping and so on that actually allow recalls to happen,” Rose said. “In my case, I am across the street and public-facing. I have every incentive in the world to run a clean operation.”

Four Corners’ partnership with Anthony also has encouraged Rose to look for ways to expand his operation to increase food production for the school. “Last summer we got Larry on the property,” said Rose, and an even stronger relationship was born. Now, Anthony said, “I can call Sam and say ‘I’ve got money,’ to spend” and see what Rose might have on offer. “He’s a small farm, which is a huge reason why this generates a lot of excitement,” Anthony added. “A school district that can get their lettuce right across the street is unheard of.” 

Farmer Sam Rose is supplying lettuce to the school district and hopes to expand production (photo by Kathryn Wheeler).

Local sourcing isn’t just a boon to schools, it’s an economic boost to farmers, a 2016 Cornell University study showed. According to the study, if schools were to source just one kind of New York-grown fruit or vegetable per week, this could increase cumulative yearly revenue for farmers by $9.2 million for vegetables and $5.3 million for fruit statewide In rural areas, this can be highly beneficial to local economies, according to the American Farmland Trust, an organization that advocates for local farmers nationwide. According to data from the Farmland Information Center online database, if 75 percent of New York schools reached the 30 percent goal, this would generate over $210 million in economic impact statewide and cost the state just over $94 million over five years in reimbursement and support. In 2023, the state allocated $134 for school lunches, 40 percent more than the projected cost of switching to 75 percent local sourcing. 

Four Corners could be a benefactor as well as a contributor. Rose is now looking to Cornell Cooperative Extensions’s Regional Farm-to-School Coordinator, Katie Sheehan-Lopez, for technical assistance to apply for grants to expand his operation. Currently, Four Corners does not generate sufficient proceeds from school sales to financially justify the labor and inputs, said Rose, although, he added “I don’t think that’s the intention.” With additional grants or community donations, Rose remains optimistic about the potential of creating a local food pipeline from his farm to the school. “I would love to think that one day we could supply salad bars in every single school and have fresh ingredients all year long,” he said.

Now, Anthony is working with his staff to teach them how to wash and dice carrots that arrive with soil attached and how to prepare raw local chicken. This level of preparation, which requires spicing, tasting, and developing recipes from scratch, replaces plastic-covered, pre-cooked meals, said Anthony.  The 40 staff members across the districts he manages, whom Anthony describes as “a handful of foodies that really enjoy preparing and cooking food,” also receive knife handling lessons and are trained in the highest level of food preparation through the ServSafe certification. 

Lettuces grown at Four Corners are picked and transported for inclusion in school lunches on the same day (photo by Sam Rose).

Anthony says he finds delight in witnessing how students interact with his meals, which continue to be an experiment in coaxing vegetables, many a child’s worst enemy, into a delicious exercise. “If kids don’t like butternut squash, they don’t care where it’s coming from,” Anthony joked, but he noted there is growing enthusiasm now after the student taste testings. After all, he says hopefully, students’ palates can change over time. 

Even fifth-graders have expressed enthusiasm about the initiative, far beyond the amusement of being taste testers. Cooper H. is among them. “New York is my favorite state, and [it] has a variety of resources that I can trust as it’s grown in our local area,” he told The Daily Catch through Anthony. As a gardener herself, Olivia H. agreed. “I like that we are purchasing from our local farms. The veggies are safe, fresh, and very good for us.” She said she raises chickens, ducks, and other birds, as well. “We also grow our own vegetables so I can appreciate the efforts.” For these students, trusting their food was front of mind. “I know I can trust our local products. It’s fresher than getting it from far away, the supply is close by,” said Arlo M., who added, “I can drive by the local farms and know that I am in good hands.” 

