here are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
Aldo Leopold

14 February 2005

National Ag Day and Community Planning

National Agriculture Day and Community Planning

The Town of Fayette, like many towns in New York's Finger Lakes region, is a farm town, and agriculture is the Town���s principal land use. Farmers and the business men and women who support farms are the backbone of the local economy. As National Agriculture Day approaches, it would do us all well to thank a farmer, for growing our food, for providing for our wildlife and natural resources, and for making our home in the Finger Lakes uniquely beautiful.

While we thank farmers, we should be thankful for farming, as an occupation, as a lifestyle, as an education, and even as a hobby. We should be glad for the soil, for the green that grows upon it and sustains us and the animals we consume. We should be grateful for the blood, sweat, and tears that have been spilled working the ground, for the thoughtful ingenuity that farming brought about, called Progress. And while we thank farmers, and are thankful for farming, let us also give thanks for land, for without land, it is difficult to farm, to be a farmer, or to benefit from and enjoy farming. As Will Rogers once said: ���Land--they ain���t making any more of it.���

In some places, land, farm land, is being lost completely and forever. In other places, the storm clouds of sprawl and unplanned development are just appearing on the horizon. Thankfully, farmers are planners, and in towns in the Finger Lakes like Fayette and Varick, the time to plan is now.

Farming, often a risk prone business, gets more difficult to sustain in areas that undergo rapid residential growth. Prime farmland, especially along or overlooking a lake, is highly developable and can be sold at prices that far exceed its agricultural value. For a struggling farmer, or any farmer with an eye towards retirement, the pressure to sell farmland for development is intense. Yet, when one farm goes, the neighboring farms have to deal with rising land prices and therefore rising taxes, additional development pressures, increasing conflicts with non-farm neighbors, and a general increase in the cost of doing business. As Washington County dairy farmer George Houser was quoted as saying, ���You lose agricultural land one house at a time.���

The American Farmland Trust���s recent ���Farming on the Edge��� study identified three critical farming areas in New York State that are currently threatened by non-farm development: the Hudson River Valley, Long Island, and Western New York-The Finger Lakes Region. Yet, despite the threat to our local food supply, our open space, and our rural ways of life here in the Finger Lakes, the reality is that farmers comprise less than one percent of the population in the State of New York. Therefore, it is critical that the citizens of small towns in the Finger Lakes, like the Town of Fayette, recognize that without farmers, there is no farmland. Quaint notions of ���working landscapes��� mean nothing if the landscape isn���t producing food and fiber. That takes farmers. On the other hand, it is equally important that farmers take responsibility for their farm���s future by engaging in thoughtful planning that goes beyond the outdated model of quick-sale major subdivision exit strategies. But how do we go about all of this?

The answer is planning. We must fearlessly pursue a solid plan, one that takes into account the concerns of the agricultural community, which in the end are all of our concerns. Farmers know that ���failing to plan is planning to fail.��� The farm community must not see town planning efforts and exercises as threats to their individual liberties, but as opportunities to protect the freedoms to farm for the next generation. There are examples in neighboring counties to follow, and tools for doing this.

In 1971, the State of New York enacted its Agriculture Districts law, which encourages farmers to join together and commit their lands to agricultural use in return for property tax relief and protection from outside intrusions. Nearly twenty years later, New York went a step further by passing the Agriculture Protection Act. This piece of legislation strengthened farmers��� right to farm, encouraged scrutiny of public projects that could negatively affect agriculture and initiated the development of county agricultural and farmland protection strategies. Since 1994, New York has been allotting funds for counties to develop plans, and in 1996, the state passed legislation to provide counties that have approved plans, or eligible municipalities, with the funding to purchase development rights to farmland.

Recently, New York State legislation has been proposed to use real estate transfer fees to preserve farm land and open space. Money invested in developing a town would then also generate revenue to help preserve it. To do this, however, the state Legislature must pass a special law giving towns permission to put the proposal before its voters. This legislation, called the Community Preservation Act, would give authority to all towns to choose to put a referendum before the voters. As part of this process, the Community Preservation Act would require a town to develop a Community Preservation Project Plan
that identifies the land to be preserved. This new idea merits consideration by the Town of Fayette and our neighbors in the Finger Lakes.

State level funding can make a huge difference, but farmland protection, the future of farming, must rely on the efforts of individuals in their own communities, in towns and villages. The Towns of Fayette and Varick in Seneca County are currently involved in town level comprehensive planning that, if done in an open, thoughtful, honest way, will no doubt benefit agriculture in the long run, while benefiting the rest of the community at the same time. The agriculture communities in these two respective towns have been invited to a third input meeting on farmland preservation issues and comprehensive planning on March 7th, 2005 at 7:00 PM at the new Fayette Fire Hall. There will surely be more meetings dealing with farming issues, in our towns and in neighboring towns, but will farmers attend? I know everyone that loves their rural town hopes so, because it is today���s farmers that will tell us whether or not farms will be part of our future. So as we approach National Agriculture Day, let us remember to give thanks, and let us be sure that we don���t lose what we love. Let us be sure that farms are a part of our future. Plan to enjoy farmland in the future. Get involved.

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