New York’s farmers and communities are ready for the state government to take a fresh look at the way it approaches farmland protection.
A report released by AFT, titled Picking Up the Pace: A Road Map for Accelerating Farmland Protection in New York [PDF, 1.21MB], finds that the state loses about 10 times more farmland to development than it protects annually. Each year, 26,000 acres of farmland are developed in New York while the state’s Farmland Protection Program has protected 2,192 acres annually.
The New York Legislature closed their regular session without taking action on several bills that would have strengthened the New York Farmland Protection Program (FPP). The Senate failed to move on SB 5414, which would have increased the maximum state cost share and also on SB 4476, which would have made non-profit conservation groups eligible to apply directly for farmland protection grants. In addition, a looming budget deficit threatens another mid-year budget cut, similar to that during last fiscal year. We’ll be working into the fall to ensure the $23 million allocated for farmland protection for fiscal year 2009-2010 remains intact.
Dietrich C. Gehring
Dairy farms are the “anchor tenants” of Northeast agriculture. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, dairy farmers own or manage 3.5 million acres of land in farms in New York and New England; an additional 2.7 million acres are used for hay and corn production, much of which is used to feed dairy cows. This acreage represents 55 percent of the region’s land in farms.
Dairy farms are also a significant economic engine. The region’s 7,472 dairy farms produce $3.3 billion in dairy cattle and milk sales annually. The multiplier effect of that production is significant; according to Penn State’s Center for Dairy Excellence, 85 percent of a dairy farm’s income is spent locally and each farm dollar recycles 2.5 times through the economy.
The 36 groups urged Congress to provide a better federal income safety net for dairy farmers through the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program. In addition, they have called on Congress to make federal funds available to dairy farms, as have been made available to other industries and businesses, to allow them to consolidate debt and restructure loans
“We greatly appreciate the leadership demonstrated by the Legislature and Governor in protecting the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and making strategic investments in programs that help farmers protect land and water,” said David Haight, New York Director for the American Farmland Trust. “These investments in these tough economic times will help farmers produce the local food, renewable energy and healthy environment desired by so many New Yorkers while strengthening the state’s economy.”
The budget will include a $222 million appropriation for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, the principal funding source for more than 30 programs that protect New York’s land, air and water. Included in the EPF appropriation is $23 million for the state’s Farmland Protection Program, $12.2 million for the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Program, $3 million for Soil and Water Conservation Districts and $1.575 million for the Conservation Partnership Program.
“Our thanks go out to Assemblyman Magee and Senator Aubertine, the chairs of the Assembly and Senate Agriculture Committees respectfully, for being champions of so many agricultural programs, including these EPF programs, that were included in the budget”, said Haight. “They understand the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, environment and communities and really fought for them.”
The Legislature also agreed to remove language that would have swept $45 million in EPF funds into the state’s General Fund and changed the EPF’s funding source.
“Environmental Conservation Committee Chairpersons Assemblyman Sweeney and Senator Thompson were real drivers in protecting the EPF and making sure there is cash in the fund to make good on the state’s promises to the environment,” said Haight. Sweeps of more than $450 million authorized in previous state budgets have depleted cash in the EPF and slowed the completion of environmental projects, including farmland protection projects.
Farmland Protection Bills Pending
Two bills sponsored by Assembly Agriculture Committee Chairman Bill Magee aim to improve the efficiency of the state’s Farmland Protection Program and increase the farmer share of funding dollars. Companion senate bills have not yet been introduced, but are expected soon.
A. 6687 makes land trusts directly eligible to apply on behalf of landowners to the state’s Farmland Protection Program. Currently, applications must come from the Town or County where the farm is located. Municipalities are forced to play a pivotal role in state contracting and project oversight, despite often having limited capacity and familiarity with conservation easement transactions. This legislation removes unnecessary complexity and delays to projects created by this structure by allowing land trusts to apply directly for funds on behalf of landowners if the project is supported by the local government with an approved agricultural and farmland protection plan and county agricultural and farmland protection board.
A. 6686 provides greater flexibility for state Farmland Protection Program funding by increasing the maximum state cost share from 75% of the total project cost to 87.5% in certain circumstances. Currently, the state requires a 25% “local match” to their 75% state share. Frequently, farmers are forced to take a bargain sale – or accept 75 cents on the dollar for their development rights – because no local funding is available. This legislation enables the state to match a landowner contribution dollar for dollar up to 87.5% of a project’s costs.
The sustained slump in milk prices has already caused the loss of some dairy farms and threatens the future of thousands more. “If a farm goes out of business it will either be bought by another farmer or it will be developed. It comes down to who can afford the land,” says Sheffer. “People can afford to put a house on land but the way things are now with milk prices the dairy farmer can’t afford to put cows there.”