Parents, too, have been surprised by the difference between Red Hook lunches and those they remember from their childhoods. “I grew up with the mentality of ‘Don’t eat school lunches,’ ” said high-school parent Dana Iova-Koga, who grew up in Asheville, N.C., and moved to Red Hook recently with her daughter, a high-school student. “I feel much more inclined to have my daughter buy school lunch knowing about this percentage of locally sourced ingredients,” she said. “There are so many farms around here. It’s a real asset to feed back into the community that way.”

Kate Sheehan-Lopez promotes the 30-percent initiative statewide (photo courtesy Cornell Cooperative Extension).

Anthony is now working to integrate even more plant-based replacements in what can often be a meat-based menu. He bases this move on a growing body of research about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Anthony is also looking toward legislative changes that would give districts benefits for providing locally sourced breakfast, which is currently not a part of the 30-percent program. This year, school breakfast is provided free in the Red Hook district through a $20,000 donation from the Ascienzo Family Foundation. This year 40 percent of Red Hook students eat school-provided breakfast versus 18 percent in the prior year. 

To Sheehan-Lopez, who works to promote the 30-percent initiative in six counties, Anthony stands out. “There’s a wide range of levels of interest in farm-to-school because it is significantly more work to find these local products,” Sheehan-Lopez said. Anthony “has quite a lot of energy to talk to all these different local producers and distributors and to have the capacity to think about new and creative menu ideas.” Other districts have tried, Sheehan-Lopez continued, but to achieve the 30-percent benchmark remains a huge lift. “It’s a big accomplishment,” she said.

In February, Anthony is serving 12 of 19 meals using locally sourced ingredients, from cheeseburgers and pasta to tacos. He will also celebrate his thirtieth year working in the school lunch industry, where he says he continues to learn and experiment each year. There’s an “evolution and new perspective on where it’s going, and I don’t want to be chasing it,” Anthony said. I want to be “at least keeping up with it, if not ahead.”

Local vegetables abound in the Red Hook school lunch program (photo by Larry Anthony).

The post Lettuce and Yams for Students An Hour After Harvest: 30 Percent of Red Hook School Lunches Are Now Sourced Local first appeared on The Daily Catch.

Tribal nations want more control over their food supply

Like a reveler who chases each of many tequila shots with a seltzer, U.S. farm policy consists of comically clashing impulses likely to result in a nasty hangover.

The Department of Agriculture doles out substantial subsidies each year to entice farmers to maximize production of corn and soybeans. These commodities account for about 60 percent of U.S. farmland, are used to fatten animals on factory farms, and deliver many of the sugars and fats in our ultraprocessed diets. Unsavory side effects of their production include planet-warming emissions, soil erosion, and polluted waterways.

Since 1985, the USDA has also offered farmers cash to adopt conservation practices meant to help counter those troublesome impacts. Growers can make extra money by adding soil-stabilizing crops such as rye and oats to their rotations or by establishing filter strips of grasses or legumes, which are designed to trap chemical runoff. The catch is that a large amount of federal money—about $14 billion per year on average between 1995 and 2021—goes toward promoting commodity crops, compared with just $1.8 billion for conservation. So, for every dollar the department flashes in front of farmers to encourage them to grow to the max, it dangles just 13 cents to help them manage their land judiciously.

Congress has maintained this imbalance for decades through the farm bill—the twice-per-­decade legislative package that governs agriculture policy—a process that is replete with lobbying and campaign donations from agribusinesses that benefit. The gusher of cash for commodities production has been even more prodigious in recent years thanks to temporary subsidies to offset losses from trade wars and the pandemic: In 2020, commodity and crop insurance payouts dominated conservation outlays by more than 22-to-1.

A smarter approach, says Silvia Secchi, a natural resources economist at the University of Iowa, is to make conservation a prerequisite. Want goodies from the USDA? Then show us your plan for preserving topsoil, controlling runoff, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions. The safety net would be contingent on farmers helping to preserve the ecosystems on which their livelihood relies. In short, taxpayers would get more bang for their buck. Participation could be voluntary—farmers would continue to grow how and what they choose—but “if you do take government subsidies, you should do something for them,” Secchi argues.

