Posted September 10, 2004: I’d like
to begin with a story of two farms located next to each other
in the mid-Hudson Valley. This is a true story, but let’s
call them the Jones Farm and the Brown Orchard. The Jones
Farm surrounds the Brown Orchard on three sides.
Judy LaBelle gave the following presentation during
a session on farmland protection at the Kellogg
Food and Society Networking Conference earlier
this spring. It was the clearest and most practical
analysis I’ve heard of the unintended mistakes
communities make about farmland preservation when
creating development plans … and the strategies
that work successfully to integrate the beautiful
farmland that all communities want into the development
mix in a way that is viable for farmers. So, we
asked her for permission to reprint the text of
her address here on the New Farm web site, and
she agreed. I think you’ll find it engaging
reading, even if your community is not currently
engaged in a struggle over the proper course of
develop for the future.
The Glynwood Center, located in the Hudson highlands
an hour north of New York City, strives to help
“communities integrate their natural resources,
cultural heritage, and economic development potential
to create a brighter future that is distinctively
theirs.” The Center hosts a 225-acre working
farm, and one of their many agricultural initiatives,
Keep Farming, is a program designed to
help communities identify the many irreplaceable
benefits of farming and to develop action strategies
for generating public support for local farmers.
They’re currently piloting the program with
two communities in Pennsylvania, and have produced
a workbook, Smart Agriculture: Connecting
Communities, Farming and Food, for community
members. The program will eventually be made available
to other communities. For more information, contact
Program Manager Virginia Kasinki at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Glynwood Center has also partnered with the
Leopold Center in Iowa on developing a “farmers
in the middle network,” a national, community-based
initiative to support small and mid-size farmers,
who are vanishing at an alarming rate. For more
on this initiative, click
For more information on the Glynwood Center,
its programs, farm and conference center, you
can visit their excellent website at www.glynwood.org.
The Jones Farm had become an estate farm and was eventually
sold for development. Both the developer and the town were
proud of the development proposed, which was innovative for
the region: instead of cookie cutter lots, it mixed single
family home lots with townhouses and apartments, providing
a variety of housing types much needed in the area. The developer
stressed that the prospect of living next door to the Orchard
would be attractive to potential buyers; the site plan included
road names like “Orchard Lane”.
During the review process, the owner of Brown Orchard expressed
several concerns. For example, he was afraid that the road
names would suggest that his orchard was part of the development
and open to unrestricted use by the residents. His requests
that the road names be changed and that the developer be required
to erect a fence separating the development from his farm
(an expense he could not afford) were denied. The town did
accept his request that a buffer be created between the development
and the orchard, but only 25 feet wide.
A few years down the road, the orchard has 500 neighbors.
There are so many children that a new school has been built,
also nearby the orchard. The intent of the buffer has not
been honored or enforced – although houses were not
built in it, pools and decks and playsets have been. Since
the farmer cannot spray next to these kinds of uses, he has
had to pull back from active management around the boundary
of his property, effectively shifting the buffer onto the
orchard and reducing his productivity.
Despite Brown’s dedication to responsible farm practices,
he must continually deal with complaints from neighbors regarding
noise (“Can’t you use your tractor during the
week when I am at work, rather than on the weekend?”
or “Do you have to make so much noise at night?”
on a summer evening when the sun is still high in the sky);
and traffic (mostly from a pick-your-own operation that is
an important element of the orchard’s financial base).
Damage to crops and machinery, even vandalism and theft,
have become commonplace as a result of children in the new
development who do not respect the farm. Given the turnover
in residents, it is hard to establish the relationships needed
to combat this. The total impact of the new development has
been such that Brown has begun to consider whether he, too,
should sell his farm for development.
The point here is that there were many missed opportunities
for local officials to shape the new development in ways that
would have protected the viability of the orchard.
As advocates for small and mid-size farmers and local food
systems, we often overlook this key set of players who have
the ability to either advance or frustrate our efforts - the
officials who control land use and other regulatory and tax
policy at the local level.
Surprisingly, most of them aren’t aware of the effect
that their actions have on farming, either. Their assumption
is that farm viability is determined by national policy or
broad economic forces that are beyond their influence.
But there are many ways in which local policy impacts farm
viability. There are many local policies and regulations that
undermine a farmer’s ability to succeed, for example,
by making it difficult to diversify or to engage in direct
marketing. And there are many local regulatory approaches
and real property tax programs that can affirmatively encourage
those farmers to remain in farming.
