County updates Farmland Protection Plan to ensure thriving agriculture trade

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Farms associated with beekeeping are part of the mix in Albany County. Here, in August, Tim Norray checks a hive in his bee yard on Pleasant Valley Road in Knox.

ALBANY COUNTY — Farming in America has changed.

Output has increased dramatically while the amount of land and labor needed to farm has diminished.

In Albany County, changes can be seen in the marketplace, with the loss of dairy farms and the closure of processing plants, and in land-use, with changes to zoning laws, according to a 2018 update of the county’s 2004 Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan.

The update “was developed to ensure the long-term viability of a strong and prosperous agriculture industry in the county,” the plan says.

Like a town’s comprehensive plan, the update of the county’s plan, does not carry the weight of law; rather, it makes a series of recommendations that identifies goals, objectives, and policies for the immediate and long‐term enhancement, growth, and development of Albany County’s farming community.

2004

After the adoption of the 2004 plan, Albany County identified a series of “rapid-response projects,” short-term and low-cost initiatives, that would promote local products and a raise awareness of agriculture in the county, including: the adoption of a county right-to-farm law; the establishment of a local food-purchasing policy for Albany County’s government; and the improvement of  access to maps and information about the county’s agricultural districts by putting them online.

The 2004 plan had three main goals:

— Increase marketing opportunities, competitiveness, and profitability of farming and the agriculture industry;

— Increase public recognition of the value of agriculture, farmers, and farmland; and

— Retain farmland for agricultural purposes.

A lack of funding hindered some recommendations made by the 2004 plan, said Thomas Gallagher of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Albany County. But, he did say that they did a pretty good job increasing the public’s recognition of the value of agriculture.

For three years, 10 restaurants in Albany were involved in a “restaurant week,” Gallagher said, which featured all local products on their menu for an entire week.

“We also did a drive-it-yourself farm tour,” he added.

The group struggled to develop a “food hub,” Gallagher said, a central location where farmers could bring their product, from where it could then be distributed to schools, dining halls, and businesses. A full-time farmers’ market, in downtown Albany, has yet to become reality as well.

A few farmers were connected directly with schools to provide them vegetables, but that became difficult because the schools expected “the vegetables cut up the way they wanted them,” Gallagher said.

Now there are state grants available to help farmers. “I think, this time, we’re going to have some better opportunities to market to local restaurants — to colleges,” Gallagher said. “I mean, we’ve got close to 30 colleges in the Capital District.”

With the updated plan, Gallagher said, there is a hope to develop more markets for Albany County’s farms, through the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, which has “a specific focus on the viability of the agricultural economy in the region.”

Albany County

Agriculture is a net contributor to the Albany County economy; farmland requires fewer services than residential development, and has contributed positively to local governments’ budgets, according to the updated plan. Agricultural and open land costs towns 29 cents for every dollar paid in taxes; residential land costs $1.27 for every dollar paid in taxes.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture, from 2012, the market value of agricultural products sold in New York State was $5.4 billion; in Albany County, it was $45 million.

In 2017, according to the state comptroller office, the market value of agricultural products sold in New York State was $4.8 billion; in Albany County, it was $22 million.

New York’s gross domestic product, the total value of goods produced and services provided in the state during one year, in 2017, was $1.55 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. The state’s farms, in 2017, contributed about $2.4 billion to New York’s gross domestic product, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Albany County covers about 335,000 acres.

In 1982, there were nearly 82,000 acres of active farmland in Albany County; currently, the county has about 61,000 acres of farmland, according to the 2018 updated plan.

The number of farms has declined from 510, in 1982, to 494, in 2018.

However, since 2004, there has been an increase of 98 farms in the county.

The business and future of farming  

“What we’ve found is we’re starting to get smaller farms, which is good,” said Gallagher.

There are farms associated with beekeeping and the craft-beverage industry, Gallagher said, which has been a boon for New York’s farms. The farm-brewery law, which went into effect in 2013, was designed to support the state’s breweries and increase demand for locally-grown farm products.

“We’ve got the beverage and craft industry, which has added [to the number of farms] because they’ve got to buy locally-grown hops and barleys,” said Gallagher. “Some people have gone into just the hops — not making the beer — but growing hops.”

In order to receive a state farm-brewer license, “beer brewed by farm brewers must be made with a certain percentage of NY grown inputs,” according to a New York State brewery supply-chain analysis by Cornell. Until Jan. 1 of this year, at least 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of all the other ingredients in the beer had to be from New York. After Jan. 1, the percentage increases to 60 percent of the hops and 60 percent of all other ingredients; by January 2024, beer brewed by farm brewers must have 90 percent of its hops and 90 percent of all other ingredients from New York State. Since 2013, 202 farm breweries have obtained state licenses.