This concept has precedent. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s USDA secretary, Earl Butz, urged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow”—use every inch of land, hedgerows and riparian buffers be damned—to take advantage of what turned out to be a short-lived boom in corn and soybean exports. Prices soared and then tumbled, spurring farmers to keep squeezing their land to maximize output, causing massive erosion. Things got so bad that Congress felt compelled to act; the 1985 farm bill decreed that any farm that wanted federal help growing crops on land that the USDA deemed “highly erodible” had to come up with a plan to retain its topsoil. “Conservation compliance,” as this policy is known, became law despite “strong resistance from farm interests,” writes Jonathan Coppess, director of the agriculture policy program at the University of Illinois, in his forthcoming book, Between Soil and Society.

Want goodies from the USDA? Then show the agency your plan for preserving topsoil, cleaning up farm runoff, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

Those requirements remain in effect today, but enforcement is spotty, according to a 2016 report by the USDA’s inspector general. And the ’85 rules did nothing to slow the surge in corn production triggered by the government-backed ethanol program that began in 2007. Not surprisingly, erosion has continued. Farmland in the Corn Belt is now losing soil at least 10 times faster than the soil forms naturally—roughly one-third of this area has seen its topsoil fully wash away.

Secchi says it’s time to apply conservation compliance to all farmland that receives federal support and to dramatically ramp up enforcement. Such a program may be unlikely to pass in the current Congress, but Secchi has hope for the future. “Climate change is finally being taken seriously, at least in terms of the money we’re putting in,” she says, referring in part to the Inflation Reduction Act’s $19.5 billion for agricultural conservation programs. Aligning farm support and conservation goals would be a crucial step to ensuring that helping America’s farmers doesn’t mean degrading our land and fouling our water.

This article was produced in collaboration with Mother Jones. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a nonprofit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

The essential workers missing from the farm bill

Like a reveler who chases each of many tequila shots with a seltzer, U.S. farm policy consists of comically clashing impulses likely to result in a nasty hangover.

The Department of Agriculture doles out substantial subsidies each year to entice farmers to maximize production of corn and soybeans. These commodities account for about 60 percent of U.S. farmland, are used to fatten animals on factory farms, and deliver many of the sugars and fats in our ultraprocessed diets. Unsavory side effects of their production include planet-warming emissions, soil erosion, and polluted waterways.

Since 1985, the USDA has also offered farmers cash to adopt conservation practices meant to help counter those troublesome impacts. Growers can make extra money by adding soil-stabilizing crops such as rye and oats to their rotations or by establishing filter strips of grasses or legumes, which are designed to trap chemical runoff. The catch is that a large amount of federal money—about $14 billion per year on average between 1995 and 2021—goes toward promoting commodity crops, compared with just $1.8 billion for conservation. So, for every dollar the department flashes in front of farmers to encourage them to grow to the max, it dangles just 13 cents to help them manage their land judiciously.

Congress has maintained this imbalance for decades through the farm bill—the twice-per-­decade legislative package that governs agriculture policy—a process that is replete with lobbying and campaign donations from agribusinesses that benefit. The gusher of cash for commodities production has been even more prodigious in recent years thanks to temporary subsidies to offset losses from trade wars and the pandemic: In 2020, commodity and crop insurance payouts dominated conservation outlays by more than 22-to-1.

A smarter approach, says Silvia Secchi, a natural resources economist at the University of Iowa, is to make conservation a prerequisite. Want goodies from the USDA? Then show us your plan for preserving topsoil, controlling runoff, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions. The safety net would be contingent on farmers helping to preserve the ecosystems on which their livelihood relies. In short, taxpayers would get more bang for their buck. Participation could be voluntary—farmers would continue to grow how and what they choose—but “if you do take government subsidies, you should do something for them,” Secchi argues.

