Real Estate 20 Under 40

Farmers fret future as funds remain on hold

2010-11-17T11:34:00Z 2010-11-17T16:59:39Z Farmers fret future as funds remain on holdDREW KERR - Glens Falls Post-Star
November 17, 2010 11:34 am  • 

Albert and Donna Marns have received plenty of calls from people who think the rolling hills on their Kingsbury farm would make the perfect backdrop for a country home.

They've never entertained the offers.

The Marns' reason for holding out is simple: they've seen surrounding farmland converted into things like houses, a golf course and soccer fields, and they fear the area is at risk of losing its rural charm.

"It hurts to see land we used to plant corn on or cut hay on turn into houses," Donna Marns said last week from the farm her father started working in the 1950s. "The rural landscape is disappearing. Pretty soon all of the farms will be squeezed out."

The desire to preserve land their families have inhabited for generations is what drove the Marnses to decide three years ago that they would sell the development rights to all 340-acres under their ownership.

The state agreed to buy the rights 18 months ago, a deal designed to prevent the property from ever being used for anything other than agriculture. But the money, around $470,000, still hasn't arrived.

When it will materialize, the Marnses have no idea. Until it does, they say, their ambitions to modernize their 250-cow operation, the Deep Roots Holstien Farm, are on hold. Debt they assumed to buy a neighboring property will also go unpaid, and the future of their land remains in doubt.

The wait, they said, is unsettling.

"My father worked this land his entire life, and when he passed away, he knew that this was going to continue to be farmed," said Donna Marns, whose three boys have shown an interest in continuing the tradition. "I want that same peace of mind."

The Marnses aren't the only farmers coping with New York's failure to release promised farmland protection funds. Across the state, more than 60 farms that have been pledged a combined $70 million in exchange for development rights are still waiting for their money.

Around a dozen of those farms are in Saratoga, Washington and Rensselaer counties, where two local land trusts are working to help farmers sell their development rights and retain the rapidly developing area's agricultural landscape.

Officials with those land trusts say that, if the backlog isn't addressed soon, many farm families may be put in financial peril and be forced to consider other ways to squeeze equity out of their land.

Some may sell to developers keen on dividing the tracts into building lots; others may simply stop farming, officials said.

"We're at a critical, critical juncture right now," said David Haight, the state director for the American Farmland Trust. "Some of these families were awarded money five years ago, and to be told it's going to be another five years - you will see some of these families decide that the state wasn't serious and will sell some or all of their farms."

Charles Curtiss, the owner of the Willow Marsh Farm in Ballston, is among those who are waiting for the state to make good on its promise.

He began the process of selling development rights to his 134-acre farm more than three years ago, hoping to use the money to move away from a wholesale dairy operation to a full-scale retail operation.

But after investing $20,000 in surveys, appraisals and lawyer fees, Curtiss still doesn't know when to expect his payment. The last he heard, his project was down to its final review.

"Basically, I really don't know what the state is going to do here," he said recently. "We're just playing the waiting game right now."

The delays have kept Curtiss' operation limited to his garage and to selling around 100 gallons of raw milk, yogurt and cheese a week. If the money arrived, he could expand and easily increase tenfold, he said.

If the state continues to stall, though, Curtiss said he may have to consider selling a few parcels, even if it means risking backlash.

"If some Realtor came along and said they wanted to buy 50 acres at the going rate, and I entertained it, I'm sure the state would be upset," the 52-year-old said. "But the state is really holding me up here. It's a very unfair game they're playing."

Maria Trabka, the executive director at Saratoga Preserving Land and Nature, a Saratoga County-based land trust, said such delays aren't just detrimental to landowners already involved in the agreements. A growing number of farmers are expressing interest in selling development rights, but they may think twice about making a commitment if they see others struggling to get the promised money.

With all of the growth occurring in Saratoga County, she said, the need to convince others of the program's merit is more pressing than ever.

"As one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, I think that our farms are particularly vulnerable to conversion to residential and commercial development," Trabka said. "And time is really of the essence here. We only have so many years to secure this land."

Trabka and her peers are optimistic the effort to fix the problem is gaining traction, however.

The New York State Comptroller's office released a report late last month that shows in stark detail the state's failure to fund its farmland protection program. Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo's environmental agenda also states the need to take care of incomplete farmland protection projects.

"Both of these reports shine a light on the problem, and I think that's the first step towards solving it," said Haight, of the American Farmland Trust. "For too long, farms were essentially overlooked and taken for granted."

