Despite the scarcity of grants for purchase of development rights, farmland conservation is important in Oneida County. Utica Observer Dispatch. By Amy Neff Roth. Ed Kulesa has made sure that the 101-acre farm on which he’s lived for 50 years will never be developed. He’s had offers from people who wanted to build a housing development and put in a gravel pit. But Kulesa wasn’t interested. So he donated a conservation easement – a binding legal agreement preventing development — to the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust last year.
“I have been thinking about protecting my farm for over 20 years, and seeing (a) story in the paper last year about my neighbor doing just that, I thought it’s time for me to do this,” said Kulesa in a release from the land trust. He declined to be interviewed. The land trust, the only one actively working in Oneida County or Herkimer County, now holds conservation easements on 1,813 acres of farmland (as well as 1,084 acres of forests) in Oneida County and 483 acres of farms (and 16 acres of forest) in Herkimer County.
But not much land in either county has been protected through conservation easements or the sale of development rights, an arrangement that pays farmers for putting restrictions on development on their land. Local applications made to the state’s Farmland Protection Program, which awards grants for the purchase of development rights, have been rejected so far.
That program has spent about $140 million to protect 232 farms with 59,165 acres, almost all of them either downstate or near upstate’s bigger cities — areas where greater development pressure has put farms at greater risk. Protecting farms isn’t just about keeping the area scenic, said David Haight, New York director of American Farmland Trust. Farms also play a vital role in the state economy and in food security, he said.
“This isn’t a gift for farms,” he said. “This is making sure we have the land we need for raising and growing food in our communities.” Despite the scarcity of grants for purchase of development rights, farmland conservation is important in Oneida County.
“It’s a very big issue because agriculture remains the No. 1 industry in this county,” said county Executive Anthony Picente. The county’s efforts to support farms include forming a committee on agricultural tourism last year, earning a state grant to update the county’s farmland protection program this year and funding an animal science center at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School, he said.
Giving up development rights forever isn’t for every farmer, said Jim Manning, community educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. “We need to make sure that there are other incentives, motivations and tools available for landowners who want to keep their land in agriculture but aren’t interested in that particular tool,” he said.