This concept has precedent. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s USDA secretary, Earl Butz, urged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow”—use every inch of land, hedgerows and riparian buffers be damned—to take advantage of what turned out to be a short-lived boom in corn and soybean exports. Prices soared and then tumbled, spurring farmers to keep squeezing their land to maximize output, causing massive erosion. Things got so bad that Congress felt compelled to act; the 1985 farm bill decreed that any farm that wanted federal help growing crops on land that the USDA deemed “highly erodible” had to come up with a plan to retain its topsoil. “Conservation compliance,” as this policy is known, became law despite “strong resistance from farm interests,” writes Jonathan Coppess, director of the agriculture policy program at the University of Illinois, in his forthcoming book, Between Soil and Society.

Want goodies from the USDA? Then show the agency your plan for preserving topsoil, cleaning up farm runoff, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

Those requirements remain in effect today, but enforcement is spotty, according to a 2016 report by the USDA’s inspector general. And the ’85 rules did nothing to slow the surge in corn production triggered by the government-backed ethanol program that began in 2007. Not surprisingly, erosion has continued. Farmland in the Corn Belt is now losing soil at least 10 times faster than the soil forms naturally—roughly one-third of this area has seen its topsoil fully wash away.

Secchi says it’s time to apply conservation compliance to all farmland that receives federal support and to dramatically ramp up enforcement. Such a program may be unlikely to pass in the current Congress, but Secchi has hope for the future. “Climate change is finally being taken seriously, at least in terms of the money we’re putting in,” she says, referring in part to the Inflation Reduction Act’s $19.5 billion for agricultural conservation programs. Aligning farm support and conservation goals would be a crucial step to ensuring that helping America’s farmers doesn’t mean degrading our land and fouling our water.

This article was produced in collaboration with Mother Jones. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a nonprofit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

IPD’s incentivizing signing bonus to be renewed, staffing challenges continue 

ITHACA, N.Y.— City officials are set to renew a $20,000 signing bonus meant to incentivize trained officers to transfer to the Ithaca Police Department as staffing challenges continue for the force.

Members of the Common Council will review the specifics of the lateral transfer agreement at their regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday. It was first approved in Nov. 2023 following discussions between the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and the city.

It was reported last summer that officers at the department said the force was “dangerously under-staffed,” which has been the case for many years now, according to PBA President Thomas Condzella, who also serves on the force.

The practice of offering signing bonuses to lateral transfers has become normalized nationwide, he said, as law enforcement agencies everywhere grapple with severe staffing shortages.

Since the department started offering the signing bonus, three lateral transfers have started working on the force. Condzella said there are “a couple” more potential hires he is aware of.

The bonus is “tipping the scales,” in Condzella’s words, and has been a significant factor in attracting experienced officers from other municipalities.

“They realize Ithaca is serious about bringing experienced talent to the department,” he said.

City officials have been criticized by all five labor unions in Ithaca, including PBA, for prolonging the process of approving their contract agreements with the city. As a result, workers noted widespread vacancies across all city departments.

In 2022, union leaders joined in writing a letter to former City Attorney Ari Lavine, claiming the city has an “anti-worker agenda” that has been “far-reaching and devastating.” The letter also claimed IPD staffing decreased almost 30% over the last decade while simultaneously, Ithaca’s population increased, which resulted in an increase in the demand for public services.

IPD is struggling to maintain adequate staffing numbers, even with the signing bonus continuing for another year after council votes tonight.

Currently, IPD has 44 active officers, which does not include the officers in training who are unable to help fill scheduling gaps and those with long-term injuries, also unable to work.

The preferred minimum number of officers in a patrol division is 36 officers for the department, he said. Currently, 27 officers are rotating on schedule.

“A lot of agencies are competing for the same pool of applicants,” Condzella said.