The comptroller's report is particularly helpful, Haight said, because it also addresses the economic importance of agriculture in the state.

New York's farms generate $4.4 billion for the state's economy every year, including income generated directly by farms, as well as support and processing industries, according to the report.

And much of the money given to farmers for their development rights will be used to purchase equipment, buy feed and invest in other facets of their operations, he said.

Teri Ptacek, executive director at the Agriculture Stewardship Association, said the comptroller's report also shows how far behind New York is in funding farmland protection compared with its neighbors.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey invest nearly eight times more in their programs, money that has actually increased the number of farms in those states.

The number of farms in New York has meanwhile fallen from nearly 50,000 to 36,000 over the last 20 years; the amount of farmland in the state has dropped from 9.5 million acres to 7.2 million acres over the same period.

To reverse that trend, Ptacek said, the state needs to immediately clear the backlog and begin putting at least $50 million toward the effort every year.

The state put more than $30 million toward the program just three years ago but has afforded no money for protection efforts the last two years amid serious budget restraints.

"Most states and municipalities only make it a high priority when they lose so much that they realize what's at stake," Ptacek said. "But at that point, the trend is already too far along to reverse."

Copyright 2015 Glens Falls Post-Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. The Alleged Farm
    Report Abuse
    The Alleged Farm - November 22, 2010 3:02 pm
    I cannot help agreeing with Mr. Jenkins. Placing conservation easements on good farmland to keep those vital soils available for agricultural use is indeed just what Washington County needs. Agriculture can only continue to thrive in Washington County if we actively work to ensure that the excellent soils that have helped make farming the dominant player in the local economy are protected from development. And the most effective and efficient way to do that is through the purchase of development rights, which keeps farmland as farmland and offers hardworking farmers much needed capital to keep their operations up to date.

    It might be worth pointing out, too, that farmland generates more property tax revenue for local governments than it uses in local government services--unlike residential development. In effect, in other words, farmers have for years and years been subsidizing the very development that threatens their way of life. If the taxpayers of New York State, a group that includes, as Mr. Jenkins does not seem fully to realize, a lot of farmers and a lot of people who eat the food those farmers produce, are worried about their tax bills they might want to consider putting more money into protecting farmland instead of paying for quite so many massively expensive public works projects, such as highways and sewer systems, that support the rapid destruction of our farms.
  2. dancinghorsefarm
    Report Abuse
    dancinghorsefarm - November 19, 2010 8:14 pm
    In 1992 there were 341 dairy farms in Washington Co, NY, today there are appx. 170, hence the need to import. The agricultural product value regionally (contact Cornell Coop Ext) is in excess of $401,000,000.00. This value creates income tax revenue. Like many other businesses (ie the funding of AMD plant Malta) the agricultural business is in need of support in order to sustain (but willing to give rights to develop in return.) In this current economy we are ready to throw any organization receiving grant money under the proverbial "bus" as being a waste of taxpayer money. I would prefer to see grant money go to maintaining our farms/food sources than some of the non-essential recipients. The value of an acre of vacant(farm)land vs the value of an acre of land with a home or a building on it is accessed lower. If we don't support our local farms (buy local) we can expect higher prices in the stores. If foreign companies had a monopoly on food, what price would we pay?
  3. JeffJenkins
    Report Abuse
    JeffJenkins - November 17, 2010 1:12 pm
    Yes, that is just what Washington County needs. Have the taxpayers subsidize the sale of the property so it can never be used to benefit them. I don't see any ladowners wanting to give their property away to the state so that it remains "agricultural only". It seems to me that if they want to be paid for it, the state has no business buying it with taxpayer money. It only penalizes the taxpayer through continued increases in their property tax, to make up for the loss of property from the tax rolls(albeit at the reduced rate that farmers pay anyway).


1) Comments must be contained to the topic of the articles only. Comments that stray from the direct subject of the article will be deleted.

2) Readers are free to comment on and debate other readers' comments, but comments must specifically address the issue(s) raised. Comments containing personal insults directed toward another reader in any form will be deleted.

3) Comments must be civil in tone, and there will be no name calling of any kind. Uncivil or inappropriate comments will be deleted, as will any comment containing profanities.

4) Comments critical of crime or accident victims will be deleted.

5) Comments that are potentially libelous, including those that contain accusations not supported by facts, will be deleted.

Commenters who abuse these policies will have their e-mail registrations revoked.


View the full commenting policy.

Thank you, and we hope you enjoy interacting with us and the community.

Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick


Search Homes for Sale

Search Classifieds