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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 11, 2006

Sprawl is devouring our land

Illustration by Forest Byrd — The Enterprise

George Pratt always seemed like a cowboy to me. Back when he was Altamont’s chief of police, I ran off the road in a snowstorm. My kids, in the back seat of our old wagon, were shaken and frightened.

Pratt drove up in his cop’s car. A tall, lean figure in a windswept world of white, he sauntered over, leaned in, and asked in a matter-of-fact tone, "What seems to be the trouble, little lady""

I thought perhaps I’d hit my head and hallucinated myself into a John Wayne Western.

His presence calmed the kids immediately.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he stopped by our news office last week with a film he produced, Cowboys of Florida. But I was.

I expected to see a sentimental, maybe schmaltzy portrait of a bygone way of life — the kind of flick produced to promote tourism. Perhaps my view of Florida had been skewed by the Northeastern vacationers who return with beach pictures and Disney souvenirs.

The film, directed by Victor Milt, is, instead, a dead-on look at a little-known culture that may soon disappear. Milt sifted through hundreds of hours of film shot over three years to come up with 36 minutes that both entertain and instruct, without being preachy.

What riveted me most about the film, though, isn’t the ethos that is so important to Pratt — the American cowboy as a figure who participates rather than being a spectator in the arena of life.

Rather, I was struck by the effects of sprawl devouring our land. Oddly, the film rang true for stories we’ve covered here in Albany County over the last dozen years.

What could Albany County, New York possibly have in common with DeSoto County, Florida" We’ve never had cowboys roaming the range here.

But we have had a culture and a beauty that has come from people — in our case, farmers — working the land. Much of that is being eaten away by encroaching development.

A generation ago, we were horrified to learn that fishermen whose families had lived for centuries on Cape Cod could no longer afford to live or work there; land prices were beyond their reach. Pratt’s film shows clearly that the rising cost of land in the heartland of Florida is causing the ranchers to sell, cutting into the generations-long cowboys’ culture as surely as it did the New England fishermen’s.

Will it happen here next" Two years ago, we talked to the farmers who are left in New Scotland about what would help preserve their livelihood as development encroaches.

This week, reporter Holly Grosch continues her coverage of the increased property values in New Scotland — averaging 66 percent town-wide. What are considered modest or lower-income houses are now at $200,000. We’re pleased to introduce to our pages today an insightful young artist, Forest Byrd, of Altamont. "My goal is to encourage positive growth and change and truth." His illustration, next to this editorial, captures perfectly the dilemma in which many New Scotland residents now find themselves.

If we want to preserve the rural character which so many in our area feel is important, we must act now. As each of the Hilltowns and New Scotland wrestle with long-term planning, we again urge their leaders to meet together to adopt a regional perspective.

We’ll continue our extensive coverage of local planning and we’ll continue to highlight workable solutions to sprawl. As Gary Kleppel of Knox points out in his letter to us this week, "You can’t have a rural community without farms and you can’t have farms if farmers can’t make a living."

In this edition, we’re featuring a Guilderland family, the Grazianos, who have recently started farming here. They’re raising a classic, small breed of Hereford cattle, with lineage dating back to the 1700’s.

The rule of thumb is to allow an acre for every two cows, so even people with small amounts of land can raise them. The heart-healthy meat is popular now, and the cows are docile and easy to keep.

We certainly wouldn’t try to convince George Pratt that these small herds of small cattle would ever replace the grandeur of the large herds on the range. They won’t. But they can fill a niche here and now that helps keep landscapes rural and helps connect people to the land.

Jason Graziano told us he wanted his children to grow up with the same farm atmosphere he had to "learn the important lessons of life, the simple things..."

Those are the same kind of lessons that George Pratt valued on the range. He worries about kids who are divorced from reality.

We all can’t be cowboys, or farmers — nor should we want to be. If local farms disappear, we’ll still eat. We’ll get our apples imported from China instead of from the orchard down the road. But if those cultures vanish from our midst, we’ll all be poorer.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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