Site of the famous Revolutionary War Battle of Bennington and home to folk art icon Grandma Moses, Hoosick remains undaunted when it comes to jumping onto the national stage and its townspeople mean business when it comes to protecting their farmland and sticking up for their farmers. “Farms are vital to Hoosick,” stresses Town Supervisor Marilyn Douglas. “Agriculture constitutes the single largest land use in the town. Our farms produce food, employ people and pay taxes.”
Just across the Hudson River from Albany, the state’s capitol, Hoosick’s farmland faces considerable development pressure. Hoosick is working intensely with farmers and other partners such as American Farmland Trust and the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a local agricultural land trust working in Washington and Rensselaer Counties, to prevent the loss of valuable farmland. Last month, the town was awarded a grant by the state’s Farmland Protection Program to purchase the development rights to 155 acres of extremely fertile farmland belonging to Carleton and Corinne Philpott.
American Farmland Trust is working with the Town of Hoosick to develop a Municipal Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan that will take stock of the town’s agricultural resources and identify strategies to prevent the loss of farmland and support the business of agriculture over the long-term.
The adopted “2008-09 Deficit Reduction Bill” includes elements that would impact the current fiscal year budget. The Governor and Legislature agreed to:
- A 20% cut in the Environmental Protection Fund from $255 million to $205 million
- A 23% cut in funding for the Farmland Protection Program from $30 million to $23 million
- A 27% cut in funding for the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Program from $13 million to $8 million
- An increase in the total “sweep” of EPF funding into the General Fund for non-environmental purposes from $125 million to $175 million.
New York State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker announced $313,750 in funding to help 14 towns develop local agricultural and farmland protection plans. “Communities around the state are recognizing the need to proactively plan a future for farms,” said David Haight, New York Director of American Farmland Trust. For more information about the program, and to see which communities were funded in Round III, visit the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets web site.
Nearly 13,300 acres of active farmland across New York will be protected—on 35 farms in 22 counties—thanks to $35 million in funding from the state’s Farmland Protection Program. The funding is the largest amount ever dedicated to farmland protection in the state, and will go to protect the largest single amount of acreage in the program’s 11-year history. "This announcement marks a great victory for farmland conservation in New York," said David Haight, AFT’s New York Director.
Does your town support its agricultural businesses? In western New York, the Erie County FarmBureau is hoping that all towns in the county say “yes” by passing a local right-to-farm law.
Thanks to legislation AFT championed, counties are now eligible for up to $50,000 in state grant funds to update county agricultural and farmland protection plans that are at least 10 years old.
12 counties around New York are eligible to receive this funding. Who will be first to accept the challenge of addressing the current needs and opportunities of their agricultural industry—Cayuga, Dutchess, Erie, Essex, Onondaga, Orange, Saratoga, Suffolk, Tompkins, Ulster, Washington or Wayne? For more information on the county grants, contact John Brennan at New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
S. 7908/A. 11511 make land trusts eligible for annual funding of up to $50,000 per organization to work with local governments and farmland owners to develop farmland protection projects. Participating land trusts must have a farmer on their board of directors or have a process in place for getting a farmer on their board, and activities undertaken with these funds shall not be used in a manner that unreasonably restricts farm operations in contravention of New York State Agriculture and Markets Law. The passage of this legislation is an essential step toward closing projects funded by the state’s Farmland Protection Program in less than 2 years.
S.4333/A. 7361, legislation that would increase the maximum state share of farmland protection projects from 75 to 85 percent, failed to pass the Assembly this session. The Senate passed the bill again this year. The legislation would make more farmland protection projects possible in communities without funds to match a grant from the state’s Farmland Protection Program.
Thanks to the leadership of Senator Young, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, S. 5685,legislation creating a “working farmland tax credit” passed the Senate during the final days of the legislative session. The proposed Working Farmland Tax Credit is a refundable state income tax credit equal to the property taxes (county, town and school) paid on qualifying agricultural land that is committed to active agricultural use for at least eight years. It is estimated that approximately four million acres of land in New York meet the program’s qualifications. The Assembly failed to pass its version of the legislation, A. 8181.
The Bigger Better Bottle Bill, A. 8044 and S. 5850, passed in the Assembly, but failed in the Senate. This legislation proposes to expand nickel deposits to bottled water and other non-carbonated beverages to reduce litter while increasing state funding for environmental programs included in New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.
New York's Open Space Conservation Plan serves as a blueprint for the state's land conservation efforts. Historically, the plan has included a limited emphasis on farmland protection. However, as the plan is updated over the next year, there will be an important opportunity to strengthen its farmland protection components.
Local feedback can help to highlight locally important agricultural regions or policies that could strengthen the state’s farmland protection efforts, help raise awareness of the importance of agriculture in the plan and build support for increased state funding for farmland protection. Contact your regional DEC representative for information on how to provide input. (PDF)
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