Farms Under Threat: New York leads the nation in helping a new generation of farmers, yet its best farmland is at stake
American Farmland Trust’s new report demonstrates how converting farmland puts food security, the environment and our way of life in jeopardy.
5/20/2020, SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY — Millions of acres of America’s agricultural land were developed or converted to uses that threaten farming between 2001 and 2016, according to “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” a new report by American Farmland Trust. The report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of policies that respond to the development threats to farmland and ranchland, showing that every state can, and must, do more to protect their irreplaceable agricultural resources.
“The State of the States” report shows the extent, location and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted in each state using the newest data and the most cutting-edge methods. The Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard analyzes six programs and policies that are key to securing a sufficient and suitable base of agricultural land in each state and highlights states’ efforts to retain agricultural land for future generations. It offers a breakthrough tool for accelerating state efforts to make sure farmland is available to produce food, support jobs and the economy, provide essential environmental services, and help mitigate and buffer the impacts of climate change.
New York’s farmland is essential to a more resilient farm and food system that is prepared for crises.
Now more than ever, New Yorkers understand the need for a resilient food system. We have seen how critically important farmers are to us, how we turn to them in crises, and how they innovate to meet demand. But they can’t do their job without a place to farm. The 9 million acres of farmland in New York serve as the irreplaceable foundation of a farm and food economy that provides fresh, healthy food to communities, from rural areas to New York City’s 8.6 million eaters and beyond. Notably, the report found that 54% of New York’s farmland is considered “Nationally Significant” for food and crop production with little environmental impact.
“New York is home to a robust farm and food economy, with more than half of the state’s farmland among the most important in the nation,” said Erica Goodman, New York regional director for American Farmland Trust. “We are fortunate to live in a state that has invested public dollars in farmland protection and that supports Farmland for a New Generation New York, the top program in the country to bring a new generation onto the land. However, the need continues to outpace action. Tightening the timeline to permanently protect these acres, steer development away from our best farmland, and ensure these acres continue to be farmed by our next generation will be urgently important to meeting the food needs of a growing population while supporting solutions to address climate change.”
The report examines six approaches that help protect land and maintain thriving agricultural communities – PACE programs, land use planning policies to manage development, agricultural districts programs that protect and encourage commercial agriculture, property tax relief for agricultural land, state leasing programs making state-owned land available to farmers and ranchers, and FarmLink programs that connect farmers with available land.
A new generation of farmers is critical, and New York’s program is leading the nation.
Ranked first in the nation for FarmLink programs was Farmland for a New Generation New York, a partnership between the state of New York, American Farmland Trust and a network of 27 Regional Navigator organizations, including land trusts, Cornell Cooperative Extension offices, and other agricultural organizations. Nearly one in three farmers in New York is over 65 and they collectively own or operate almost 2 million acres of farmland. The transition from one generation to the next is when farmland is most threatened and vulnerable to being lost. Farmland protection funds, legislation that supports farmland affordability and transfer, and programs like Farmland for a New Generation New York are starting to address this mounting threat to farmland.
Covering all 62 counties of New York, Farmland for a New Generation New York mobilizes Regional Navigators that offer direct assistance to farm seekers and farmland owners, in addition to the Resource Center and farmland finder website (www.nyfarmlandfinder.org). New York’s leadership is reflective of its partnership-driven, comprehensive approach that combines the efficiency and ease of accessing farmland and farmer listings online with the expertise and support from dedicated staff working one-on-one with farmers facing complex decisions for the future of their farms.
New York has invested in Farmland Protection, but greater efficiency is needed to meet the demand.
Suffolk County, New York, was the birthplace of the nation’s first Purchase of Development Rights Program in 1974, laying the groundwork for farmland protection efforts across the country. Today, New York offers a highly popular Farmland Protection program that has protected more than 75,000 acres of farmland throughout the state. Farmers often use their farmland protection funds to invest in their businesses, pay off debt, or transfer their farm to the next generation. This is increasingly critical as farmers face economic uncertainty due to the mounting public health crisis.
New York has responded to the need in recent years by investing more public dollars in farmland protection, including a focused effort to help dairy farmers facing hardship, but these efforts need to be strengthened by continuing to make funding available regularly and completing farmland protection projects quickly. New economic challenges will inevitably increase this tension, and efforts must be made to ensure spending keeps pace with funding awards to permanently protect these acres and get state farmland protection funds into the hands of farmers who need them.
What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment, or otherwise fail to protect New York’s farmland?
Farmland is vital to this nation’s food security and climate change mitigation, yet it continues to be paved over, fragmented, or converted by poorly planned residential, commercial and industrial uses. Between 2001 and 2016 alone, 253,507 acres of New York’s irreplaceable agricultural land were lost or fragmented, ranking New York within the top 20 most threatened states for farmland conversion despite its current farmland protection programs.
What’s more, the Farms Under Threat research captures a new class of land use: low-density residential, or LDR. LDR land use occurs where the average housing density is above the level where agriculture is typically viable. It includes large-lot subdivisions, open agricultural land that is adjacent to or surrounded by existing development, and areas where individual houses or housing clusters are spread out along rural roads.
LDR land use compromises opportunities for farming and ranching, making it difficult for farmers to get into their fields or travel between fields. New residents not used to living next to agricultural operations often complain about farm equipment on roads or odors related to farming. Retailers such as grain and equipment dealers, on which farmers rely, are often pushed out. Farmers can be tempted to sell out for financial reasons, or because farming just becomes too hard in the circumstances. And lastly–but importantly–as older farmers near retirement they sell their properties, too often to non-farmers. This means that new and beginning farmers have a hard time finding and affording land, threatening the very future of agriculture. More often than not, the land prices in these areas have been driven up by the encroaching development making it impossible for new farmers to afford to buy a farm.
Seventy-eight percent of the land developed or compromised in New York fell into this category. LDR is not always immediately visible to communities and policy makers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response. New York’s farmland has been threatened by LDR development four times as quickly as it has to urban expansion, and LDR in the state was 10 times more likely to be converted to urban development.
What will AFT do to help protect New York’s agricultural resources?
How these trends may continue to unfold will be important to track, sustaining strong efforts and exploring future policies and programs to support food system resilience in the wake of yet unknown pressures rippling from COVID-19. In New York, AFT will engage with our partners to pursue the following:
- Advocate for state programs like the Farmland Protection program and Farmland for a New Generation New York, which keep land in farming and farmers on the land, and are crucial to support farmers, keep land in farming and keep farmers on the land to contribute to food system resiliency, food security and a strong state economy.
- Mitigate the threat to New York’s best farmland – the most productive, versatile, and resilient – of necessary solar energy development in order to meet growing food needs while balancing the urgency to reduce emissions to address climate change.
- Ensure that farmers can and must be part of the solution to combatting climate change. When farmland converts to other uses, we lose land that could have sequestered carbon. According to AFT’s report “Greener Fields: Combating Climate Change by Keeping Land in Farming in New York,” an acre of farmland in New York produces 66 times fewer greenhouse gases than an acre of developed land.
- Reduce barriers for schools and other institutions seeking to buy more New York grown food as a means to strengthen the farm economy, get nutrient-rich and locally sourced products to communities, and keeps farmers on the land. Recent research from AFT indicates that with this support, growth in farm to school efforts over the next five years could result in $150 million spent by schools at New York farms, increasing access to healthy local food for over 700,000 students and generating $210 million in economic impact statewide.
Saving the land that sustains us is no small feat. We must work together, from the farm fields to the state Capitol, to ensure a strong future for farming in New York.
To sign up for a Farms Under Threat webinar in New York, click here.
American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.