Like the state’s overall economic recovery, this past fiscal year has shown brighter signs for efforts to protect farmland from development in New York.
In Fiscal Year 2011-2012 the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, working with farmers, communities and private land trusts, was able to close on 19 farmland protection projects, paying out more than $13 million, with an additional $2 million approved for disbursement this month.
“We are encouraged that New York is once again investing in our farmers and protecting the land that we need for farming and growing food,” said David Haight, New York State Director for American Farmland Trust (AFT). “Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders have stabilized Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) dollars that are enabling the Department of Agriculture and Markets and local partners to make a significant dent in the backlog of farmland protection projects.”
For Fiscal Year 2012-2013, which began April 1, the state’s Farmland Protection Program has again been allocated $12 million from the EPF. AFT estimates that at least 16 farms across the state are already on deck to close this year, with a total closing cost of approximately $16 million.
Legislation has been proposed to grow the EPF by directing revenue from unclaimed bottle deposits into the fund. Though this measure was seriously considered during budget negotiations, the legislation ultimately was not included in the final 2012-13 State Budget and it will remain under active consideration during the remainder of the 2012-13 Legislative Session. Increasing funding for the EPF would increase money for conserving farmland, aiding farmers in protecting water quality and other important environmental programs.
According to AFT, at the end of Fiscal Year 2012-2013, approximately 25 farmland protection projects will remain in the backlog with estimated closing costs at just over $25 million. This is an enormous reduction in the once-daunting backlog of nearly $70 million of awards made to protect 60 farms. The large backlog was the result of disproportionate cuts to the EPF and the Farmland Protection Program. This project backlog has resulted in no new projects being solicited since 2008.
New York’s Farmland Protection Program was established in 1992 under the leadership of then Governor Mario Cuomo to provide funds to towns and counties to develop community-specific strategies for strengthening business opportunities for local farmers and protecting farmland. The program also awards funds to communities to purchase permanent conservation easements on working farmland.
The state’s Farmland Protection Program provides funding to communities to purchase conservation easements on farmland, ensuring that the land remains available to grow food for future generations. This voluntary program pays farmland owners for permanently protecting their land for agriculture. Participating farmers are generally offered the difference between the fair market value of their land and its value if it is restricted. A 2009 study by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets found that many participating farmers use these funds to reinvest in their farm businesses by reducing business debt, buying new equipment, constructing farm buildings, purchasing additional land or establishing family retirement funds.
Brothers Brian, Eric and Stuart Ziehm received funding from the New York State Farmland Protection Program to protect their 343-acre Tiashoke Farm in the Town of Easton in Washington County and used the proceeds to re-invest in their dairy operation. Stuart Ziehm explains, “The money we received through the state’s farmland protection program has helped us build a modern, 300-cow free-stall barn with a special maternity area. This has allowed us to continue to grow our operation and has improved our calf care.”
The Agricultural Stewardship Association (ASA), a regional land trust that works with farmers and communities in Washington and Rensselaer Counties to protect farmland, has assisted Deep Roots Holstein Farm along with many other farms throughout the process of protecting their farmland. “We currently have four great projects which have been awarded funding from the state’s Farmland Protection Program,” said Teri Ptacek, ASA’s executive director. “If the money becomes available this fiscal year and these projects are completed it would give these farmers an important opportunity to reinvest in their operations and act as a boost to our local economy.”
Since 1996, the Farmland Protection Program has awarded more than $173 million to protect more than 200 farms encompassing roughly 73,000 acres. The program has been popular with farmers, but was subject to drastic budget cuts starting in 2008. In 2008, the Farmland Protection Program was originally budgeted to receive $30 million from the state’s EPF. By 2010, the funds available from the EPF to protect farmland had been reduced to $5.5 million.
Saving farmland from suburban sprawl is critical to sustaining the state’s nearly $5 billion agricultural economy which employs more than 100,000 New Yorkers. Though farmland serves as the basic infrastructure for the state’s robust farm and food economy the state continues to lose farmland to development at a rate of one farm every 3 ½ days. Between 1982 and 2007, New York State lost 449,000 acres of farmland to development.