Keeping farms a mainstay of Sullivan County
By JOE WALSH
Sullivan County is first and foremost an agricultural county. With over 380 full- and part-time farms, over 63,000 acres of farmland and a $60 million output, agriculture is the leading economic force here. It is also a very land-dependent industry and the land that is best suited for agriculture is also highly sought after by developers.
We are quickly reaching a critical point at which the rate of growth threatens the continuing viability of agriculture. The county dilemma is that the very things that are attracting developmentnatural resources, rural settings, farmland, pastoral scenes and open spacecan be destroyed by its success.
Can agriculture and development coexist? Yes, but only with a lot of forethought, planning and education on the part of the towns and the county. The recent cost of community services study done by the planning department shows clearly that agriculture is the land use that demands the least in municipal services, helping to keep taxes down. The old adage that cows dont go to school rings as true as ever. The Sullivan 2020 Plan highlights agriculture and open space protection as priorities, and outlines steps that the towns and the county can take over the next few years.
With many of the towns currently updating their master plans, this is the perfect time to make them more agriculturally friendly. Right to Farm Protection (provisions specifically stating that agriculture is an acceptable land use within a town), building and zoning considerations and various tax abatements, along with farmland or open-space protection strategies, should all be considered a priority as these master plans are redone.
The county is working on open-space protection legislation that will assist in securing both state and federal grants to fund local Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) projects. A local fund will be established to augment grant funds to purchase farmland development rights.
The county became eligible to apply for state funds for PDR in 1999 when the Farmland Protection Plan was ratified by the county legislature and accepted by the Department of Agriculture and Markets. Through the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, grant requests have been submitted each year since then.
A number of properties have been evaluated and scored over the past few years. Unfortunately to date, the county has not been selected for funding. As development pressure continues to rise in the county and more money is allocated by the state, we are hopeful that we will see PDR funds come to Sullivan County.
The time has arrived for the towns and county to protect not only a prime industry of the county, but the resource that keeps it viable: the land. More and more people are realizing that keeping the land in farms is the best way to preserve the character and appeal of the county. It makes sense in so many waysopen space, lower taxes, rural character. Lets not wait until we become a suburb of Orange County!
Joe Walsh is the Agricultural Program Leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County. He is also a member of the County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board.