In New York, Pennsylvania and many other states, the majority
of land use decisions are made at the municipal level, by
Town and Village government officials. Other states delegate
authority to the county government. In both cases, these local
leaders play a key role in what happens on the land, including
A primary focus of Glynwood’s work is on what can be
done at the community or regional level to sustain small and
mid-sized farms. In the course of this work we have identified
several basic ways in which local regulations undermine the
sustainability of farms – as well as innovative approaches
being taken by communities in our region that may spark ideas
to be explored in your own communities. I’d like to
share a few.
Zoning too often both reflects and creates
a mindset that farming is “transitional.”
For example, the vast majority of land in New York is zoned
commercial, industrial or residential. In most communities,
agriculture is not a separate zoning category, but is an “as
of right” use in a residential zone, which in most rural
communities means that you can build one house on every acre
of land. This land use policy both reflects and creates a
mental framework in which agriculture is seen as part of a
transitional landscape: there is an assumption that all farmland
will one day become residential housing – that housing
is its “highest and best use.” Even farmers come
to value their land not in terms of production capacity, but
by the number of “buildable lots” allowed by the
zoning. Too often, value for future development, rather than
value for current agricultural use also determines real property
- Innovation: Pittsford, New York, is
an example of a community that has developed a vision of
its community’s future that encompasses agriculture
and uses its zoning authority to help achieve that vision.
It created a “greenprint” plan, based on an
analysis of what the community values, and uses its financial
resources as well as its zoning authority to protect farm
land. For example, to achieve the maximum impact from its
purchase of development rights from farm land, it developed
a strategy that gives priority to the farm land that is
most subject to development pressure.
The Law of Unintended Consequences:
Lot sizes intended to
slow the conversion of farm land often encourage it.
When communities realize that one acre residential zoning
is encouraging the loss of farmland, they generally require
either “large lot” zoning or “cluster”
development, neither of which helps farmers stay in production.
In part this is because development is allowed to “leapfrog”
across the landscape, creating a patchwork of developments
and farms that become uneasy neighbors.
The requirement of large lots – 3, 5 or even 10 acres
– just leads to more rapid spread of residential development
as more land is used for each house. So some communities now
require “cluster” development in which houses
are grouped on small lots and some percentage of the land
remains “open.” To encourage clustering, many
communities even provide a bonus, allowing additional units.
However, most cluster developments are designed so that the
open space maximizes the value of the new homes, which often
makes continued agricultural use unfeasible. The houses are
usually placed in the center of the old farm, surrounded by
irregularly shaped fields that now serve as an open space
amenity, often complete with trails. At best the fields may
be mowed for hay, but they are rarely used for animal husbandry
or the production of food.
- Innovation: Red Hook, New York, now requires
that when a farm is developed, the site plan must include
a soils map. The houses must be sited in a way that disturbs
as little land as possible and avoids the best quality soils.
In many counties, the health code requires that houses that
are not served by municipal sewer systems be located on
at least an acre of land to ensure an adequate septic field.
So even when an attempt is made to move away from one acre
development in the local zoning code, it may be imposed
through the county health code.
- “Package treatment systems” could be installed
to manage waste on the site of these scattered developments,
allowing smaller lot sizes. Many county boards of health
had bad experiences with an early generation of these systems
in the 1970s and 80s and are unwilling to allow the use
of the current generation. It is worth urging them to reconsider.
The Law of Unintended Consequences:
(and their purchasers) are drawn to agricultural areas for
the scenic settings provided by the farms. But the new owners
often make it difficult for the farms to remain in operation.
Many developers like to locate their residential developments
next to small and mid-size farms, which are considered “scenic.”
- Innovation: Some communities in the
Hudson Valley, such as Goshen, now require that when a subdivision
is created near an active farm, each deed must contain a
notice that the nearby farming operation will generate normal
noise and smells. This helps create a more realistic expectation
on the part of the buyer. And if the local officials do
later receive a call from a new homeowner demanding that
action be taken against the farmer, he or she can point
to this notice and refuse.
There are many other things that the town in my initial example
could have done in considering the Jones Farm development
that suggest ideas to consider in similar situations. For
example, the orchard would have benefited had the town officials
heeded Brown’s request that the developer be required
to construct a fence along the boundary with the orchard.
The town could also have required a wider buffer area or at
least enforced the setback that it did require. And Farmer
Brown still believes that the street names (to which he had
objected) contribute to the new residents’ assumption
that his land is open to their use.
Zoning often does not allow farmers to
diversify their income.
Every zoning code includes a definition of the “accessory
uses” allowed within each type of district. What is
considered an acceptable accessory use on a farm varies from
one town to the next. For example, in Clinton Corners, New
York, a commercial kitchen is considered a commercial use
and prohibited on agricultural land.
