Murray works to adopt first farmland protection plan in Orleans County

Photos by Tom Rivers: Dale and Carol Strong look at a map showing the agricultural parcels in the Town of Murray. The town held a public forum on Thursday evening to discuss a farmland protection plan.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 3 March 2023 at 9:50 am

MURRAY – Town officials want to assist local farmers in boosting the profitability of their operations, to help ensure a strong agricultural sector. That includes farms of all sizes, from people with part-time ventures to large operations that are hundreds and thousands of acres.

Murray is working to develop the first farmland protection plan in Orleans County, an effort funded through a $25,000 state grant. Town officials and members of the a steering committee working on the plan held a public forum on Thursday.

They are hoping to develop a draft of the plan soon with a public hearing to follow. A final plan would then be referred to the Orleans County Farmland Protection Board for review and then be adopted by the Town Board. The state Department of Ag & Markets gives the plan the last review.

Town Supervisor Joe Sidonio said a farmland protection plan doesn’t put new restrictions on farmers. It will help them access resources and also help the town set policies to support agriculture, Sidonio told about 30 people at the public forum.

Barbara Johnston, a planner with Labella Associates, has served as consultant for the town on the project. She said Murray is blessed with very productive soils.

“You really have a high quality resource,” she said.

Despite those high-quality soils, Johnston said much of the farmland in Murray is not included in an ag district. She said an ag district offers many benefits for the farmers, including protections from nuisance lawsuits when people sue other normal farm operations, which could be odors or mud on roads. The districts also can give farmers exemptions from paying towards water districts, and also provide more protection from eminent domain where private land can be taken for projects deemed in the public good.

Katie Sommerfeldt, manager of the Orleans County Soil & Water Conservation District, also shared how Soil & Water can assist land owners in grants for many conservation projects. Soil & Water also provides engineering expertise for drainage tiling and projects to help move water on properties.

That agency does agricultural value assessments which can save land owners’ money by paying less in taxes for less profitable acreage.

Sommerfeldt urged farmers and landowners to reach out to the office, especially if they see creeks or ditches clogged. That is becoming an issue with many dead ash trees falling into waterways.

Robert Batt, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orleans County, said there are programs through the Extension to assist farm operations of all sizes, including specialized teams for fruits, vegetables and livestock. Cornell also has many programs for smaller farms. There also is the Farm Net program to assist farmers with business consulting, family dynamics, mental health and business transfers.

Robert Batt of the Cornell Cooperative Extension said there are specialized teams to help farmers boost their profitability and avoid pitfalls.

Batt also touted a commercial kitchen in the Trolley Building at the 4-H Fairgrounds that is available to be rented out to help farmers with value-added products.

Batt is on the steering committee working on the farmland protection plan for Murray. Other members include Town Councilman Michael Mele (owner of a garlic farm), Alex Penna (owner of Rockin P Farm and Dam Farms), Amy Machamer (owner of Hurd Orchards and member of NYS Governor’s Ag Advisory Committee), Robert Batt (Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orleans County) and James Bensley (Orleans County Planning Director).

Johnston, the planning consultant, led the group in a SWOT analysis to determine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to agriculture in Murray.

Some strengths listed include the productive soils, access to canal water for irrigation, good road infrastructure for east-west transport, close proximity to Lake Ontario allowing for microclimate to grow fruit, close access to major population centers to sell farm products, Right to Farm law in place in Murray.

Weaknesses identified include high cost of business with taxes, rising wages and state regulations. New York has a higher minimum wage and has enacted an overtime threshold in agriculture that puts local operations at a competitive disadvantage with many other states. There are also fewer processing plants, such as Duffy Motts and Hunts which used to have a local presence.

Opportunities for farmers could be tapping into agri-tourism, including setting up markets by the canal and at local RV parks. Smaller farm operations could produce honey or grow flowers.

Solar projects – big and small – were identified as a big threat to local farmland.

The steering committee will work to recommend strategies and goals to help foster a stronger ag sector in Murray. Johnston said she expects the plan will be finalized this summer.

Sidonio said he is hopeful the plan could become a model for the rest of the county to make the county’s leading industry even more vibrant.

“I’d like to thank all of the farmers in our county for providing the beautiful landscape we enjoy and often take for granted, said Sidonio, who is married to Machamer of Hurd Orchards. “It os the farmer who provides the fabric that binds us together and allows us to proudly claim we live in rural America. So thank you to all of our farmers and farm families.”