The Rural We: Todd Erling
Todd Erling has been the executive director of The Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation since he managed its construction more than a decade ago. One of those hard-to-define nonprofit organizations, the HVADC is focused on helping support and grow farm and farm-dependent businesses with an arsenal of impactful programs. As a silent partner, HVADC has been integral to the growth and diversification of our region’s farming industry. For those who know Erling, it’s hard to imagine the “ecosystem of support” that HVADC has cultivated could ever have been as successful as it has without his humble, folksy and whip-smart leadership. Erling, who lives on his own 60-acre farm in Livingston, New York with his wife and children, maintains his authenticity by keeping his boots in the mud at his clients’ farms as often as he wears those same muddy boots to policy meetings.
I grew up in southwestern/south-central Pennsylvania, lovingly referred to as Pennsyl-tucky. Everyone worked in farm, coal or steel, or typically two of the three. It’s very similar here in the Hudson Valley as far as topography and rural community. There are these similar influences too, on those industries and farming, by global markets and macroeconomics that regular people don’t have control over.
I actually have a degree in architecture. I worked as a carpenter when I was younger and on job sites I constantly saw the disconnect between the plan and those who actually had to build the house.
In 2001, Columbia Hudson Partnership hired me as a project manager. After a couple years I moved into the deputy director position. Several of the economic development programs had agricultural components for obvious reasons. The American Farmland Trust was doing a study of the Hudson Valley that looked at the challenges for farmers from an economic development perspective, which had never been done before. What happened out of that was a report with 13 findings with recommended actions to address them. When the report came out (in 2003) I said, 'We are doing some of this in Columbia County but, in order to address all of these issues, it has to be done on a regional level.' We've grown a lot since then.
HVADC provides support, planning, and direct assistance to farms and farm-dependent entrepreneurs. That happens through regional planning, individual technical assistance, creating community programs and marketing opportunities. We have the “Incubator Without Walls,” which is our long-term tactical support program for businesses. We have the “Accelerator,” which is in its second round of preparing businesses to access new capital for growth. We have the “Hudson Valley Bounty” program, which provides opportunities for farms and businesses to connect with the market. And we have a new program called “Feed HV,” which is taking surplus food in our region and taking it directly to food banks on an “Uber for food” scale. We can literally connect volunteers with farms who say, “I can drive five cases of apples, in the back of my Subaru, to this food bank on a Thursday.” The program is connecting donors, mostly farmers, and local food banks on a micro-level to get surplus food to needy populations. That’s been pretty amazing. We also have a farm-to-school program where we are getting healthy, locally grown food onto breakfast and lunch trays and even into backpack programs.
My background in architecture taught me critical path thinking, how to move through and solve problems, how to communicate and be a systems thinker. I’ve always been a carpenter working like an architect and we are using that approach now to run the not-for-profit like a small business. Our business is to create an ecosystem for farm and food entrepreneurs. We were very quickly able to offer services and funding sources that weren’t traditional to farm and food.
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