Saving the Farm

“You might not want to shake my hand. I just delivered a calf,” the farmer said, wiping his hands on his jeans as he crossed the muddy lawn between the barn and the white farmhouse.

Welcoming baby cows into the world is all in a day’s work for Russell Sears, a dairy farmer who lives just outside Cortland

Inside his barn, 60 cows – Holsteins and Jerseys – laze about in the cool March air. Chickens wander up and down the rows of cows, occasionally pecking at their noses. The just-delivered brown calf is still wet and lies next to its mother who is recovering from the delivery.

Five other baby cows – three Jerseys and two Holsteins – look up with adoring eyes. The male calves are waiting to be sold, the females to grow up and become part of the milk-producing process. (Sears says his farm puts out 6,000 pounds of milk every two days.)

But outside in the muddy fields, where Sears grows alfalfa and other crops, a ribbon of cement highway cuts across his backfield.

Interstate Highway 81, the same road that brings businesses and visitors to the region, also brings with it the threat of development. It would be easy for farmers like Sears to sell their land to businesses seeking to erect convenience stores and truck stops along the highway. But Sears doesn’t want that.

“This whole 81 corridor in Cortland County should be saved. Not another acre should be lost,” he said. “To somebody who loves this land it’s a crime to see it developed.”

Farmland Protection
Fortunately for Sears, New York State offers a farmland protection program that works through counties to purchase development rights for farms that are at high risk of being developed, a move that ensures the farms will be kept as farmland forever.

According to the Cortland County government, nearly 47 percent of land in the county is farmland and the local government is eager to retain the area’s agricultural roots. And like Sears, most of those farmers are engaged in dairy farming. Ninety-four percent of the agricultural activity is in either raising cattle or growing feed and 15,000 dairy cows call Cortland County home.

Under the Purchase of Develop­ment Rights Program the state provides a grant equivalent to the development value of the land. The land is then placed under a conservation easement that restricts it to agricultural use. The easement is administered and held by a local municipality or non-profit group.

The Sears family first applied for the grant five years ago. Their neighbors the Knapps had been approached by truck stop giant Flying J, but wanted to maintain their property as a farm. So the Knapps talked to the Sears and both families applied for the state grants.

But as recently as a decade ago, Sears would not have been eligible – he had not yet purchased the farm. Though he said he had always wanted to farm, his father owned a hardware store, not a farm.

I Want to be a Farmer
The Massachusetts native spent his youth dreaming of life on a farm, attending a vocational and agricultural high school and working for a local farmer. He became a farmer later in life when he could afford to, and started a second career. The Sears family looked all over the country for the perfect farm – traveling to Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. But Sears found what he was looking for in the Finger Lakes.

“Having come from the Northeast, this land just looked so beautiful,” he said.

His hometown of Hangham, Massachusetts, had become too suburban and was not the kind of place he wanted to raise his son. So when his son was seven, the family packed up, moved to New York State and became the proud owners of 60 milk cows.

The creek that runs in front of the property is one of the best trout fishing streams in the state, and Sears’ son, now in high school, fishes in the stream, hunts deer and shows cows through the local 4-H club.

The property’s location next to I-81 was also a plus for Sears when he bought the farm, because he knew the value of the land would increase. Because of the farm’s location, it was also a prime candidate for the farmland conservation program.

The land around the I-81 corridor, Route 13 and Route 281, see the most pressure from developers in Cortland County, said Daniel Dineen, director of planning at the Cortland County Planning Department.

The county has four farms that have been approved for the program, Dineen said.

“There’s quite a large interest. It gets a lot of farmers calling,” he said.

Though Sears has been approved for the grant, he has yet to see any money from the purchase of development rights. Changes in how the county holds the development rights held up the processing of the state’s grant, Sears said.

Farms that Qualify
The program in New York is administered at the county level. All new applications will be evaluated by Cortland County using a new point system to determine which farms are the best candidates for the program, Dineen said.

Issues such as the quality of the soil, the proximity of the land to major roadways and the zoning of the surrounding land will be taken into consideration, he said.

Cortland is one of the few counties in the region that has an active purchase of development rights program, said Andrew E. Zepp, executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, an organization that works to preserve natural areas and farmland in the region through conservation easements and other programs.

The organization is currently working with the first farmer in Tompkins County to receive a grant under the New York State program, he said. The process for that farmer has just begun, but if Sears is any indication, saving the farm could take years.

This year Sears hopes to finally see the state money and hand over his development rights. Then, check in hand, he’ll do what he always does – get back to work, putting the money toward expanding his barn and buying more cows.


by Anne K. Walters
Anne K. Walters fell in love with the Finger Lakes while attending Ithaca College, where she served as editor of The Ithacan. A journalist currently living in the Washington, D.C. area, she has written for the Deutsche Presse-Agentur and The Chronicle of Higher Education.