There are also new, traditional farms, Gallagher said, doing non-traditional things.

For example, he said, traditionally, farmers would raise beef cattle to the point where the cattle could be sold to a feedlot. Now, some farmers are cutting out the middleman, feedlots, and selling directly to the customer.

“Let’s say a feeder calf goes for a dollar a pound, and gets you $700,” Gallagher said. “You sell that same one after you’ve fattened it, and you’re going to get twice that back, by selling directly to consumers.”

This type of non-traditional farming, in Gallagher’s view, has drawn in the next generation of farmers.

Albany County farmers have an average age of 61.

Fifty-nine percent of the survey’s respondents for the new plan were 61 or older, while 66 percent of respondents said that estate and transition planning, and maintaining profitability for next generation was “important” or “very important,” to them.

In 2012, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 31 percent of principal farm operators were 65 or older. For every six farmers over the age of 65, there was just one under the age of 35.

But Gallagher is seeing something slightly different.

“I had a meeting Wednesday night ... I would have to say, out of the 25 people that were there, probably 30 percent that were under 30 [years old],” he said, that would be unheard of 10 years ago. He added, “I don’t know whether this is true in most cases.”

It is.

In 2014, for just the second time in 100 years, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that, between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers under the age of 35 had increased. The Census of Agriculture is conducted every five years by the USDA; the data from 2012 is the most recent available.

For this generation, said Gallagher, farming has become, to a certain extent, “glamorous.”

The concept of agriculture has changed for some young people, Gallagher said. They have become interested in protecting the soil and land, and knowing how their food is grown and produced. “People look at it as a way of life,” he said.

Land and land-use

“Pressure from development and a lack of contiguous, high quality farmland,” the updated plan states, “mean that farmers are hard-pressed to purchase existing property to expand operations or to start anew.”

What can be done to help farmers with these issues?

Gallagher points out that Cornell offers a small-farms program, which helps “farmers get expert assistance to facilitate all phases of small farm business development, from initial growth to optimization to maturity.”

The 2018 Albany County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan offers eight land-use tools that can be used to protect farmers and their land: right-to-farm laws, permanent conservation easements, agricultural districts, term easements, a critical farm program, purchase of development rights, conservation subdivision regulations, and soil protection.

In Gallagher’s estimation, New York’s passage of the Agricultural Districts Law, in 1971, has been the best land-use tool that the state’s farmers have had; it’s the most-used farmland-protection tool in Albany County.

Before there was an agricultural-districts program, Gallagher said, farmers were being taxed at the same rate as all landowners. “So, if a farmer had an acre of land, they were paying the same amount for that acre as a homeowner. And so, if you had 500 acres, you couldn’t afford to stay in business.”

Through an agriculture-value assessment, which is based on the quality of a farm’s soil, and also depends on the town, Gallagher said, a farmer could reduce his property and school taxes anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.

In addition, an agricultural-district designation, will protect farmers from “frivolous lawsuits,” Gallagher said, basically, a lawsuit brought against a farmer for being a farmer.  

The threat of development has been a curious menace for Albany County’s agricultural and farm land because, as the plan points out, the county’s rate of construction exceeds its population growth.

“At some point, somebody’s going to say, ‘Wait, we’re building all these houses, and we’ve got nobody to move into them,’” Gallagher said, and, yet, the housing is continuing to be built.

“Such sprawl infringes on agricultural lands and open spaces, threatening agriculture in the county,” the plan says of the continued building of homes.

Recommendations

“To ensure the long-term viability of a strong and prosperous agriculture industry in the county,” the plan offers a series of recommendations.

Land-use preservation

— Improve participation in existing farmland conservation programs;

— Create a critical-farm program, which lends funds to farmers; and

— Create a countywide lease of development rights program, a voluntary mechanism that suspends the development potential of agricultural real estate.

Land-use regulations  

— “Harmonize” the definition of agriculture;

— Support the development of a regional-information exchange program;

— Support a regional view of agriculture; and

— Develop a land-use training program.

Goods and Services Market Transformation  

— Support a year-round farmers’ market;

— Improve development of craft-beverage supply chain;

— Create a forest-product innovation plan; and

— Encourage regional agritourism.

Entrepreneurial services improvement

— Become a member of the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation membership; and

— Support the creation of a regional farmer mentor program.

Critical Infrastructure

— Support improved roadway conditions;

— Improve broadband access; and

— Encourage greater use of alternative fuels in heat and power projects.

 

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