EDITORIAL: Let farmers do it

THINK YOU WORK HARD for a living? Try farming. I learned early that I wasn’t cut out for it. Just before Easter vacation in 8th grade, the guidance counselor asked whether anybody in my gym class wanted to make some money working a few days at a nursery. I did a lot of babysitting, so this sounded great. Wrong.

Tree nursery. Field work. Stoop labor. Dirt and fertilizer and aching, thirst-producing, knuckle scraping work. Vegetables still snicker as I walk by. I worry when I see empty farms and watch new stores go up where crops used to grow. It’s not the aesthetics, just that I’d rather buy food than grow it.

Actually, the number of farms in Columbia grew between 2002 and 2007, the most recent period covered in the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census. That was before the recession hit, and maybe the growth rate has changed. But while the lousy economy acts as a damper on all sorts of businesses, economists see small farming as a success story, and several local groups focus on helping local farmers market what they produce.

It turns out that one of the biggest obstacles to farming here is the cost of land. Does that surprise anyone? Real estate may have temporarily lost its glow as an investment, but when farmland is worth more for development than for what it can produce, new farms won’t sprout and existing farms can’t grow or even survive.

How do you lower the cost of land to people who want to create or expand farms while adequately compensating the people who own it now? One answer is with the sale or donation of development rights on the land to a third party dedicated to preserving it as farmland. What seemed like of flood of these deals took place locally in the last couple of weeks.

In Stuyvesant the Columbia Land Conservancy and Scenic Hudson announced agreements on conservation easements for two farms along Route 9J north of Stuyvesant Landing. One farm has been sold to a young couple who already leased the land for their vegetable farm; a separate deal by a neighbor led to more land becoming available to the couple. Meanwhile, Scenic Hudson and the USDA helped another couple change their status from tenant farmers to farm owners by purchasing development rights on a farm in Clermont. In both cases peeling off the development potential made the land cheap enough for the young farmers to buy the farms.

Funds from the federal Farm Bill and from Scenic will also keep land in Germantown in agricultural use.

As much as I approve of conservation in the abstract, my hand instinctively clutches my wallet when I hear about these deals. What will happen to the property taxes as these easements become more popular. Turns out that what happens is not much. Local assessors set the value of all taxable property, and farms, even ones that have sold their development rights, retain value as agricultural properties. Farms do pay less than other types of taxable properties, and while it’s true that the farmer can no longer sell the farm for condominiums or a “chip fab” mega-factory, the property remains on the rolls as what it was before the development rights were sold: a farm.

The federal government does offer some remarkable income tax deductions for farmers who donate their development rights to organizations like the Columbia Land Conservancy or Scenic Hudson, although those incentives will sunset at the end of this year, so any farmer looking for a break ought to act fast.

Where the transfer of development rights to an organization like the conservancy keeps a farm operating, the process does have a local tax impact. Residential development costs $1.30 in local services for each tax dollar collected, but farms need only 37 cents in services out of each tax dollar. Makes sense. Chickens and cucumbers don’t need a high school diploma. (But please don’t remind anyone in the state legislature of this).

You hear all sorts of lofty statements about supporting farmers through mechanisms like the sale of development rights and how it saves the planet. Yeah, right, whatever. The way I see it, these deals don’t cost me anything and they make it easy for people who want to grow food to be farmers. The alternative is for me to grow my own food and sell some of it to you. Believe me, you don’t want that.

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