In Warwick, only 75 miles away, these activities are all
deemed acceptable farming uses under the zoning code. The
Rogowski Family Farm recently added a large commercial kitchen
and began a catering business, producing soups and other value-added
products from their own produce, taking advantage of changing
Other examples of zoning that may preclude diversification
of farm income include set back requirements that require
that farm stands be set back far from the road, thereby making
them hard to notice and undermining their potential; subdivision
requirements that require that a farm parcel be subdivided
before a barn, for example, may be used as a farm market;
and prohibitions on bed and breakfast operations (a mainstay
of agri-tourism in Europe) as commercial operations. These
are all regulations that may make sense in a strictly residential
district, but not when applied to farms as businesses, especially
if the community wants those farms to continue in operation.
- Local leaders in some communities are beginning to work
with farmers to identity the ways that local regulations
interfere with their ability to diversify and amending their
zoning codes to permit them.
Zoning is often done at too small a scale.
For example, some communities have recognized that “leap
frog” development and clustering houses on farm land
not only results in the loss of the productive capacity of
that farm, but also undermines the viability of the other
farms in the area. In order to sustain their farms, they have
created “transfer of development rights” or TDR
programs. Through a TDR program, a farmer may realize a financial
return on the equity in his land by selling the development
rights (based on the number of lots allowed in the underlying
zoning) to a developer who transfers them to another parcel
that has been zoned as a “receiving parcel” where
additional density is allowed only if a development right
has been purchased from a “sending parcel”, in
this case a farm.
Unfortunately, New York law allows for the transfer of rights
only within a single municipality. As a result, development
rights from farms in a Town (basically the countryside), cannot
be transferred to a Village (generally a more developed area
which is more likely to have the infrastructure needed to
support development.) They can only be transferred within
the Town, from one part of the countryside to another.
- Innovation: The Town and Village of Warwick, New York
have created an innovative “work around” to
this problem. They identified TDR receiving zones that are
in the Town, but adjacent to the Village. A development
application for this area, using development rights to be
purchased from a farmer in the Town is reviewed by the Village
and, if approved, the Village annexes the “receiving
parcel” after the rights have been transferred.
Too often, local real property tax policy
encourages development of farm land.
Although tax rates are set by the states, localities do have
some ability to reduce the tax burden on farmers. Since the
l970s states have developed many programs to reduce the tax
burden on farmers, such as school tax abatements and agricultural
value assessments. Nevertheless, taxes remain the factor more
commonly cited by farmers as the reason to sell their farms.
Some municipalities thought that they could solve this problem
by purchasing the development rights (through a purchase of
development rights or “PDR” program or a conservation
easement), which in theory would reduce the value of the land
and result in lower taxes, thereby encouraging the farmer
to continue farming. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always
work this way. Many studies have shown that in areas experiencing
strong development pressure, such as the Hudson Valley and
parts of Maryland, large land holdings sell for the same value
with or without development rights. Many assessors have begun
to look at “preserved” farm land and argue that
if the value may remain the same, there is no basis to reduce
the taxes. Thus while the farmer may receive a helpful infusion
of cash when the development rights are sold, the long-term
viability of the farming operation is not improved.
Some municipalities in the Hudson Valley are considering
adapting a tax abatement program commonly used to attract
new industrial or commercial enterprises to help agriculture.
Essentially the municipality would pay farmers for a “term
easement” – an agreement not to develop the property
for a certain period of time. The municipality would key the
payment to the farm’s annual real property tax liability.
The municipality would, in effect, “forgive” the
farmer from taxes for a period of time, say ten years, in
order to encourage the establishment of a new farm business
or the retention of an existing farmer..
Creating informed leaders supported
by a broad constituency.
Keep in mind that these are not simple situations, since for
most farmers the land is their primary asset. Farmers are no
different than the rest of us. They are just as diverse in their
long term goals and their current position along life’s
trajectory. Be sensitive to the underlying personal and equity
issues. And for heaven’s sake, engage the farming community.
We continue to be surprised at the well-intentioned communities
that have crafted elaborate programs to “save their farms”
without ever talking with the farmers who actually own and operate
For a community to be effective in supporting their local
farmers, there must be enlightened local leaders who understand
the factors that influence the continued viability of farming.
These local leaders also need a constituency that will support
their efforts to take new steps to encourage that viability.
Glynwood is attempting to address this need for informed
leadership and a supportive constituency through several programs
beginning with the Glynwood Grange and Keep Farming.
