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 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
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
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
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 farm land.
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 taxes.
- 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: #1:
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
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
- “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: #2:
Residential developers (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
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 market demands.
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
- 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
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.
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.
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 them.
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 food
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 resources.
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
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
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
Both the Grange and Keep Farming focus on leadership and
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
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 dollar.
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
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 farmers.