Who would have guessed farms in Albany County would need saving?

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Because of a conservation easement, Indian Ladder Farms will remain devoid of any kind of development from now until, theoretically, the end of time.

NEW SCOTLAND — Have you ever driven alongside a farm and, as it rolls on for acre after picturesque acre, thought to yourself: “Yeah, it’s breathtaking and life-affirming but what this bucolic landscape really needs is a ‘lifestyle center’ replete with yoga and pilates studios, not to mention, a nearby subdivision of McMansions.”

Well, you are not alone.

In one 20-year period, 1992 to 2012, nearly 31 million acres of agricultural land — which accounted for one-quarter of all the development that had ever taken place until that point in United States’ history — were “irreversibly lost” to lifestyle centers and subdivisions of McMansions.

In New York State, developers, according to American Farmland Trust, a not-for-profit conservation organization, have “paved over” about 5,000 farms since the early 1980s; since 1982, the state has lost about 25 percent — 2.3 million acres — of its farmland.

Yes, technological advances have made farmers remarkably efficient. For example, in 1900 — when the state’s population was approximately 7.3 million (today it’s 19.5 million) — there were about 376,000 workers toiling away in “agricultural pursuits” on 22.6 million acres, or about 75 percent of the state’s land area. Today, there are about 7 million acres of farmland in New York, and,  depending on the specificity of the definition as well as the source of the information, there are between 55,000 (hired farm labor, specifically), 1.2 million (direct economic impact), and 2.2 million (total economic impact) workers associated with the state’s agriculture industry.

However, “more than 80 percent of the fruits, vegetables, and dairy products produced in New York are grown on farmland directly in the path of suburban sprawl,” according to American Farmland Trust, and coupled with impendingas well as currentworld-changing events, it seems like preserving every acre of farmland from Montauk to Buffalo is more of an imperative rather than a niche charitable cause.

Farmland Protection

Fortunately, New York State has had some foresight on this issue.

As part of the Agricultural Protection Act of 1992, the state created the Farmland Protection Program, which helped counties develop agricultural and farmland protection plans. In 1996, the state amended the law so that it could provide to municipalities grants to purchase farmland development rights.

The purchase of development rights is a voluntary protection technique that pays landowners for permanently preserving their lands for agricultural use only, which is accomplished by placing on the land a conservation easement, a voluntary legal agreement that permanently restricts how land can be used and developed.

In 2003, Indian Ladder Farms became the first farm in Albany County to sell its development rights. And on June 13, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. (a tour starts at 5 p.m.), Indian Ladder Farms will host the second event in a two-part series on land conservation.

The first event took place in February and examined open-space conservation; on June 13, the focus will be on how farmers have conserved working farmland. Over a dozen speakers including New York State Commissioner of Agriculture Richard A. Ball, representatives from American Farmland Trust, New York Farm Bureau, Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, as well as a number of farmers are slated to discuss their experiences with the conservation process.

Karen Shaw, organizer of June 13 event as well as the open-space planner for the town of Bethlehem, said the reason for holding the events was to better inform the public about development. “When we go out to the public or when the public comes to meetings, there’s a lack of information, sometimes misunderstanding about [development],” Shaw said.

She hears from residents who tell her, “You know, I’m seeing so much development happen around town. Why isn’t this town stopping it?”

Those type of questions are encouraged, Shaw said, because the town wants to get the correct information to the public, chiefly, that the town does not own properties that are being developed; they are owned by private landowners who has every right to develop their lands.

As of 2017, in Albany County, 440 farms cover nearly 60,000 acres; 30 years ago, 460 farms covered about 68,000 acres.

Thomas Gallagher, a livestock and land specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County, told The Enterprise that there isn’t any single reason that explains why Albany County has lost less farmland than the state average — about 12 percent as opposed to 25 percent, or half as much.

One answer could be location, both the physical location of farmland within the county as well as the county’s geographical location in relation to New York City.  

Gallagher said that New York City residents have for some time been buying up farmland and building summer homes as far north as Ulster, Greene, and Columbia counties, and that Albany County is just far enough away from the city that residents aren’t looking to build second homes here.

Over the past 30 years, Ulster County has lost about 25 percent of its farmland; Green County about 38 percent; and Columbia County has lost about 26 percent of its farmland in the past 30 years.

Some of the existing farmland in Albany County, Gallagher said, is on steep land, which is not easy easily converted into land for housing. Developers, Gallagher said, are looking for land that is “flat” and has “well-drained soil,” which is the type of land that has been lost to development in Albany County.

