Saving Scenic Vistas and Local Foods

Great Gully Farm Photo by Bill Hecht
10/17/2019

The Finger Lakes are famous for expansive farmland and picturesque lake views. The bountiful wineries, u-pick orchards, farmer’s markets, and emerging beer and cheese trails draw millions of tourists to the region annually. Drawn by the lakes and agricultural tourism opportunities, visitors and residents alike are charmed by
the region’s rural character.

Agriculture plays a central role here, contributing more than $1 billion to the local economy and allowing us all to benefit from locally grown foods. These local foods are fresher, have a lower environmental impact, and are frequently healthier than alternatives that travel a great distance before reaching your plate.

Yet our agricultural land and iconic views are under increasing threat. Land use conversion for residential and commercial development challenges farms of all sizes, and are of particular concern for those that rely on significant amounts of leased land.

A report published by the American Farmland Trust revealed that between 1992 and 2012, almost 31 million acres of agricultural land in the U.S. were lost to development; equivalent to losing an area the size of New York. This loss included almost 11 million acres of the best land for food and crop production.

True to its mission, the Finger Lakes Land Trust has invested in conserving prime farmland and scenic vistas since its inception 30 years ago. Through public and private partnerships, the Land Trust ensures we can maintain opportunities to prepare meals grown in our own community.

Recently, the Land Trust partnered with the Town of Canandaigua and New York State’s Department of Agriculture & Markets (NYSDAM) to permanently protect 700 acres of prime farmland with a conservation easement.

Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements that permanently limit future land use in order to protect the land’s conservation value. Lands subject to easements remain in private ownership and on local tax rolls.

Set in the rolling agricultural landscape north of Canandaigua Lake, Brock Acres is owned by the Brocklebank family, who together with their son and business partner Travis, grow soy, corn, wheat, and hay on lands originally purchased by their ancestors in 1858. Theirs is one of many at-risk farms across this area of Ontario County, where residential development pressure has intensified in recent years given its proximity to Rochester.

According to Kim Brocklebank, “It is important to this family to protect our farmland from development because we’ve seen so much of the land we farmed in the past become housing developments. If this were to continue, there would not be any farmland in our area for future generations, or for the community to enjoy the beauty of open fields and woods. Farming has been a way of life for our family for six generations and we feel it is important to provide the opportunity to our family to continue farming.”

Conservation easements, like the one now protecting the Brocklebank’s farm, often develop slowly, as family owners discuss priorities among themselves and with the Land Trust. It takes both a personal commitment and later a legally binding one. In their case, funding for the project came from the state’s Farmland Protection Implementation Program, which is administered by NYSDAM, as well as the Town of Canandaigua. The Land Trust will hold and enforce the easement, permanently protecting the land from development.

Many easements are donated to the Land Trust, however. In 1997, the Land Trust accepted an easement on EcoVillage in Ithaca to protect nearly 50 acres of farmland on Ithaca’s West Hill. This portion of the EcoVillage property is currently farmed by both West Haven Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture project, and Groundswell, a non-profit that supports equitable farming opportunities.

Since that initial partnership with EcoVillage, the Land Trust has protected all varieties of farms – from large-scale crop operations to smaller, family farms. One of these farm-to-table farms operates on lands conserved by Lou and Christina Lego. The siblings own adjacent lands in the town of Sennett in Cayuga County. After watching many neighboring farms sold to developers, Lou and Christina agreed to protect their two properties by donating conservation easements to the Land Trust, thereby securing approximately 95 acres of prime farmland.

When Lou and his wife Merby bought their farm in the mid-1980s, they joined a robust farming community. But one by one, nearby farms began to disappear as farmers sold all or portions of their properties to developers seeking to turn farmland into subdivisions. Lou and Merby remain committed however, and own and operate Elderberry Pond Restaurant along with their farm. The farm, certified organic since 1999, supplies many of the fresh seasonal ingredients used to craft a farm-to-table menu that changes almost daily.

Perhaps the prime example of a farmland protection project at the nexus of land and water conservation, are the twin easements forever conserving Great Gully Farm. The easements together include a 650-acre farm and an adjacent 58-acre parcel on Cayuga Lake’s eastern shore, just south of Union Springs. The sloping farmland affords some of the best views of Cayuga Lake and includes more than a half-mile of Great Gully, a rugged ravine with rare plant communities and several popular waterfalls. Together, the easements keep roughly 500 tillable acres of prime agricultural land in production, include special provisions for the environmentally sensitive gully, and protect 3,300 feet of pristine Cayuga lakeshore.

Regardless of size or intent, conservation easements are perpetual commitments reflective of deep ties to the land and region. To learn more about how the Land Trust works with farmers and landowners to uphold its mission to conserve forever the lands and waters of the Finger Lakes region, ensuring scenic vistas, local foods, clean water, and wild places, please visit fllt.org or call 607-275-9487.