A visionary nonprofit director pioneers a whole new way to farm
Modern Farming Bob Dandrew turned a family farm in Hurley into a farmer training academy and agriculture laboratory
Photograph by Tom Moore
It was a life-changing moment in 2008 when Bob Dandrew heard this apocalyptic factoid from an insider source in New York City government: At any given time, there is less than a three-day food supply for the city. “I thought, if this is true it would be mayhem, and we have to do something about it,” recalls Dandrew, who at the time was executive director of a philanthropic organization. “Then came the hard realization that there’s less than a three-day supply anywhere. Being dependent on global shipping means being dependent on fossil fuel, so it got me thinking about reorienting for a local food system that has to travel fewer miles to get from farm to plate.”
Soon thereafter, leveraging his extensive background in fundraising (he was director of development at educational institutions, including Albany Law School and the Rudolf Steiner School of NYC), Dandrew launched the Local Economies Project (LEP) in Kingston, a nonprofit sponsored by the New World Foundation. His mission is urgent and clear: to rebuild a robust food system here through grants, programming, and collaborations.
“The Hudson Valley is perfect for it,” says Dandrew, who has made his home here for 10 years, initially as a weekender and then as a full-time resident. “We have the most fertile soil, a tradition of agriculture, and a relatively long growing season.”
In a time when farmland is disappearing as fast as McMansions are sprouting, Dandrew reversed the trend, acquiring a 1,200-acre commercial family farm in Hurley and turning it into the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, a farmer training academy and agriculture laboratory for researching new technologies that promote crop resiliency. It was a bold idea that won him a Quality of Life Award for conservation and land use from Pattern for Progress in 2014.
Partnering with Cornell University, the Hub is also two years into a four-year test of 16 small grains, with an emphasis on those that native Americans and colonists grew — a special project dear to Dandrew’s heart, as he proudly counts himself as a member of the Mohawk Nation (he grew up near tribal territories in northern New York),
“We have a strong interest in the impact of climate change, and the thinking among folks at Cornell is that the heritage grains are more resilient.” The grains aren’t just hearty — they’re trendy, too, in demand by artisans who are looking for locally grown ingredients.
This spring the Hub is ready to welcome its first group of young farmers in training for a two- to five-year program. And when they graduate, free of charge as paid employees of the farm, LEP will connect them with affordable local land.
But it’s not just about the farmers. Dandrew’s mission is also to create a marketing, packaging, and distribution system to make sure all that beautiful Hudson Valley produce gets out into the world and consumed. LEP’s Farm-to-Institution program just scored a victory in getting a local tomato sauce into cafeterias at four SUNY colleges.
“Creating a food product line is a way to make a lot of good happen at once,” says Dandrew. To that end, LEP bestowed a multi-year grant to the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley to create a vegan honey substitute from local apples. Set to debut in stores any moment now, Applehoni’s profits (and products) will be donated to the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. But everyone benefits: farmers sell their wares, processing them supports local jobs, free food gets stocked in the Food Bank, and profits keep it in motion.
“A lot of people feel we’re stuck with the system we have, but I say, there’s so much exciting stuff that’s happening and we can change it,” says Dandrew. “We feel like we’re tapping into a real need and opportunity, and this region is optimal to pioneering on behalf of the whole country.”