You call this a farm?

OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has come to the aid of local farms that have run afoul of town laws. In Kinderhook dogs that protected alpacas got on neighbors’ nerves. A Gallatin doctor needed a wind turbine to power the mill that turns the wool of his sheep into socks. And then there was Stuyvesant’s short-lived fugitive chicken law.
     In each case, the department, known by its shorthand name, Ag and Markets, told the towns their rules didn’t apply to farms. The law allows Ag and Markets to overrule local laws as to way of preventing suburban sensibilities from smothering agricultural practices. And in the past the department has used its authority to good end. But an opinion it rendered last month raises the possibility that Ag and Markets may have abused its broad powers.
     On the surface the recent opinion looks straightforward: the farmer wants to build something bigger than the town allows; the town blocks it; Ag and Markets sides with the farmer, and that settles it—the farmer gets his way. In this case, however, the farm is no farm at all. It’s a former farm used by its owner as a dump.
     Sal Cascino, a Bronx waste hauler, owns Copake Valley Farm. The property covers 300 acres of bottomland bisected by the Noster Kill, a trout stream protected by the state. By his own account Mr. Cascino has dumped thousands of yards of construction waste materials on the property. Local and state officials have seen what looks like trash dumped there too.
     Mr. Cascino bulldozed wetlands around the Noster Kill to the point where the state Department of Environmental Conservation–backed up by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo–forced him to repair the damage. And the list of his violations of laws and regulations goes back a dozen years, making him a habitual scofflaw and possibly worse, depending on what he’s dumped on the property. Funny thing, though: none of his shenanigans to date has had anything to do with farming.
     Mr. Cascino’s latest scheme is a plan to build the largest structures in town, two huge barn-like buildings and two silos, each 70 feet tall. The town Planning Board refused to rubber stamp his haphazard and frequently altered designs, so Mr. Cascino’s lawyer went to Ag and Markets. Despite having information about Mr. Cascino’s past behavior, the department produced a stunningly narrow-minded opinion, upholding his right to build outsized structures that will, if Mr. Cascino’s past performance is any guide, likely be used for something other than farming.
     State Senator Steve Saland and Assemblyman Marc Molinaro have eloquently condemned Ag and Markets for its decision to side with Mr. Cascino against the town. The two lawmakers have called for Governor Paterson to intervene. They deserve praise and support for their forceful action. I hope they’re successful in convincing the governor to act. But they and other lawmakers need to go a step further.
     Mr. Cascino is no farmer, but he is a game player and he has gamed the legal system for over a decade, all the while dumping who knows what in a rural town with limited resources to stop him. Maybe it’s understandable that a timid bureaucrat in Albany would decide that anybody who calls himself a farmer must be a farmer and is entitled to do anything he calls farming. But state Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker should reopen this case, assigning it to a less gullible official who will consider the entire file on Farmer Sal.
     The larger challenge raised by Mr. Cascino’s activities involves the need to revisit the state’s definitions of farms and farmers. If Mr. Cascino passes himself off as a farmer while using his ‘farm’ to dispose of trucked-in waste, what’s to prevent an unscrupulous character from claiming his green thumb permits him to feed his chickens medical waste or grow tomatoes in radioactive soil?
     Allowing Mr. Cascino to abuse the power of Ag and Markets to defend the rights of farmers undermines the purpose of that authority. If everyone qualifies as a farmer, then what makes farming special? Maybe Mr. Cascino thinks that dump-truck husbandry is an agricultural activity, but lawmakers ought to close that loophole before people like Sal Cascino destroy our remaining farmland and there’s nothing left to eat.

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