One of the biggest challenges in the Northeast is making use of limited farmland. Two trends are at play, Mr. Honeycutt said. Developers continue to build on land that could be used for farming, and farmland also is falling out of use and lying vacant as farmers go out of business.
“As the world population grows, we can’t create more land,” Mr. Honeycutt said.
Researchers will pore over Census of Agriculture statistics to gain a snapshot of the region’s agricultural industry. They will look at soil types in the region from Maine to Virginia and consider climate trends, including the possible effect of global warming, he said.
“Does your season shift northward, your growing season?” Mr. Honeycutt said.
In addition, the USDA is bringing on researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts to examine the food distribution system.
Information from the study could be used to help diversify crops in the Northeast and make more use of available land, Mr. Honeycutt said. Locally grown food could be cheaper as well as more nutritious. A more diverse range of crops also helps break up plant disease cycles, he said.
Early work on the study bolsters warnings from farm and consumer groups that the nation should rethink its industrial-style food system. The system relies on bigger and bigger farms and a relatively small number of large companies to supply it.
“There’s a sense that there’s an energy crisis in the works. And if there’s an energy crisis, there’s a food crisis as well,” said Judith Einach, executive of the New York State Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, Rochester, a nonprofit organization supported in large part by USDA funds.
Without a new approach, she said, small and medium farms could disappear in New York, and with them much of the locally grown food supply.
A similar argument has grown in the dairy industry as well, especially from lawmakers eager to protect New York dairy farms. In that case, they have said that government measures to protect small farmers — including higher farm-level milk prices — are in consumers’ best interest as well. But that argument has yet to persuade most lawmakers from other parts of the country.
Just because land was once productive does not necessarily mean it can be made so again, however. Agriculture experts noted that some land has been placed in a conservation reserve program, for instance, because it is environmentally sensitive and intensive farming would cause erosion or pollute water supplies.
Also, in the north country, land that used to support small-scale, pasture-based dairy farming isn’t as viable for big operations and has fallen out of production. That has been a trend for years north of the Black River in Jefferson County and illustrates the limits on what farmers can economically produce, experts said.
Even where the land can support certain crops, farmers have chosen not to grow them for business reasons. The north country soil and climate can support tomatoes, for instance, but the harvest would be short and coincide with a glut of tomatoes from other places.
On the other hand, Mr. Honeycutt said, crop scientists have developed plants that thrive in northern climates where they were once not an option. Soybeans, for instance, have grown into a far more common crop in the north country than in decades past; they are a staple in livestock feed.
The study grew out of a push from Congress to look more seriously at food security. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wrote to the USDA in June with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, urging the department to create a task force on sustainable agriculture. A task force, they said, would help the department coordinate all of its sustainable agriculture programs, which include farmers markets, school lunches and community food projects. Those programs were part of the 2008 farm bill