It’s been a busy first week. There is a lot going on, let me tell you. But surprisingly the biggest thing on my plate is whether or not several plots of land should be included as part of an "agricultural district" on Grand Island.
What is an agricultural district?
Article 14 of the New York State Constitution states that the policy of the state is to “. . . encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural lands for the production of food and other agricultural products.” In other words, under the law, farming is protected and encouraged. State law carries this out, in part, through the Agricultural and Markets Law and the establishment of “agricultural districts.” Agricultural districts allow for broader farming rights, added protections for agricultural activities, and in some limited circumstances certain real property tax benefits.
To determine whether someone’s land should be allowed in one of these agricultural districts, the state looks to see if the proposed spot is viable agricultural land and a farm business. Making that determination is a judgement call, but some of the relevant factors are size, existing capital investment, type of activity, years of operation, experience of the operator, and whether the activity is hobby-like or more business-like.
Several Islanders petitioned the county last year to have their lands classified as part of the Amherst Agricultural District (note, agricultural districts do not have to be contiguous). In most cases the county agreed that these lands qualified. If you look at a map, however, the combined space is still very small compared to the overall size of the Island—we are not talking about large-scale corporate farming, but mostly just family farms. But the inclusion of these parcels on Grand Island into an agricultural district could have a significant impact, especially for the local farmers.
Our town already protects farming
Yes, the Town Code already protects the “right to farm.” In fact, the standards the code uses to define a “farm” and appropriate farming practices are almost taken straight from New York State’s Agricultural Markets Law. But those applying to be included in the agricultural district say that the Town Code is implemented and applied in a way that limits their agricultural pursuits unreasonably and stops them from being truly productive.
For example, if you are only permitted to have a few chickens, how could you ever have enough eggs to make your investment of time and resources worthwhile? Some point to the City of Buffalo where you can raise dozens of chickens per acre. Conversely in Grand Island (a space far more fit for farming), without a commercial license you can only own 0.83 chickens per acre. Because of these limits, those who want to be included in the agricultural district believe Grand Island is “discouraging” rather than “encouraging” farming.
But are agricultural districts the right solution?
Those who oppose the inclusion of parcels on Grand Island into an agricultural district claim that it will allow a few people to run amok: opening up a Pandora’s box full of chickens and tractors.The town will be able to enforce reasonable laws even agricultural districts. But those opposed to agricultural districts on Grand Island add that what is reasonable for a farm is not what is reasonable for a subdivision. In particular, some farms can be quite smelly, dirty, and even loud. And when you are trying to sleep in on the weekend, roosters at 6:00 am are not what you want to hear. Nor does the smell of manure fit the desired atmosphere for a summer barbeque.
But let’s take a step back
Before I worry you too much, please let me point a few things out. Again, the properties likely to be included in the agricultural district make up only a small percentage of the Island and are not large corporate farms. And even if the property owners wanted to expand their operations, most of the parcels just don’t suit much more intense farming operations no matter how the land is classified. Further, on many of these parcels farming activity has already been going on for many years. Moreover, after some investigation I can find little actual evidence to support some of the more colorful reports of harmful agricultural activities on the Island.
And let’s not forget that farming is not just about odor and dirt. It can produce and support economic benefits, especially today where the focus is increasingly on “going local” and “farm to market” goods. I personally would love to see a farmer’s market on the Island—replete with local eggs, honey, fruits, and vegetables. Some have even discussed a festival to celebrate locally produced goods.
Balance is key
As you can see, in general I support local farming and the right to farm. But even if I did not, the decision to permit the designation of a piece of land as part of an agricultural district is beyond the Town Board’s jurisdiction. It is a matter of state law largely decided by a county level board.
We can, however, help shape the process. I have reviewed each of the properties that want to join the agricultural district. In my opinion, (albeit I am new to the subject), some do not seem to meet the criteria for the activities proposed. Therefore, I have met with a few of the applicants, and I am seeking to understand more. Just like we want to protect agricultural activities on Grand Island, we should also protect established residential space where certain farming activities are simply not appropriate. My goal is to have farms and residential areas existing in harmony with mutual respect. And to that end, we must also soon reexamine the Town Code on farming and the Master Plan—two projects I hope to tackle.
Grand Island should remain a green space between Buffalo and Niagara Falls
Drive into nearly any small town in America today and two things will jump out at you: there are a lot of empty buildings that used to be big box stores, and there’s a beat-up restaurant that used to be a Pizza Hut. You can find chain restaurants, malls, and big box stores off of every interstate. But what people are really looking for today is what is unique.
I believe that true and sustainable economic growth will come by making the Island a destination point for residents of Western New York and southern Ontario. We are known for our beautiful river views and as a green space between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Expanding our hike and bike trails and attracting businesses catering to family outdoor recreation is essential. Local farms supplying unique local restaurants and businesses will do more for our local economy long-term than any combination Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens.
Farming (an old skill relevant in a new age) should be part of the way forward for our town. From gentlemen farmers like Jefferson and Madison to local legends like Lewis Allen—who did ground-breaking horticultural work right here on Grand Island—farming was and is part of America. And it should therefore always be part of Grand Island.