Through the Glynwood Grange we are creating a peer
network of local leaders who have a deeper understanding of
agriculture in the region and share a commitment to working
to sustain it. The Grange provides an opportunity for community
leaders to work together over a period of 18 months to address
agriculturally-related issues. Participants are chosen through
an application process. A key criterion is their commitment
to taking action in their communities to move forward on agricultural
issues. Each Grange participant chooses a specific set of
policies or regulations in their home community that they
commit to attempt to change so as to enhance local farmers’
ability to remain viable and to contribute to the regional
Participants in the current Grange class include Town Supervisors
and County Legislators, zoning and planning board members,
the representative of a U.S. Senator, nonprofit professionals
and other local leaders from throughout the Hudson Valley.
Some are also farmers or consultants who work with farmers.
Participants meet at Glynwood once every eight weeks to make
presentations, mentor each other, and work with experts brought
in to help them develop strategies. An Advisory Committee
of regional agriculture experts also stands ready to assist
Grange participants fulfill the goals they develop for creating
positive change for local agriculture in their communities.
As a result, the participants are beginning to take new approaches.
For example, in Goshen a fair amount of land has been “saved”
through cluster zoning or purchase of development rights programs
that preclude further development. The Supervisor has begun
to examine how the municipality can encourage owners of that
land to return it to active farming, rather than hold it as
lawn or open space.
The Keep Farming program has a broader focus. Through
Keep Farming, community members develop a deeper
and more comprehensive understanding of the many ways in which
local farming contributes to their quality of life. This newly
informed constituency then works with Glynwood and their local
leaders to develop a strategy for sustaining local agriculture
that is tailored to their community’s situation and
Keep Farming is an intensive two phase, year and
a half long, collaborative process. Glynwood piloted this
program in Butler County, PA originally and recently initiated
a second pilot in Chatham, NY, in the upper Hudson Valley.
Both communities used the Keep Farming program to
supplement their town’s comprehensive planning process.
In the initial phase of the program, Creating Understanding
and Awareness, residents assess the key values that farming
supports in a community - economics, aesthetics, local foods,
and natural resources. By working together to document these
core aspects of local agriculture, a community builds awareness
and begins to develop a consensus around the value of retaining
and enhancing local agriculture.
The second phase, Strategic Action, helps the community
analyze the tools and techniques available to them to help
protect farmland and support farmers in the region. During
this second phase Glynwood helps communities identify policies
and regulations that can adversely affect a farmer’s
ability to succeed through diversification, direct marketing,
agritourism, and the like and, in contrast, those policies
which could encourage those farmers, including, in particular,
local tax policy.
As an example of how we often wrongly assume that people
know what we think they need to know, I want to mention a
farmer who participated in the Butler Keep Farming
program. After the meeting at which a range of tools and techniques
were discussed, he arranged to put a conservation easement
on his land. Until then, he had not understood that he could
carve out a future house lot for use of a family member and
still protect the rest of the farm. Now he is trying to serve
as an example of what other farmers in the community can do.
Both the Grange and Keep Farming focus on leadership
and community capacity.
Creating new markets for regional products.
We are also developing ways to create new markets for products
from the Hudson Valley. One program, which will be used for
the first time at this year’s annual meeting of the
Conservation Biology Association, is the Moveable Feast
for Wildlife and People. Working with our partner, the
Metropolitan Conservation Alliance of the Wildlife Conservation
Society, we have identified Hudson Valley farmers who are
managing their production in “wildlife friendly”
ways. Through the Moveable Feast, organizations will have
dinners that serve this food, accompanied by educational materials
that draw the connection among the farmer, the wildlife and
the food. For example, we may feature pasture raised beef
from Rallye Farm that is produced in ways that protect the
endangered bog turtle. And eggs from Glynwood, which is managed
to protect the bobolinks.
Through the Moveable Feast we will help organizations
and other consumers understand that they can support biodiversity
in their home region through the way they spend their food
This reflects our strong belief that everyone can do something
to help sustain small and mid-size farmers – regardless
of where they live.
To encourage this widespread action, we prepared the Guide
to Serving Local Food at Your Next Event, which urges
people to use as much local food as possible when planning
a special party, meeting or event at a hotel or conference
center. The Guide explains the most common roadblocks
to such institutional use of local food and how to get around
them. It also urges people to recognize that it is much better
to do a little than to do nothing. We recognize that in most
parts of the country, it is not possible to do a meal that
is 100% local during every season. But if every large event
used even 10-15% local food think of the cumulative impact
in providing a market for local farmers.
Along the same vein, we prepared a Gleaning publication
called “Connecting Communities, Farmers and Food”,
which highlights many of the people and organizations who
were nominated for our Glynwood Harvest Award last
year – and others across the country who have found
creative ways to support local farmers.
In sum, we believe that there is a great deal more that can
be done at the local level – by both local officials
and community residents. Our mantra is that whoever you are,
where ever you are, you can do something to help sustain local