NY Explores Ways to Cultivate New Farmers

12/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York state officials are taking steps to avert a looming agricultural crisis — not enough farmers.

With more than 25 percent of farm owners 65 or over, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has launched a campaign to recruit 100,000 new farmers nationwide.

More than a half-dozen groups told how New York state can help, at a Dec. 11 hearing hosted by Assembly Agriculture Committee Chairman Bill Magee, D-Oneida.

“There are some things the state can do,” he said. “We can cut down on the cost of doing business, save on paperwork and fees.”

A proposed “Let New York Farm Act” (A. 5286, S. 4340) sponsored by Magee and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Patricia Ritchie, R-Oswegatchie, would tackle many of these issues.

The measure would protect and strengthen local agricultural districts, reduce permit fees for agricultural products, target tax credits to agricultural operations and simplify record-keeping requirements, exempt farm wineries from overly burdensome reporting requirements, exempt rented farm vehicles from highway use tax and reduce farm-plated vehicle fees.

Increased demand for fresh, locally grown food and the recent boom in Greek yogurt business has highlighted the need for more new farmers in New York.

Some will come from traditional sources, such as existing dairy operations. However, many other people with nonagricultural backgrounds are joining the industry, too, such as organic farmers and specialty crop growers that fill a specific niche.

Lack of capital and available land are two of the major obstacles standing in the way of new farm ventures. The latter, shrinking farmland, is especially true in the highly populated Northeast where development continues to gobble up acreage at an alarming rate.

From 1982-2007, about 4,000 median-sized New York farms ceased operations, resulting in 425,000 acres of lost farmland, said David Haight, American Farmland Trust’s state director. Also, farmers who are now 65 and over account for 1.5 million of the state’s 7 million total farm acreage, generating $900 million per year in farm products.

“It’s a very big chunk,” he said.

In addition to legislative steps, the Farmland Trust is working with Cornell University on a Hudson Valley Farm Net/Farm Link program that would develop an online database to match prospective farm buyers with available real estate. Plans call for holding a series of workshops to train people how to find, buy or lease property, and determine what types of ag land are best for certain crops.

A network would also be set up matching farm owners with nonprofit groups that can help them apply for conservation easement funding from the state. For example, in Washington and Rensselaer counties alone, the Agricultural Stewardship Association has helped landowners save 14,200 acres in recent years. In Saratoga County, a group called Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land and Nature) has similar goals.

Since 1996, when New York’s farmland protection program was established, $173 million has been awarded for the purchase of conservation development rights, saving 73,000 acres at 300 farms throughout the state.

New York Farm Bureau says that other steps are needed to encourage new, young farmers. Specifically, it says the state should increase an estate tax exemption for family farms and that property taxes should be capped at 2 percent; and that the state should make it easier for farms to create LLCs, which don’t cost as much as other types of incorporation.

“We are seeing a greater interest from young people outside of agriculture who want to be a part of the local food movement or have an environmental interest in wanting to work the land,” said Julie Suarez, Farm Bureau public policy director. “It is a challenge to encourage all of them to jump into farming when the costs are often prohibitive of someone starting anew. But if we can ease the burden, it will also make it an easier sell to become a first-time farmer.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Darrel Aubertine testified that expanded market opportunities and education programs are key to a healthy, growing and vibrant farm sector.

“Agriculture is rapidly changing, as is consumer demand,” he said. “We need to think beyond the normal business practices, traditional markets and long-standing ways of doing business. The fate of tomorrow’s farmers depends on the policies, actions and approaches we take today.”

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