Fund farmland protection
Last week’s story about a conservation easement on the 400-acre Hoogeveen dairy farm in the town of Saratoga elicited mixed feelings. First, the satisfaction of knowing that another farm won’t be turned into a housing development in fast-growing Saratoga County. Next, the nasty realization that more farms inevitably will be because the state’s farmland protection program isn’t being adequately funded, and Saratoga County’s isn’t being funded at all.
That’s a pity, since there is great interest in the program in Saratoga County and other rural areas around the state. Many farmers want to continue farming, but can’t make a go of it or their land's value makes it too tempting not to sell to a developer. Or, like the Hoogeveens, they’d like to sell it to someone who will keep it in production, but both parties need some help to make the deal work.
Saratoga County was providing such help with a program that allowed for purchase of development rights (the property must remain as farmland or undeveloped forever), which it funded to the tune of $500,000 a year. And the state was doing the same with farmland preservation grants from the Environmental Protection Fund.
But the county, after blowing through a $30 million-plus surplus and facing serious budget problems (thanks largely to subsidies for its money-losing nursing home), stopped providing funding for farmland preservation in 2012.
And the state, whose funding was never enough to keep up with interest in the program anyway, took money from the Environmental Protection Fund to balance its budget during the Paterson administration. Gov. Cuomo earlier this year restored money to the EPF, but the farmland preservation program now has such a backlog of approved but unfunded deals that it has stopped taking new applications. The Hoogeveen conservation easement was one of those deals.
Considering the role that farms play in the upstate economy, the scenic beauty they provide and the growing interest in locally produced food, the state can do a lot better than the $12 million it provides each year for this program. And considering the increased development pressures created by the GlobalFoundries plant and new county water system, Saratoga County can do better as well. After selling the nursing home, it should be able to afford to.