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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 14, 2009

Will the scale soon tip back to agriculture in New York?

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — As debate rages over the fate of the old Bender melon farm, the eventual development of the commercial zone is virtually undisputed.

When zoning in the town was initiated in 1961, said Building Inspector Paul Cantlin, the roughly 400 or more acres that lie at the crossroads of routes 85 and 85A were in an area populated with business. 

“That’s where the commercial activity was,” he said, naming several businesses that had been in the area, some of which still are.

“You look at the land,” said Robert Stapf, long-time chairman of the planning board.  “The land dictates what it can be used for.”  Some land isn’t necessarily suited for agriculture, he said.  “There are other, higher and better, uses for it.”

That area has been used commercially, he said, pointing to the Stonewell Plaza, Olsen’s Nursery, the old Saab dealership, and a gas station.  Traffic patterns are an important consideration when designating a commercial area, Stapf said.

“Agricultural lands continue to contribute to the economy of New Scotland,” according to the town’s 1994 comprehensive plan.  “As land values climb within the town, many local farmers may find it more economical to subdivide or sell their land to developers rather than actively farm it.  Agricultural land adds considerably to the town’s open space and rural character.  Careful management of these lands will help to preserve town character, which is one of the primary goals of this comprehensive plan.”

Between 1954 and 1992, the plan goes on to say, the amount of farmland in the town decreased by over 15,000 acres, which is more than 75 percent.  The number of farms went from 134 to 31.

In 2004, there were 17 active farms left in New Scotland, ranging from a 23-acre horse farm to a 443-acre apple orchard.

While the trend shows that, overall, the number of farms is declining, near cities, in peri-urban areas, there has been a steady increase in niche farming, said Max Pfeffer, a professor who researches land use and rural labor markets, among other things, at Cornell University. 

“We’re constantly talking about the loss of farms, but this is an increase,” he said, of the recent agricultural activity.

It’s not just what comes out of the ground that contributes to the economy, said Nelson Bills, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, but the food industry as a whole.

“When focusing only on production agriculture, agriculture’s contribution to the state economy is modest at best,” Bills wrote in a 2007 paper with Todd Schmitt, an assistant professor at the university.  “However, when we incorporate the other inter-related and inter-dependent sectors, the agribusiness cluster provided more than 10 percent of New York’s total gross output.”

Aside from apples, New York consumes more produce than it grows, said William Reinhardt, who studies energy efficiency in industry at the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency.  Recently, he worked on a study examining the carbon and oil footprints in three scenarios of food production and consumption:

— Case A is produce grown traditionally in fields in New York;

— Case B is produce grown in greenhouses in New York, using controlled environment agriculture practices; and

— Case C is produce grown in other states and trucked to New York. 

With current technology, Case A had the lowest carbon footprint and, sometimes, the lowest oil footprint, and Case B’s oil footprint was about half of Case C’s, but Case B’s carbon footprint was higher, mostly due to the energy required to heat the greenhouses.  However, if biomass were substituted as the source of heat, and solar or wind power for electricity in the greenhouses, it would drastically change those figures.

“It’s very hard to get away from oil with traditional farm and truck systems,” Reinhardt said, following Paul Swartz’s presentation on the consequences of peak oil at the Capital Region Energy Forum’s meeting on Monday.  Swartz discussed the idea of peak oil, which states that the world has reached, or soon will reach, it’s the height of its capacity for oil production, leaving high demand with little supply.

As with most things, agricultural production, distribution, and consumption comes down to economics, Reinhardt said.  When the cost of transportation goes down, it’s cheaper to grow food elsewhere and ship it later, but when the cost of transportation goes up, as it likely will with the decreasing world oil supply, it is cheaper to grow food close to the market in which it will be sold.

Assuming an increase in the cost of transportation, Reinhardt said, there will likely be a rise in the number of food processing outlets, a probable opportunity for New York because of its proximity to the Eastern seaboard.

“There’s opportunity there for new economic activity,” he said.  Anything in its final form costs a lot to ship, Reinhardt explained, using potato chips and cereal as examples of foods that are expensive to ship because of the amount of air in the packaging.

Many New Scotland residents say that they’d like to increase the town’s tax base with commercial development.  The American Farmland Trust has conducted Cost of Community Services Studies across the nation over the last several years, comparing the cost in services used by residential development, commercial and industrial development, and working and open land. 

“In every community studied, farmland has generated a fiscal surplus to help offset the shortfall created by residential demand for public services,” according to the report.  The median cost per dollar of revenue raised by each class is 29 cents for commercial and industrial, 37 cents for working and open land, and $1.19 for residential development, according to the report.

“COCS studies are a snapshot in time of costs versus revenues for each type of land use,” it explains.  “They do not predict future costs or revenues or the impact of future growth.”  Each study is given to circumstances in the community being studied, as is noted in the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide which explains that the study in Beekman, N.Y. was conducted during a period that saw a brush fire, which caused the cost of services for the agricultural category to be unusually high.  It was measured at 48 cents spent for every dollar received.

“New Scotland is still an essentially rural community,” the town’s comprehensive plan says.  “While long lost in many Capital District suburbs, the traditional development pattern, where buildings are clustered in hamlet areas and outer areas remain open, is still dominant in New Scotland.  This development pattern gives the town an historic context.”

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