By DARRIN YOUKER
When Michael McMahon was accepted into New York’s farmland protection program, state and local dignitaries came to the farm and held a press conference. That was three years ago. But McMahon is no closer to seeing his farm protected forever from development.
McMahon, a Cortland County dairy farmer, is one of dozens of New York State farmers who have been awarded farmland protection money, but have not seen a penny from the state. The program is facing a significant backlog and lack of money to actually complete farmland protection.
“I would dare say we are a couple of years from ever seeing money in the program,” McMahon said.
According to state figures, New York owes more than $110 million in farmland preservation dollars. The state has 113 contracts outstanding, some dating back more than three years. Farmers say the backlog and delay is causing a drop off in landowners interested in protecting their agriculture lands.
“We were getting regular applications in, but now we can’t even entertain them,” said McMahon, who also assists Cortland County with farmland preservation efforts. “That is frustrating for people who want to get in the program.”
Farmland protection money in New York is paid for through an environmental protection fund that is replenished by real estate transfer taxes. Over the ensuing years, the fund has seen declining revenue due to the economic slowdown, said Phil Giltner, executive assistant with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
But money alone cannot explain the backlog, Giltner said. After a farm is accepted into the state program, the agriculture department has to go through a series of check and balances to ensure qualification, including land surveys and soil assessment, he continued. Some of that work is often done with partnering organizations including land trusts and county and local governments.
“The first step in house goes fairly quickly, but when we move out to our partners is when the process slows down,” he said. “It is not uncommon that a few years will pass. It becomes very complicated.”
But local government leaders say the state needs to do all it can to speed up the process. Cayuga County, located in New York’s Finger Lakes, has 13 farms, totaling 8,000 acres, that are waiting for money from the state said Geoff Milz, a county planner who is involved in land protection. Some contracts date back to 2005, and add up to more than $15 million in funding, he said.
“It is stuck in the mire of legal revue, he said. “It doesn’t look like even next year they will receive funding.”
Cayuga, which has a number of dairy and crop farms, has seen an increase in interest since the state started its farmland protection program, Milz said. Last year, the county had 36 farmers apply for the program, but only five were recommended by the county for state approval, Milz said. Those who are accepted must then wait for funding, he said.
“Five years is just too long to wait,” he said. “The process of going though the easements and through the program should not take five years.” Todd DuMond, a Cayuga County grain farmer, knew about the backlog when he was accepted into the program earlier this year. But, DuMond said some of the requirements make it prohibitive to participating.
First, the required upfront costs are cumbersome, DuMond said. Second, once the farm receives state money, they are required to give back a percentage for reinvestment in the program, he said. Protecting the farm is not a profitable as selling land for development, but DuMond said he believes too much in the value of keeping the land in agriculture to sell it, he said.
“The farmer is losing value in participating in this program,” he said. “But we feel strongly about our land and want to see it protected.”
Above all, the backlog means that farmers are not able to reinvest in their operations, buy more land or pay down debt, McMahon said. With the farmland protection money from the state, McMahon was planning on buying land that he currently rents.
“There are times we say that maybe we should just forget about it. This property could easily be subdivided,” he said. “It would be a shame to lose it from agriculture. Houses are the last crop you ever grow.”