Saving our farms is a burning need

Illustration by Forest Byrd

We’ve written countless times about the disappearing farms in Albany County and about the value of farming to this region. Working farms preserve open space, which not only maintains scenic vistas and a country feel, but also prevents traffic congestion and an overburdening of municipal services. Farms also keep taxes in check since they don’t require the schools and services that suburban and commercial development do.

The current movement to buy produce locally — saving the energy used in transport as well as providing fresher, safer food — can only work if we have local farmers to buy from.

These are reasons why we should all care that the Albany County Farm Service Agency office, located in New Scotland, is slated to close. Farmers — 100 strong — packed the office last week at a public hearing to protest the closing. No one spoke in favor of the merger.

If plans proceed, local farmers would have to travel an hour to Cobleskill to use the FSA office currently serving both Schenectady and Schoharie counties.

Of the more than 2,300 FSA county offices in the United States, 43 are in New York State. Brymer Humphreys, who oversees the FSA offices in New York, told our reporter Tyler Schuling that, in considering which offices to close, he and his committee looked at the number of farms in each county, the number of programs at the sites, the location of the offices in relation to other FSA sites, and the size of the offices and number of staff members.

According to results from 2002 from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are 484 farms in Albany County. In 2006, the Albany County FSA office paid 153 individual farmers, and in 2005, it paid 162 farmers.
"That’s a pretty low number," Humphreys said. "The county average is about 300."
If farmers here are struggling, faced with heavy development pressure, does if make sense to pull out the support they have"

Thomas Della Rocco, the executive director of the Albany County FSA office, opposes the merger. And it’s not because he’s going to lose his job. He also manages the Schoharie-Schenectady office. In fact, six of the eight counties considered for closure have an executive director who manages two county offices.
The Albany office employs two program technicians; one post will be eliminated with the merger, said Della Rocco. Humphreys said, "A larger staff creates a better work environment" and that four or five employees in an office is ideal.
"I’m not in favor of this," said Della Rocco. "The biggest impact is going to be in services to agriculture. It’s important that the USDA have a presence in Albany County," he said of the United States Department of Agriculture, which is also consolidating and closing offices for the Rural Development Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
We’re all for government efficiency, but not if it means losing a valuable service. The savings for one post and overhead — for rent, utilities, travel and temporary staffing totaled less than $56,000 this year — isn’t worth it. We pay taxes to our government so that it will provide needed services. Indeed, the word "service" is embedded in the very identity of the Farm Service Agency.

We hope Humphreys heard the voices of the farmers at the public hearing loud and clear. Two of those who spoke are politicians as well as farmers — Alexander (Sandy) Gordon, a Knox farmer, and Kevin Crosier, an Albany firefighter and Berne supervisor who produces maple syrup on his Berne farm. They are involved in a heated battle for the Democratic line in the race to represent the Hilltowns in the Albany County Legislature; Crosier is challenging the incumbent, Gordon, in the Sept. 18 primary.
But they both, tellingly, spoke on the same side at the public hearing. Farming, Gordon said, is the largest industry in New York State. "It needs more attention, not less attention," he said.
Crosier pressured FSA committee members to drive with him to the lookout at Thacher Park, where, he said, they could see farmland being encroached upon. "They don’t face that in Schoharie County," he said. "We’re facing it in Albany County."

Competing farmers also spoke as one.

The Ten Eycks and the Abbruzzeses own the only two apple orchards left in Albany County, where dozens used to dot the landscape. The Abbruzzeses have made part of their orchards into a golf course and the Ten Eyks have created a tourist destination where they educate consumers about where their food comes from. Both sell local produce. Both spoke forcefully against the closing of the FSA office.
"I think you should be outraged," said Peter Ten Eyck. "I think you should be indignant." He said that too often farmers "get things out of pity, not out of respect."

We respect our local farmers and we urge those of you who do the same to speak out.

Kevin Politsch with the FSA in Washington, D.C. told our reporter that, if a community makes a strong enough case, Humphreys may revise his plan. Della Rocco said the state committee members will have a finalized plan by the end of September. So now is the time to make your thoughts known. Having working farms in our midst benefits us all.

— Melissa Hale Spencer, editor

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