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State Ag. Dept. offers $500,000 to help land trusts buy farmland to protect from development

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    Empire Farm in Copake. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets announced $500,000 is available for land trusts to protect farmland across the state through easements.
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    Old Mud Creek Farm in Hudson. The Columbia Land Conservancy has helped protect farmland throughout Columbia County through easements.
August 8, 2018 11:30 pm

ALBANY — The state Department of Agriculture and Markets made $500,000 available to eligible land trusts to protect farmland across New York, something the Columbia Land Conservancy has been doing for years.

Funds are being provided through the Land Trust Grants Program, which is starting its second round. In this round, grants of up to $50,000 will be awarded.

The state announced in April the awards through round one of the Land Trust Grants Program, which distributed $250,000 to seven land trusts across the state including $50,000 to the Columbia Land Conservancy.

The Columbia County Land Conservancy is in the process of closing on an easement with its 50th farm in the county.

The conservancy often purchases easements for farmland from the farmers with the development rights to the land, a part of the value of the property, with funding from the state and sometimes the federal government, which normally covers a portion of the cost. The land conservancy then partners with Scenic Hudson to cover the difference.

“A lot of farmers would rather have the cash than the development rights to the land,” said Columbia Land Conservancy Executive Director Peter Paden.

The land conservancy closed on the Doyle family farm in Austerlitz in November 2017 and the Ronnybrook Dairy Farm in Pine Plains in May 2017.

The Doyle family has farmed in Columbia County since 1875 and the easement encompasses approximately 600 acres of farmland.

Ronnybrook is owned by the Osofsky family and has been since David Osofsky purchased the land in 1947. The property was expanded by David’s son Ronny in 1962.

The farm has two easements covering 210 acres through the land conservancy and an additional easement through Scenic Hudson consisting of 186 acres. The two farmland protection easements were funded by state grants and with help from Scenic Hudson.

In all, since 1997, the land conservancy has used $30 million in state and federal funding as well as funds from Scenic Hudson to purchased easements for about 12,000 acres of farmland in the area.

“The state has been very supportive of our work,” Paden said. “We rely heavily on funding from the state.”

The Greene Land Trust has one farm under its protection, which it closed on in 2017. Theodore Flege, of Hannacroix, donated his 102-acre farm property consisting of forest, pasture and hay field, to the land trust to protect the land from being developed after his lifetime.

“We do not have a lot of farmland protection programs,” Greene Land Trust Executive Director Jill Knapp said. “We would be interested in farmland protection if there was interest, but no farmers come to us looking for farmland protection.”

Flege’s property would be good for developers, Knapp said, because it’s a flat piece of land.

The land trust focuses on preserving grasslands in the county to protect endangered bird species including the short-eared owl.

The lower quality of the farmland in the county makes it less eligible for land conservancy grants, a competitive grant process, Knapp said, putting it behind farming areas like Columbia County.

“New York has provided unprecedented support for farmland preservation over the last several years, from grant funding to assist with the purchase of development rights to support for the development of local land inventories,” according to a statement from state Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball. “This funding will cover the cost of an appraisal for a potential conservation easement project, helping to conserve New York’s valuable farmland for future generations.”

In 2018 to date, nearly $75 million has been dedicated by the state to farmland preservation efforts in New York, according to a statement from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

The governor in July announced $30 million available through the state’s Farmland Protection Implementation Grants Program meant to support conservation easement projects on dairy farms.

The state also made available in May a separate $38 million in the Farmland Protection Implementation Grants Program. Deadline for applications is Aug. 31.

The governor also signed legislation July 31 that will provide funding for land trusts to purchase easements on farmland with agreements that limit development of the land, a provision the Columbia Land Conservancy used in the purchase of easements on the Doyle family farm.

The agreements, which effectively limit development on farmland easements to farming operations, are called pre-emptive purchasing rights and cost land trusts extra money and the new law will provide the funds to pay the extra cost.

“If we buy an easement for $400,000, to limit development on the land would cost about an additional $80,000,” Paden said. “We would have to find that additional money elsewhere.”

The bill, which passed in June, was sponsored by Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106.

“Ensuring working farms pass from one generation to the next is one of the best ways to maintain our state’s proud agricultural heritage,” according to a statement from Barrett. “With the enactment of the Working Farm Protection Act, state assistance payments toward this goal are now a permanent option and have strengthened our existing farmland protection laws.”