by Peter Paden
Published February 1, 2013 in the Register-Star
If there is one thing most people in Columbia County appear to have in common it is an appreciation for the rural character of our landscape and our communities. Protection of the rural character of the area rates as the number one priority in survey after survey done in connection with the formulation or revision of comprehensive plans in municipalities from one end of the county to the other. “Rural character” is an elusive concept. But whatever it may mean, there can be no doubt that it is a product of our centuries-long agricultural heritage and that a vibrant farming sector will be essential to the preservation of this widely cherished quality of life.
Everyone who cares about these matters – farmers, for sure, but beyond that, anyone who enjoys living in a farming community, who loves the working landscapes, who appreciates the abundance of a wide array of high quality locally grown food and, beyond that, anyone who is invested or interested in the economic future of Columbia County – will be interested to know that within months the Board of Supervisors will be asked to vote on a matter of great consequence: whether or not to adopt a Columbia County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan.
The Columbia County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board (“AFPB”) recently released a draft of a proposed Farmland Protection Plan, dated November 1, 2012 (the “Draft Plan” or the “Plan”). The Draft represents two years of diligent work by the AFPB and takes into account extensive input that was received in a series of public meetings conducted early in 2011. The public is now being invited to comment on the Draft Plan at several public meetings in the coming weeks. Shortly thereafter the Board of Supervisors will schedule a public hearing and will decide whether or not to adopt the Plan.
What Is the Purpose of the Plan?
Adoption of the Plan would reflect a commitment on the part of our political leadership and policy makers to support and nurture a robust farming sector as a primary strategy for economic development and a strategy to ensure the continuation of the rural character of our area. As stated at the outset of the document, the Draft Plan sets out a strategy to conserve and manage the exceptionally rich agricultural resources of Columbia County and ensure that farming continues to play a central role in the economy and culture of our communities.
It identifies four broad goals and recommendations:
- economic and promotional support for agriculture,
- enhanced agricultural infrastructure,
- farmland conservation and
- agricultural education and outreach.
Through pursuit of these goals, the plan envisions a future in which the county “will be in the forefront of a robust Hudson Valley farming sector” and where “[p]eople who want to make a living as a farmer and people who want to live in a farm-friendly community will be drawn to and welcomed to our communities.”
What’s In the Plan?
The Plan contains a wealth of information about the markets and potential markets for Columbia County farm products (Chapter 2), a profile of the county’s farm sector (Chapter 3), and an inventory of our excellent farmland (Chapter 4), in which it also articulates a methodology to identify and prioritize lands that should be protected from conversion to non-agricultural uses. In the final chapter (Chapter 5) the four primary goals and recommendations described above are laid out and elaborated upon by a series of bulleted items that describe actions to be taken to achieve the desired objectives. A voluminous appendix presents extensive related or supporting information and materials.
Why Is This Important?
Our farmland is quite arguably the county’s richest natural resource. One-quarter of the land in Columbia County, some 100,000 acres, has high quality agricultural soils. Indeed, for all of the challenges that have confronted farming in recent decades, agriculture remains one of the most important sectors of the county’s economy. Our county’s farmers account for some $67 million in product sales annually, and that figure doesn’t include tens of millions of dollars of commerce generated by the purchase by farmers of equipment, services and supplies. Moreover, there is reason to believe our farm community is in the process of evolving and expanding. According to the most recent census data, for the first time in more than fifty years the number of farms in the county actually grew between 2002 and 2007. Considering the dramatic increase in demand for healthy food, responsibly grown in reasonable proximity to the point of consumption, it seems clear that farming in Columbia County could be on the verge of a new and flourishing era. Anyone who reads the local newspapers knows that not a week goes by without one or more articles reflecting a tremendous amount of interest and creative energy in the farm community.
Of course, as everyone knows, farming faces serious hurdles. Many are national and global in scope, far beyond the ability of those of us who live here to effect one way or the other. But as illustrated by the Goals & Recommendations of the Draft Plan, a number of things can be done on a local level to support and sustain farming. One of the most basic has to do with ensuring access to good farmland. In many Hudson Valley communities, the conversion of farms and the attendant fragmentation of farmland and escalation of land prices have led to the end of what was once a thriving agricultural sector. Access to farmland alone, however, without other supportive policies such as those described in the Goals & Recommendations of the Draft Plan, would likely not be sufficient to bring about the results sought.
The Columbia Land Conservancy believes that farming here has the potential to grow and prosper. We believe such a development would be good for our economy, and good for conservation. But it won’t happen in the absence of a strong commitment by those of us who live here today to make it happen. And that means, among other things, adoption of public policies to encourage and support the result.
Adoption of the proposed Farmland Protection Plan will not guarantee the vision of the future that it describes. It will be essential that the AFPB and everyone involved in support of this effort remain engaged and committed to articulate and pursue implementing strategies, and that county leadership buy into the effort. But adoption of the Plan would mark a significant milestone along the path toward achieving that vision.
Make Your Voice Heard
The AFPB has scheduled several public meetings to present the Draft Plan and take public comment on it. The first of these took place on January 22 at 401 State Street. The others will be held at the Stuyvesant Town Hall, Saturday February 2nd from 10AM – noon, and at the Ancram Town Hall on Saturday February 9th from 10AM – noon. If these are issues you care about, I hope you will be able to participate.
Peter Paden is Executive Director of the Columbia Land Conservancy. His column appears on the first Friday of every month.