While both events are about preserving open space, Shaw said that the types of land being preserved are very different, which warranted the separate discussions. Preserving a forest, for example, is different from preserving farmland, Shaw said, because a farm is private “working land” with “economic” value; in short, a business.

But economic value is just one way of measuring the impact and benefit of land conservation, Shaw said.

“Undeveloped land has natural-systems services values,” Shaw said. “So open land, conserved land, natural land, will have woodlands on it, wetlands on it, streams, soils, and all of those things contribute to the health of our natural systems. So leaving them alone and intact is really doing us all a favor by keeping our water clean, keeping floodwaters down, and by increasing wildlife and decreasing wildlife nuisance issues.”

For example, decreasing the tick population.

If forests of five acres or more are preserved, Shaw said, “that helps to reduce the incidence of ticks.” Because five acres is the minimum needed acreage needed to sustain the predators of white-footed mice, which are the primary carriers of Lyme Disease.

Farmland, Shaw said, “is much better for the climate than development.”

The soil acts as a carbon sink, said Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. A carbon sink is a natural environment, like a forest, ocean, or, in this case, a farm, that has the ability to absorb carbon dioxide — which traps heat, which, in turn, leads to global warming — from the atmosphere.

Erratic weather, another consequence of climate change, has led to more flooding, which, King said, exhibits another benefit of farmland and open space in general. “These open lands, that are not paved over or covered with roofs, absorb a tremendous amount more water,” King said. “And we’re in a situation where things are much wetter than they’ve been, and, so, there’s a lot more runoff. Open land helps to mitigate that to a degree.”

Another two-fold benefit of farmland, Shaw said, is that locally-produced food has more nutrients than food shipped from overseas because local foods haven’t been frozen. The second benefit is that locally-produced food cuts down on the amount of transportation needed to get the food to market, thereby cutting down on carbon-dioxide emissions.

Agricultural conservation easements, according American Farmland Trust, have been developed to:

— Limit future land use that is inconsistent with, or would cause damage to, the value or productivity of the land;

— Encourage the business of farming;

— Permit new construction of farm buildings and employee housing;

— Complement the right-to-farm provisions in the agricultural districts law; and

— Retain private ownership of the farm.

Farmland is also good for the taxpayer, Shaw said, but she was clear to say, “We do want commercial development because it’s great for our tax base. But if you look at those costs-of-community-services studies, those are really telling.”

Studies conducted across the state show agricultural and open land costs municipalities 29 cents in services provided for every dollar paid in taxes, whereas residential land costs $1.27 for every $1.00 paid in taxes. In 2017, for every dollar received in tax revenue, it cost Bethlehem $1.10 to provide services to land with a designated residential use; for farmland, it cost the town 16 cents for every dollar received in revenue.

With land value in Albany County steadily increasing, according to the 2018 Albany County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan, it’s often more lucrative for farmers to sell their land to developers, which, Shaw said, is what happens in many cases.

“But if we have other options on the table for landowners,” Shaw said, in particular, for farmers, “they can follow what’s best for them and their economic situation and their desires for their land.”

Like Indian Ladder Farms.

Indian Ladder Farms

In 2003, with 75 percent of the cost covered by a state farmland protection grant, the Open Space Institute and Albany County Land Conservancy (the forerunner to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy) were able to raise the remaining 25 percent needed to purchase the development rights of Indian Ladder Farms.

Originally a dairy farm, the century-old Indian Ladder Farms is now primarily apple orchards but has, in addition, a thriving tourist business with a restaurant, gift shop, cidery and brewery, and events venue.

To determine the value of development rights, the land’s restricted value is subtracted from its full-market value. For example, if the full-market value of a parcel of land is $1 million, which is to say how much the land would sell for if it could be developed, but it’s determined that the land’s restricted value (its value with an easement placed on it) is $250,000, then the landowner is eligible to be paid the difference: $750,000.

In New York State, if a landowner were eligible to be paid $750,000 for his or her land, and a land trust decided that it wanted to purchase those development rights, then it could take advantage of a grant from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets that would pay for 75 percent of the development rights, leaving the land trust on the hook for $187,00.

The conservation easement placed on most of the Indian Ladder property means that the farm will remain forever agricultural. Laura Ten Eyck, manager and co-owner of the family farm, said that, in the 1990s, there had been a lot of development happening in the area. Her family, which had owned the farm for several generations, wanted to ensure that, regardless of who is operating it in the future, the land could not be sold for development, she said.

While the Ten Eycks had no intention of selling the land to developers, Laura Ten Eyck said that a conservation easement is still a real-estate transaction, for which “we did receive quite a bit of money.” About $785,000.

