Conservancy Leads 9th Agricultural Tour
Public officials in Livingston County traveled together by bus on Friday, September 29, to visit a diverse collection of local farms. The Livingston County Decision Makers Agricultural Tour was organized by the Genesee Valley Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to conserving valuable natural resources and strengthening connections between people and the land in the Genesee River watershed, as recommended by Livingston County
The Conservancy Farmland Protection Director Dave Bojanowski coordinated the tour this year on its ninth-annual rendition.
“Our mission first and foremost is to protect farmland,” said Bojanowski. “We don’t want to be anti-development, but we don’t want to lose good farmland, either.”
“Oftentimes, public officials in Livingston County—a relatively large agricultural community in New York State—are not familiar with how their local farms operate, and more importantly, what their needs are.” Bojanowski explained.
Town planning and zoning boards influence how and where development happens by passing zoning and subdivision laws that dictate how land will be used at the town level.
“Farming is the best use for good, productive land,” said Bojanowski, “but we’re at a point where we are seeing fewer and fewer farms come about.”
The 54 tour attendees gathered at Edgewood Farms in Groveland, early Friday morning. Nametags were worn and town planning and zoning board members, State Senator Cathy Young, and American Farmland Trust Policy Manager Samantha Levy were just a few among the group that spent the day together.
Town of York Zoning Board member, Harold Wilcott II, decided to take the day off from work. This was his first time participating in the tour. “I can smell the fresh dairy-air,” said Harold jokingly.
There are currently 500 farms operating in Livingston County, said Bojanowski. Of them, five were selected for the tour, including one party barn, that the Conservancy felt represented the county’s diverse agricultural community.
Edgewood Farms is owned and operated by the Phelps family. Their nearly 3,000 acre farm yields a variety of crops including organic corn, hay and black turtle beans, and non-organic wheat, soybeans, straw, and cornmeal. Much of Edgewood’s produce goes toward feeding livestock around New York State.
Owner Craig Phelps also provides custom services to farms in need of bailing, chopping, seed cleaning and treatment, and more. Recently, Edgewood began growing crops for Black Button Distillery in Rochester and test plots for Cornell Cooperative Extension’s low tetrahydrocannabinol level hemp trials.
“If you sit still in this business, eventually you’ll be out of business,” said Craig.
At the beginning of his family’s farming journey, a small truck would go out once a day with bags of corn and wheat. Now, the farm dries 1,000 bushels each of corn and wheat per hour to be delivered by tractor-trailer trucks.
When asked about types of energy resources used, Craig said they hope to someday install two windmills, but that they currently use fossil fuels in their machines and buildings.
Back on the bus, American Farmland Trust Policy Manager Samantha Levy read statistics from the 2014 United States Department of Agriculture Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land Survey.
According to the survey, 30 percent of farmers in the US are 65 years old or older, and of the senior farmers, 92 percent do not have a young person working by their side. This is due in part, said Levy, to the need for access to land and capital. It is becoming harder for young people to get their start in the agricultural industry.
Additionally, the American Farmland Trust conducted a study of greenhouse gas emissions from different land uses in New York State, and found that, collectively, farmland in the US contributes 66 times less emission than developed land.
The tour continued on to visit the other three farms, stopping at M&M Schuster Party Barn in Sparta where tour participants listened to speakers and ate grilled cheese sandwiches prepared from local ingredients by Cheesed and Confused, a gourmet grilled cheese food truck serving Rochester and surrounding Genesee Valley areas.
Kevetta Farm is a 65-acre dairy farm located in Sparta. Owners Kevin and Annetta Herrington began grazing cows and selling milk in 2005. They have continued to raise their cattle in a free range.
The family is conscious about the living conditions of their cows. Kevin works closely with a nutritionist and participates in the New York Cattle Health Assurance Program.
“Everything here is designed for animal comfort,” said Kevin. “If the cow is comfortable, she’ll make more milk and the milk will be better quality.”
Next on the tour was Olde Silo Farm located in Conesus. This five-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm is owned and operated by Keith and Debbie Tucker who are both retired from their previous careers and dedicated to serving their community.
“We have fresh, homegrown produce,” said Debbie. “Most of the time our fruits and veggies are picked the very same day we put them the stand. You can’t get that from a grocery store.”
They also sell flowers and donate all proceeds to the Livonia High School music department.
Last on the tour was Walker Dairy Farm located in Springwater. This 1,000-cow operation is owned and operated by Don Walker and his son Doug. The farm yields on average 8,000 gallons of milk per day, according to Don.
Their barns are cleaned multiple times every day, which involves underground vents that gravity flow manure into a 6-million-gallon lagoon until its eventually applied onto farmland.
Walker Farm is what most dairy agriculture in the US is geared toward becoming, said Bojanowski. He said the Walkers have found a balance between high yields and quality production—a financially sustainable business model.
It is farms like Walker Dairy Farm that are going to feed communities in the future, said Bojanowski.
“We need to be aware of the value of farms and farmland,” said Levy on the bus ride home. “There is power in your hands as public officials to zone and protect these farms.”
Agriculture is the number one industry in Livingston County; however, as voiced by Bojanowski to tour participants, no two farms are alike and each has its own history, story, pool of resources, and needs.
By visiting these operations and speaking with the owners about their practices and challenges, public officials on the tour are able to plan and act informatively at the town level to ensure Livingston County’s productive farmland remains productive for generations to come.
The Conservancy looks forward to sharing feature stories on each farm in the coming months.
Story By Anna Tailleur.