This 2017 file photo shows Burch Family Farm in Fort Ann, New York, after the farm suffered a barn fire. This year, the farm was awarded a grant to protect 648 acres.

FORT ANN, N.Y. — Seven eastern New York dairies have obtained nearly $3.5 million in state funding for farmland preservation with help from the nonprofit Agricultural Stewardship Association land trust.

Money comes in the form of dairy transition grants that allow farms to hand off operations to the next generation, diversify their business or convert farms to non-dairy uses while ensuring the land stays in active agricultural production.

Funding will conserve more than 2,000 acres in Washington and Rensselaer counties, bordering southern Vermont and northwestern Massachusetts.

“Our dairy farms have struggled for years with low milk prices and are essential to the long-term viability of our regional agricultural economy,” said Terri Ptacek, ASA executive director.

The largest grant, $859,075, was awarded to Fort Ann-based Burch Family Farm to protect 648 acres in Washington County. Funding is especially critical to this family following a September 2017 fire that totally destroyed a large cow barn and killed 120 animals.

“It gives us the opportunity to retain land for our children to pursue different agricultural ventures,” said Lucy Burch, who owns the farm with her husband, Richard. “We want to give the land that our parents gifted to us to the next generation so it can be used for as long as anybody wants to be in agriculture.”

Since the fire, the Burches took over a farm that previously belonged to Lucy Burch’s parents in the neighboring town of Kingsbury, where the couple’s son, Fred, has been producing hay and corn.

Richard and Lucy Burch no longer plan to pursue dairy farming at the main farm, but are considering several other agriculture ventures, which they declined to identify until plans become more definitive.

“We’re still regrouping, trying to move forward,” Lucy Burch said.

ASA spokesperson Katie Jilek said the Burches might raise dairy replacement heifers and other types of livestock in addition to hay production.

“For them it’s a way to keep farming,” she said.

Other Washington County farms that obtained grants are New Generation Farm ($413,670; 259 acres) in Argyle; Chapin Family Farm ($369,261; 308 acres) in Hartford and Liddleholme Farm ($324,968; 165 acres) in Greenwich.

Three Rensselaer County dairies obtained funding. They are Wagner Farms in Poestenkill (70 acres), Otter Creek Farm (439 acres) in Pittstown and Hickory Hill Dairy in Pittstown (332 acres).

This is the second time Wagner Farms has obtained help from ASA. In late 2016, it sold the development rights to 296 acres and used money to purchase additional land, enabling this third-generation dairy to expand operations.

The farm, located only a few miles from the city of Troy, is faced with increasing encroachment and potential conflict with neighbors from fast-growing residential development. However, its property known as Wagner Flats is considered some of the best farmland in New York state’s Capital Region.

In addition to the latest awards, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office recently announced a second round of funding that will make another $30 million available for dairy transition grants. To be eligible, farms must meet at least one of three main requirements. They are:

• Transitioning to a next generation of a continuing dairy, whose operation has been modified to ensure greater financial sustainability.

• Continuing dairy, but diversifying the overall farm operation.

• Converting to a non-dairy farm operation.

In general, projects close within one to two years of being selected for an award so it’s expected that some of the seven conservation easements will be finalized next spring.

“In almost all cases, the entire farmland will be conserved,” Jilek said. “In a few cases, the grant didn’t cover the home farm, but rather support land. For instance, Wagner Farms already conserved their home farm in 2018, but this recent grant is for farmland they had been renting and purchased after their initial grant award was announced in late 2016. Similarly, Liddleholme Farm is based in Argyle where they milk the cows, but this grant is on critical support land in Greenwich.”

Since its inception, ASA has helped conserve more than 22,300 acres of farmland and woodland in Washington and Rensselaer counties.

“We’re starting to work on a second batch of dairy transition grant proposals that will be submitted over several months,” Jilek said. “In addition, ASA is currently accepting pre-applications for those farms located in Washington and Rensselaer counties that are interested in applying for state Farmland Protection Implementation grants. These are offered every two years and not limited to cow dairy farmers.”

“We anticipate that the state Department of Agriculture and Markets will ask for proposals next spring with proposals due in summer,” she said. “We would likely hear about any successful Farmland Protection Implementation grants by the end of 2020.”

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