Departments overwhelmingly prefer hiring lateral transfers over new officers, he said. This way, departments circumvent having to facilitate and fund training for new hires, which saves money and time.

“Getting an experienced applicant means less time training and less time to get that officer on the street actually serving,” he said.

While Condzella is optimistic, every successful hire seems to be followed by a retirement or another circumstance where an officer is taken off the streets.

“It’s a constant push and pull between hiring and attrition,” he said. “We hope in the near future we’ll get to a point where one or two retirements isn’t catastrophic for the department in terms of scheduling.”

The post IPD’s incentivizing signing bonus to be renewed, staffing challenges continue  appeared first on The Ithaca Voice.

The farm bill hall of shame

Like a reveler who chases each of many tequila shots with a seltzer, U.S. farm policy consists of comically clashing impulses likely to result in a nasty hangover.

The Department of Agriculture doles out substantial subsidies each year to entice farmers to maximize production of corn and soybeans. These commodities account for about 60 percent of U.S. farmland, are used to fatten animals on factory farms, and deliver many of the sugars and fats in our ultraprocessed diets. Unsavory side effects of their production include planet-warming emissions, soil erosion, and polluted waterways.

Since 1985, the USDA has also offered farmers cash to adopt conservation practices meant to help counter those troublesome impacts. Growers can make extra money by adding soil-stabilizing crops such as rye and oats to their rotations or by establishing filter strips of grasses or legumes, which are designed to trap chemical runoff. The catch is that a large amount of federal money—about $14 billion per year on average between 1995 and 2021—goes toward promoting commodity crops, compared with just $1.8 billion for conservation. So, for every dollar the department flashes in front of farmers to encourage them to grow to the max, it dangles just 13 cents to help them manage their land judiciously.

Congress has maintained this imbalance for decades through the farm bill—the twice-per-­decade legislative package that governs agriculture policy—a process that is replete with lobbying and campaign donations from agribusinesses that benefit. The gusher of cash for commodities production has been even more prodigious in recent years thanks to temporary subsidies to offset losses from trade wars and the pandemic: In 2020, commodity and crop insurance payouts dominated conservation outlays by more than 22-to-1.

A smarter approach, says Silvia Secchi, a natural resources economist at the University of Iowa, is to make conservation a prerequisite. Want goodies from the USDA? Then show us your plan for preserving topsoil, controlling runoff, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions. The safety net would be contingent on farmers helping to preserve the ecosystems on which their livelihood relies. In short, taxpayers would get more bang for their buck. Participation could be voluntary—farmers would continue to grow how and what they choose—but “if you do take government subsidies, you should do something for them,” Secchi argues.

This concept has precedent. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s USDA secretary, Earl Butz, urged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow”—use every inch of land, hedgerows and riparian buffers be damned—to take advantage of what turned out to be a short-lived boom in corn and soybean exports. Prices soared and then tumbled, spurring farmers to keep squeezing their land to maximize output, causing massive erosion. Things got so bad that Congress felt compelled to act; the 1985 farm bill decreed that any farm that wanted federal help growing crops on land that the USDA deemed “highly erodible” had to come up with a plan to retain its topsoil. “Conservation compliance,” as this policy is known, became law despite “strong resistance from farm interests,” writes Jonathan Coppess, director of the agriculture policy program at the University of Illinois, in his forthcoming book, Between Soil and Society.

Want goodies from the USDA? Then show the agency your plan for preserving topsoil, cleaning up farm runoff, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

Those requirements remain in effect today, but enforcement is spotty, according to a 2016 report by the USDA’s inspector general. And the ’85 rules did nothing to slow the surge in corn production triggered by the government-backed ethanol program that began in 2007. Not surprisingly, erosion has continued. Farmland in the Corn Belt is now losing soil at least 10 times faster than the soil forms naturally—roughly one-third of this area has seen its topsoil fully wash away.

