Cheryl Rogowski to speak on ‘keeping farms close to home' next Friday

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    Advisor to the Warwick Conservancy Inc. WARWICK-"Farmers' markets are hot," said Cheryl Rogowski, who became the first farmer ever to win the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award in 2004. "People have a mental connection to the romanticism of the land." Minutes before, Rogowski was hauling huge folding tables, octopus-like folding tents and crates heavily weighted with vegetables onto a pick-up truck in over 90-degree heat, packing up after the close of the Warwick Sunday Farmer's Market. "Romantic? How do you think they get that idea?" I asked, thinking of the feeble help I had offered at the market - struggling, barely managing to get a crate or two on the truck as I streamed with perspiration. Rogowski and ! were now sitting in blissful air conditioning. The reality of hard labor for her had evaporated along with the machine-extracted humidity. "When I think of my dad, I think of ‘The Grapes of Wrath' and how he and how his family cleared this land with their bare hands," she answered. Rogowski's father passed away six years ago and she laments that he is not around to know of her award and what has been happening now with the farm. The strength, resilience and independent resourcefulness of the American farmers who cleared and cultivated raw land definitely isn't just Hollywood myth, according to this young farmer whose Warwick farm is, says The New York Times, among the 15 percent of women-operated farms. That's a number that's growing. "There are many other contributors to the popularity of local farmer's markets," she said, adding that people come to her market stand regularly asking for ingredients used on TV shows. She also said that the shift in government food guidelines for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and other public programs that have extended the impact to all income levels. "You know how many people bought fresh salad as a gift for Father's Day?" she added. Cheryl Rogowski has been a full-time farmer for only a couple of years, and full time translates into 90 to 100-hour work weeks where you learn to get by on five to six hours of sleep. For the 20 years before "full time" farming, she was working her way up in the accounting department at Sterling Forest. She also was putting in longs hours at the farm, innovating and experimenting with some of the 250 new crops and the new programs (including the popular Community Supported Agriculture or CSA) she has brought to the Rogowski's Pine Island acreage. The orientation to detail that was part of her experience in accounting serves her well now, as have other skills she acquired subsequently that are not usually associated with traditional farms: Marketing, communications, consumer education and an educated view of the local impact of global trade and agriculture. Rogowski credits two leadership programs in which she's participated with expanding her view and bringing into focus the full importance for us all of maintaining a close connection to local farms. One is Leadership Orange, sponsored by Orange County; the other is Lead New York, sponsored by Cornell University. Both programs aim to educate and motivate emerging leaders within the community. Their aim is to prepare citizens to take an active, informed role in community-oriented, decision-making positions through exposure to ideas. "It opened my eyes to so much, making me aware of the ramifications of what goes on in the rest of the world, and what it means to our small community and local citizens," she said. She pointed out that international trade matters to us all, for example, when harmful chemicals banned in this country actually reenter the country on foods grown abroad where those chemicals are legal. "This country is founded on a cheap food policy, which means as our standard of living increases, poorer countries are taking over our essential food supply," Rogowski said. "As food increasingly comes from the Third World and farms here continue to disappear, we are at the mercy of rising transportation costs based on rising energy costs." Smaller, local American farms are disappearing all too fast. With the largest percentage of the profits from retail food traditionally going to the middlemen; small U.S. farmers struggle to keep afloat. Two dinners Rogowski attended within the last few months presented a contrast that is indelibly etched on her consciousness. At the first, an opulent dinner of a middlemen's food association, Rogowski was struck by the sheer amount of money expended on the dinner, which was essentially to celebrate their own success. "The waiters wore tuxedos, evening gowns and long white gloves," she remembered. The second was $750-a-plate fund-raiser for artists at the Whitney Museum in New York City, the proceeds of which went to the artists. "All I could think of when I recalled the middlemen's association lavish dinner was, ‘Why aren't the farmers getting it?'" Rogowski will speak on "Keeping Farms Close to Home" at an evening sponsored by the Warwick Conservancy, Inc. Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, 114 Little York Road, Pine Island. Wine and refreshments will be served; for reservations, call 986-2551.