While $785,000 is a considerable sum of money, selling 300 scenic acres situated below the Helderberg escarpment would have probably been more profitable for the family.

When asked why her family hadn’t sold to a developer, Ten Eyck said, “I think that anyone who has had land in their family … I don’t know that it’s that unusual for someone to feel that they’d rather have their land conserved than have a huge cash windfall.” She added that anyone who has had an emotional attachment to their land, may find it “a very painful process” to sell it, “unless it was maybe out of sheer desperation.”

At the June 13 even, Ten Eyck said, she will be talking about the benefits of a conservation easement as well as the mechanics of operating a business on land that is under an easement.

For example, non-agricultural structures can’t be built on land that’s under an easement. So that “we can do things here with more flexibility,” Ten Eyck said, her family left out of its conservation easement 19 acres of land that surrounds their farm market building.

If a farmer is facing development pressure but wants to stay on his or her land, Ten Eyck said, one of the benefits of a conservation easement is that the development pressure will drive up the value of the farmer’s land, which would mean more compensation for selling his land’s development rights, which could be used to re-invest in the business or, in the case of many farmers who lack one, a retirement plan.

An easement, while paying for retirement, can also act as a succession plan.

Most farmers don’t have a way to retire, Ten Eyck said; since all of their equity is tied up in their land, they can’t just gift their farm to the next generation.

By entering into an easement, the farmer would receive compensation for selling the development rights to his or her land, which could then, theoretically, reduce the value of the farm, which could make it affordable for the next generation of farmers to obtain a loan and buy the land. So, rather than having no retirement, farmers would have funds from selling their lands’ development rights as well as selling their lands.

Ten Eyck said that there really hasn’t been any downside to Indian Ladder Farms operating under a conservation easement, but added that, since the farm was placed under an easement in 2003, the state has become more restrictive in granting easements. In some places, she said, not only is the state requiring that the land remain available for agriculture and not be built on but also that the land remains in agriculture, as in, “You can’t stop farming.”

Asked if laws should be strengthened in some way to support farmers, Ten Eyck, a farm policy expert who formerly worked for American Farmland Trust, said, “The main thing, in my opinion, isn’t so much laws as it is funding. In terms of the state Farmland Protection Program, there are vastly more farmers who would like to receive funding and sell their development rights, than there is funding available to purchase them.”

According to American Farmland Trust, over its history, the New York State Farmland Protection Implementation Grant Program has disbursed about $158 million for 262 easements or restrictions, which amounts to about 66,000 acres protected.

However, according to a separate American Farmland Trust report, which was co-authored by Ten Eyck and at least in part proves her earlier point, since the state’s grant program was implemented, farmers had applied for close to $700 million in grant funding; about $295 million had been appropriated; around $195 million had been awarded; but only around $125 million had been dispersed.

“So the central issue in terms of the state Farmland Protection Program is to allocate more funding for the purchase of development rights,” Ten Eyck said, because the current fund is “not nearly enough; not even remotely enough to protect all the land that the landowners want to protect.”

Ten Eyck also said that some New York municipalities had taken it upon themselves to conserve farmland.

Residents of Clarence, in Erie County, had been concerned that their town would soon be overrun by suburban sprawl. So, in order to maintain the town’s rural character, the public voted on and approved a bond to fund a program to protect farm and natural land. So far, 1,025 acres of farmland have been protected in Clarence.

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

King, who had been integral to the conservation of Indian Ladder Farms, will be at the June 13 event to talk about conserving Lansing Farm in Colonie.

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy has already secured a Farmland Protection Program grant and is now trying to raise $100,000 to buy Lansing Farm’s development rights.

Lansing Farm, which sells what it grows directly to the public, King said, sits on about 20 acres of land that is surrounded by development. “It’s kind of the remaining piece of farmland in that part of Colonie, he said. “And as a result, it’s one of the few sources of fresh, local food available to people in that immediate area.”

The Lansings have farmed in the region for eight generations, King said, and like so many farms, their Colonie farm was once very large. King said that the family was very interested in passing the farm on to the next generation, which is already working at the farm.

The Lansings wanted to continue farming, King said; however, some siblings had had their fill of the farmer’s life. King went on, referring to the farm’s owner, “Al Lansing was devoted to farming and wanted to see [the land] retained as farmland.”

The challenge for Lansing was coming up with enough money to buy out his siblings, King said. “And so that spurred his interest in selling the development rights.”

King also said that the Lansing Farm conservation easement included a “pre-emptive purchase right,” which says that, if the farm were ever to be sold, its price would be tied to the value of farmland rather than what it could fetch from a developer.

“It makes it much more likely that the property will remain in agricultural use,” King said. ​

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