Secchi says it’s time to apply conservation compliance to all farmland that receives federal support and to dramatically ramp up enforcement. Such a program may be unlikely to pass in the current Congress, but Secchi has hope for the future. “Climate change is finally being taken seriously, at least in terms of the money we’re putting in,” she says, referring in part to the Inflation Reduction Act’s $19.5 billion for agricultural conservation programs. Aligning farm support and conservation goals would be a crucial step to ensuring that helping America’s farmers doesn’t mean degrading our land and fouling our water.

This article was produced in collaboration with Mother Jones. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a nonprofit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

There aren’t enough child development specialists, so the county is hiring its own

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.— Kids at risk of developmental delay can qualify for care through the longstanding federally funded Early Intervention Program, but a dearth of care providers has created a backlog that keeps families waiting for care. 

County officials are hoping to change that. Tompkins County Whole Health Commissioner Frank Kruppa said the county will hire a team of in-house providers in an attempt to increase the number of appointments available locally.

Currently, families might see months go by before they can get an appointment with an audiologist, physical therapist or speech therapist through the Early Intervention Program. Children sometimes age out of qualifying for the program before they can receive care. 

It’s an issue that acutely affects New York’s rural and semi-rural counties, like Tompkins, where a limited pool of providers can spend significant portions of their day traveling from child to child, Kruppa said.

“We were given authority to hire two speech language pathologists, a physical therapist, and a special education teacher,” Kruppa said. “Those are the areas where we have some of the biggest gaps.”

Despite efforts by advocates and local governments, New York State has largely not increased the reimbursement rates for providers. Kruppa said these lagging rates are  driving an already limited number of providers out of the area or out of the early intervention field altogether.

“Our thinking was that by providing a stable salary with benefits, we might be able to encourage some people that have left that early intervention program to come back,” Kruppa said.

Kruppa said that when families miss out on early intervention services, it can have cascading effects — for both the child’s future and for local public health infrastructure.

“Kids [get] older. And the early intervention program is only [from birth] to three years of age, and then they transition into preschool services,” Kruppa said. “And then of course, when they hit five, they go into the school districts. So the backlog just moves along into other systems as the child gets older.”

Typically, early intervention specialists are employed by private organizations like the Franziska Racker Center or operate as independent practitioners. The four new providers would be the only publicly-employed early intervention specialists in Tompkins County, Kruppa said.

Kellie Hummel, a physical therapist and early intervention specialist at Racker, said the lack of providers has worsened in the last few years.

“Children and families end up waiting on a waiting list, and that is unprecedented really, in this county,” Hummel said. “It has not been the case since the last couple of years.”

Once children receive an initial referral from their pediatricians, families must first wait for an early intervention evaluation appointment. The evaluation determines which services, if any, the child could benefit from. After that, children often end up on another waiting list to actually receive those services. 

“There are kids who have waited a year, there are kids waiting six months and everything in between,” Hummel said. “There are [early intervention eligible] children who will come into preschool who never got [early intervention.]”

Hummel said local providers are having to make certain compromises, like asking families to bring their children to more central locations, such as a community center. These changes, while they may seem small, can make it harder for some families to keep their appointments. Some providers also feel that these compromises go against the original intent of the program, Hummel said.

Hummel said that while some of the problems in Tompkins County are regionally unique, many of her colleagues nationally are reporting a lot of the same strains. 

“COVID was tough on early intervention, because it was tough on children and working families,” Hummel said. “But early intervention had been critically underfunded before that. […] The program has been underfunded for a really long time.”

Hummel said she thinks the county’s effort to bring more providers into the area will help, but said statewide and federal change will be vital.

“The research is clear that when we intervene early, we can see lifelong change for children and their families,” Hummel said. “So why are we stuck here?”

Those interested in applying for one of the new positions can view a job description or submit their application on the county’s website here. Applications close on Feb. 19. 

The post There aren’t enough child development specialists, so the county is hiring its own appeared first on The Ithaca Voice.