Farming

Impact of agricultural district consolidation on NY farmers

DEWITTVILLE, NY – This year is the 50th anniversary of agricultural districts in New York. The districts are basically geographic areas of farmland and are there to protect farmers.

For example, say a couple of farms have existed for generations, several miles away from a nearby suburb. Over time, new housing developments pop up and the suburb expands, eventually bordering the long-term farms. Some people in the new developments decide they don’t like the tractor noise, animal crossings or the smell of manure. Those new neighbors can try to take action; however, the farms were in an agricultural district long before those new houses were ever built, which protects the farmers from many of those complaints.

The number of agricultural districts has grown over the years, but now the push is on to consolidate some of them. The districts are of significant importance to the farmers, but the state is putting its stamp of approval on having fewer of them.

A wet spring has cleared the way for a dry and hot summer growing season at Country Ayre Farms in Dewittville, in Chautauqua County.

“We love the farm,” said co-owner Heather Woodis. “The farm has a very strong history.”

Woodis is part of the multi-generational dairy operation that milks about 750 cows. She says the farm helps make Chautauqua one of the most diverse agricultural counties in the state.

“There’s dairy, there’s grapes, row crops,” Woodis said.

Her farm, along with the others, is grouped in what’s called agricultural districts, or geographic areas featuring about seven municipalities in each with viable ag land. There are now four districts, consolidated from eight and 13 in 1995, designed in part to protect farmers and keep the industry viable.

“The farm can be loud; we’ve got tractors running, we’ve got equipment running,” said Woodis. “There’s cows. You can hear the animals. We spread manure, so sometimes we can be a little bit smelly.”

“The ag districts really benefit the farmer for the right to farm,” said Rebecca Wurster, Chautauqua County planning coordinator.

County planning leaders developed the district consolidation as a way to better streamline, manage and review the farm communities. The county received state approval for its plan in May.

“Ultimately, it was a long process to get approval for the consolidation from eight to four, but we see huge benefits in municipalities as well,” Wurster said.

“If it makes good sense, we’ll approve it,” said State Ag and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball. “It’s kind of a conservation tool.”

Ball, also a dairy farmer, says the first ag district was formed in his home county of Schoharie 50 years ago in 1972. He says Chautauqua is one of many statewide consolidations, with 154 districts across 53 of the state’s 62 counties, as of January , covering more than 9 million acres on more than 26,000 farms.

That’s down from 421 districts in 1991, as municipalities expand.

“People [are] deciding they don’t like a farm next door for whatever reason,” said Ball. “It gives the farmers an opportunity to have some protections from suburban neighbors creeping out.”

Farmers like Woodis, who also serves on the county’s Farmland Protection Board with other district farmers, make sure their land is preserved for future generations.

“We’re all working towards the same goal of keeping Chautauqua County one of the premier agricultural counties in the state,” Woodis said.

Each district is subject to review every eight years. Under that eight-year review, counties can add more land to their agricultural districts.

Ball says a major lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that because of ag districts, the state can continue to supply food for its communities without having to rely on another country or region of the world.

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