Farmers say wetlands program threatens future of the Black Dirt

| 15 Feb 2012 | 08:58

    Federal program to benefit the environment endangers supply of fresh, locally grown food Goshen — The Wetlands Reserve Program might be good for the environment. But is it right for Orange County farmers and the people who eat the food they grow? First authorized by Congress in the 1990 farm bill, the program restores cultivated wetlands to their natural state. Congress reauthorized the program with little change in the following three farm bills. Since then, the National Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been working with landowners to reclaim wetlands lost to cultivation. The return to marshland provides long-term benefits to humans, animals, and the earth's vitality (please see related article). Reserve program easements are often adjacent to each other or to other protected areas, like refuges and parks, to create wildlife corridors used by migrating species. Why the effort to reclaim wetlands? At one time, the United States had 220 million acres of wetlands but has lost more than 50 percent of these acres to agriculture and development. Some states have lost as much as 90 percent of its wetlands. Because more than 70 percent of U.S. lands are privately owned, the Wetlands Reserve Program is asking landowners to voluntarily enroll their acres in the protection plan. So far, more than 11,000 landowners nationwide have enrolled some 2.3 million acres in the program. Under its terms, the conservation service pays farmers to let their productive, crop-raising acres revert to nature. Farmers can receive up to $6,000 per acre in a one-time payment, in addition restoration costs. Landowners continue to pay taxes on the property, keep their title to the land, and control access and recreational use. Although the conservation service's efforts sound commendable, Black Dirt farmers are asking what will happen if they sign on. What is the logic, they ask, of turning rich muckland, drained many years ago for agricultural use, into nonproductive farmland? Sonny and Doris Bialas and their daughter, Kasha, own Bialas Farm on Celery Avenue in the Town of Goshen. "We take for granted our food supply," Sonny said. "We have wall-to-wall food and haven't experienced famine. Now we're putting farmers out of work. We used to feed ourselves and 20 percent of the world. Now we're importing better than 40 percent of our food." David Church, Orange County Planner and member of the Orange County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board, agrees. In a letter to Astor Boozer, state conservationist at the National Resources Conservation Service, Church wrote: "Buying easements which prohibit the growing of food only 40 miles from New York City on some of the world's most productive soils is inappropriate." 'Stop the money' Black Dirt farms are located in the towns of Warwick, Minisink, Wawayanda and Goshen, as well as in Sussex County, N.J. Some municipalities are urging government officials to starve the program. The Village of Goshen, in a formal resolution, asked the federal government to "take urgent measures to withhold, withdraw or rescind the federal funds they have allocated for the Wetlands Reserve Program in New York State." "We can't change the law, but they can stop the money to fund this," said Bill Johnson, owner of Fort Hill Farm in the Town of Goshen. "Why turn productive farmland back into nature? There's going to be an increase in people. They have to be fed." The Town of Warwick, home to many Black Dirt farmers, reminded lawmakers that a "New York State law of 1935 established the Wallkill Valley Drainage Improvement District, which encompasses the Black Dirt lands of Orange County, whereby 51 commission ditches were established and to date this drainage Improvement District still exists." Is it a violation of state law to allow drainage ditches to fill up? Either way, it threatens Black Dirt farming. The ditches serve two purposes, Doris Bialas explained. They drain water from the fields, allowing farmers to plant crops. And, working in the opposite direction, they absorb river overflow to keep flooding down. Farmers routinely clear out the ditches to maintain the free flow of water. Under the terms of the Wetlands Reserve Program, farmers are prohibited from clearing the ditches. The threat of flooding increases with every Black Dirt parcel that reverts to wetlands. The farms behind the Bialis's 53-acres farm, which abuts the Wallkill River, would suffer hardship if the Bialis family enrolled their acres in the program. An increase in wetlands will make it harder for farmers to be productive. Plants in reserve areas will send their seeds to neighboring properties, choking crop rows with weeds. Crop-eating insects and wildlife, like deer, which are attracted to open land, will proliferate. "Just the wellness of the ground itself is at stake," said Doris Bialas. "The mosquitoes would be horrendous here." Sonny Bialas added, "It's more complex than people realize, how this would affect neighboring farms." According to Doris, "When someone buys Black Dirt, he should be required to farm it and keep the ditches clean and the weeds under control." Upsetting the balance The program also affects taxpayers, farmers say. Besides paying farmers to stop planting, taxpayers might end up footing the bill when property taxes go unpaid. "If a farmer sells the development rights to his property, he might walk away and not continue to pay taxes," Johnson said. "Who's going pick up that slack?" In his letter, Church highlights other adverse effects in reducing the number of farms in the Black Dirt region. For instance, the number of upland farms will decrease, creating a domino effect. Having fewer farm services available will make it more difficult for farmers to sustain a profitable industry. "If farms in Orange County continue to decline, there will be a reduction in local fresh foods that can be delivered directly to residents of the city," Church said. "As a result, food such as fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products would have to be transported from places further away, thereby increasing transportation-related pollution. Such a situation may also increase the cost of this food due to high fuel costs for delivery vehicles. Therefore, fewer people may be able to afford to buy fresh foods, resulting in the potential for increased health problems." "This program upsets the whole Black Dirt farming industry," Johnson summed up. "We're doing pretty good. Just back off and let us be. Get the government out of our hair." "This is my livelihood," Sonny Bialis said. "I live off what I do. This is so unfair." We take for granted our food supply. We have wall-to-wall food and haven't experienced famine. Now we're putting farmers out of work. We used to feed ourselves and 20 percent of the world. Now we're importing better than 40 percent of our food." Sonny Bialis, Bialis Farm Benefits for the environment Provides habitat for migratory birds, fish and other wildlife Improves water quality and groundwater recharge Provides flood protection Bolsters declining species Offers educational and recreational opportunities Promotes open space, rural aesthetics and scenic vistas Provides wildlife corridors for migrating species, especially where easements are next to each other or other protected areas Hardships to people Increased flooding Proliferation of weeds Proliferation of crop-eating insects and wildlife Loss of fresh, locally grown food in densely populated area Decrease in the number of local farms Greater difficulty in sustaining profits Increased food costs "This program upsets the whole Black Dirt farming industry. We're doing pretty good. Just back off and let us be. Get the government out of our hair." Bill Johnson, Fort Hill Farm