WALLKILL—On May 4 Gov. Cuomo announced $20 million in grants through the Hudson Valley Agricultural Enhancement Program that for the first time will help local farmers protect valuable, at-risk farmland from future development and maintain the land’s use for agricultural purposes.
Orange County received $2.8 million of that funding for four farms in the county. County Executive Stephen Neuhaus visited one grantee, Sycamore Farms in the Town of Wallkill, the day the grant was announced and met the Smith family who operate the farm. “They are great, down-to-earth people,” Neuhaus said.
Neuhaus said the successful effort was “a reflection of the hard work of a team of farmers, and town and county officials who submitted applications for quality projects to New York State.”
Wallkill will permanently protect Sycamore Farms, a 203-acre fruit and vegetable operation. Sycamore Farms offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, and it has a farm stand with a kitchen that turns out food products—baked goods, jams, jellies, preserved fruit, heirloom tomatoes, and more—that are sold at the farm stand.
Many farmers in Orange County struggle to make their farms profitable. Often, the only way farmers have to provide for their retirement is to sell to developers that offer more for the land than it would be worth if sold as a farm.
Susan and Henry Smith worked his family farm in Rockland County. The young couple hoped to own it someday, but soon saw the encroachment of development. “We discovered that there was no way that we would ever be able to purchase the family farm for what the value of the property had become,” Susan said.
In 1978 they bought a small farm in neighboring Orange County. “To farm on a property that has a value of development, you’ll never get your payback.” They had a 30-year plan. Today, the farm operation is two companies, Sycamore Farms LLC and Sycamore Farms Stand LLC.
Town and County Support
Wallkill Supervisor Dan Depew says this grant was very unique. “Normally they do a state-wide round, and everybody competes against everybody. This time the governor put $20 million just in the Hudson Valley and they did it with 45 days’ notice.
He mobilized the town. Town employee Michelle Baker coordinated town data for the application. Engineers drew up a map of protected agricultural land and inspected potential preservation farmland.
“I was on the phone with the Smiths to help them with their application until midnight a couple times,” Depew said. The town hired Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Corp to put the application together.
The county soon jumped in. Dave Church, the county’s director of planning, said the county also provided “mapping and documentation, access to additional professional assistance, and a direct grant of $1000 per application to help defray costs.”
“I think the reason they put in so much effort is that we worked so hard. That’s the largest award in the state,” Depew said.
Busy Family Farm
Sycamore Farm grows “upland vegetables,” such as tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini, not the onions and other produce grown in the black dirt region,. The farm starts tomatoes and cucumbers in a greenhouse and plants strawberries in the field. They grow peaches, plums, and nectarines from their own fruit trees.
The farm grows cabbages and several different kinds of lettuces and peas. Susan estimates they harvest about 30 kinds of tomatoes—heirloom, plum, field-grown, and greenhouse. “Easily, we could have 60 different crops,” she said.
Susan says Sycamore Farm is a conventional farm in many ways but unusual in that “everything is picked by hand.” Workers who have worked at the farm for many years do a lot of the planting and harvesting.
Susan says they only sell retail, not wholesale, even to restaurants in New York City.
The farm does what Susan calls “agri-education.” She said, “We really want to demonstrate to people how agriculture is really important.”
The farm has worked with Walden elementary school and with younger children. Last year the farm started farm-to-table that invites a chef to prepare a dinner with the farm’s produce.
The Smith family agreed to apply for the grant when they saw how development was swallowing up more and more farmland. “We figured that would be what would happen to our farm,” Susan said.
As Henry and Susan raised their children on the farm and worked the fields, they changed how they felt about the farm. “We bought it, we worked it, we loved it. Our children grew to love it. Then you have a different feeling about selling it. Now all of a sudden it has become a family farm.”
Susan Smith said the town was eager to preserve more farmland. With a proactive supervisor and the support of a council who are concerned about growth in the town, town officials moved quickly when the state offered funding.
The grant is the difference between the value of the land as development and as farmland. “They are not purchasing our farm. The state will pay us the difference between farmland value and development value,” Susan said.
The Smith family will continue to pay all the taxes on the property. Susan and her husband plan to invest the grant for their retirement.
Neither the Smiths nor the town has yet seen any official documentation from the state about the award.
The Smith’s son Kevin wants to continue to operate the farm. “Now we have a second generation and perhaps a third generation of farmers,” Susan said.
Kevin said he wants to continue to diversify the crops they now grow and to improve the farmland itself. “I want to build up the soil. I want to improve the overall health of the farm every year. I want to improve an overall ecosystem here while still producing the same high quality produce.”
A map made by the county for the application notes soil types. “We have lovely land for Orange County,” Susan said, a gravelly loam with good drainage.
Susan said the community will notice the effect of farm preservation because the farm is on a main highway. “People will see that this remains green, that this remains productive as a farm, and that we are saving a farm.”
Farming is a cost benefit for towns. Henry said a Farm Bureau flyer stated that for every dollar a consumer pays in taxes, they cost towns $1.48 in services. For every dollar that a farmer contributes to taxes, they cost the town 28 cents. “Farming is a good thing to have in a community.” Susan said.
The governor announced the Hudson Valley Agricultural Enhancement Program on Oct. 27, 2015, the first regionally targeted funding from the executive budget to protect viable agricultural land from being converted to non-agricultural use. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets administers the program.
“The land preservation funding for these four farms is great news for farm families and everyone in Orange County,” Church said. “Orange County remains committed to agriculture and our farm families and their businesses.”
Kevin acknowledged the work of the town and the county and is grateful that his parents supported the application. “Without my parents willing to entertain the idea, nothing would go anywhere.”
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