What will happen to farmland?

WE GOT RE-GIFTED last Christmas with a very nice jar of jam. The re-giver earnestly informed us that he’d been assured by the original giver the jam came from one of the best open-air markets in New York City. I wanted to say: It’s amazing the things they can grow on asphalt these days. But I settled for reading the label. The jam came from a farm in Stuyvesant.

Like a lot of people these days, I’m disconnected from the reality of farming. When I was young, I stacked hay bales for a while one summer, and I’ve never forgotten the feel of an airborne, 50-pound bundle of grass smacking me in the face. Later, our kids had pets, and some of them had hooves — the pets not the kids — but we never had to make a living from livestock or crops. Whether in the supermarket or at the farm stand, I’m grateful people grow food so I don’t have to.

Everywhere you go in Columbia County you see cleared, productive farmland, and there are hopeful signs about the county’s $66-million farm economy, or at least that’s what the figures from before the recession show. The latest census of agriculture in 2007 found that the overall number of farms in the county increased 11% between 2002 and 2007.

But during that same period the total number of acres used for farming decreased, and the average size of farms here dropped by 20%. Those losses and the factors that led to them have added urgency to a renewed effort, long overdue in this county, to adopt a countywide Farmland Protection Plan.

Open meetings scheduled around the county began last weekend in Chatham, which has a townwide plan in place; the meetings will continue over the next two months. The county Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board and other farm supporters are listening to ideas and concerns from farmers and anyone else who’d like to chime in with thoughts on what should be done to protect local farmland.

The county farmland board, which has been around for nearly two decades, tried before to move ahead with a protection plan, but it stalled. Now, though, the reality seems to have sunk in that once farmland is used for development, it’s lost forever in terms of farming.

Critics of farmland protection might argue that market forces alone should determine land use. But no one challenges the data showing that farms are the least costly type of land use in terms of services supported by local taxpayers. The free-market position also fails to take into consideration all the government subsidies, direct and indirect, that favor development over farming. As for farm subsidies, most of that funding goes to huge, industrial operations. Ask any struggling dairy farmer.

Why worry about protecting farmland now, when the housing market shows little sign of a quick rebound? Well, it makes sense to plan before a crisis happens rather than scramble once the threat turns real.

But if that rationale sounds too vague, consider another statistic from the last farm census. The average age of the “principal operator” of farms in Columbia County was nearly 59 years old. That’s almost 3 years above the statewide average. In a country ranked as having the second oldest population in the state, that may not come as a big surprise, but it does serve as a reminder that a huge shift in the ownership of farmland is about to take place. Some would say it has already begun. At the same time, fewer farms than ever have a succeeding generation waiting to take over. What will happen to all that farmland?

Some farm owners will want to sell their land for development. A Farmland Protection Plan would not prohibit that. But a plan would set out the goals and recommend policies designed to preserve the county’s legacy of farming. It would also identify the alternatives to an unrestricted sale of farmland. Among those choices is the sale of development rights, which provides the farmer with a fair value for his or her land while keeping the land available for farming.

Attending a Farmland Protection Plan meeting may not rank high on everybody’s list of entertaining ways to spend a few hours this winter. But if you’re one of those people who feel the urge now and then to eat food, you have good reason for paying attention to this process.

Details on the meetings are available at the Columbia Land Conservancy website, http://clctrust.org

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