Warwick's PDR initiator gets honors from Cornell, town

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:18

    WARWICK-Seymour Gordon is not a farmer. However, he has probably done more for the farming future of Warwick than anyone else in the town's long history. His efforts have resulted in a Purchase of Development Rights program that so far has preserved five farms, a total of 710 acres of farmland, in the Town of Warwick. A half dozen more farms are in the process of preservation, bringing the total acreage up to 2,200. Last night, the Town of Warwick officially thanked Gordon for his efforts, something Cornell Cooperative Extension did in October, awarding him the 2004 Friend of Agriculture Award. The town presented him with a plaque listing all preserved farms in the town, which will hang in the Town Hall. Each time another farm is preserved, it will be added to the plaque, under Gordon's name. How did this retired farm equipment salesman turn farmland preservation into his passion? It goes back to the building boom of the 1980s. While he was still in business, he became alarmed at the number of farms being sold for development. After he retired from his business in 1987, he studied the situation. In 1989, he was appointed to a task force by then Senator Arthur Gray. "We worked on a farmland preservation task force for one year," Gordon said. Then, Gray lost his state Senate seat and the task force was history. "But it wasn't the end for me." Gordon worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension. He met Leonard DeBuck, a sod farmer in Pine Island and a Town of Warwick councilman. "We did lots of investigation into how farmland preservation was done in other areas, such as northwest Massachusetts and Burlington County, New Jersey," Gordon said. "We had information meetings with farmers. This is something I've pursued for the last 15 years." State, federal, town, and private funds are now used to purchase the development rights of farmers, keeping the farmland undeveloped forever. It is a dream come true for Gordon. Gordon moved to Warwick from Sullivan County when he was just 17, following his older brother who moved here to start a hardware store. He attended Hobart College, where he met Shirley. They were married between their junior and senior years of college, and had two daughters, who have since given them six grandchildren, aged four months to 34 years. He spent three years and 21 days in service to his country. Gordon doesn't downplay the awards he has received. He is gratified by them and realizes the importance of the work he and many others have work done for this effort. "There are certain limits to humility," Gordon said. "I am pleased for the recognition because the people who worked with me are wonderful, devoted, passionate people. This is blanket recognition of the PDR alliance. These people are so devoted. We met every Friday morning for two hours to coordinate this campaign." In 2000, residents throughout the Town of Warwick approved a referendum providing millions of dollars to buy farmland and open space within the town. It wasn't always an easy campaign.ot giving their property away," he said. "With this program, you are guaranteed to get your money. Developers can go bankrupt." In addition to town money, Gordon has written grants over the past few years garnering $3 million from the state's Agriculture and Markets and another $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "This is happening throughout North America, in the northeast here and Canada," he said. "We have become a net importer of food. That means we have no control over the pesticides used. I am concerned for my grandchildren." Lucy Joyce of Cornell Cooperative Extension has worked with Gordon for many years. She said choosing him as the Friend of Agriculture award winner was an easy choice. She and her staff come up with candidates for the yearly award. This year, though, there wasn't much to discuss. "Seymour's leadership, his commitment never wanes," Joyce said. "I hope I'm like him. I hope I don't lose my commitment. He has strong convictions but he still listens to other people's points of view. He hears people." Town of Warwick Supervisor Michael Sweeton agrees wholeheartedly, saying that Gordon is the father of PDR in Warwick. "He was the coalescing force for the referendum in the late 90s," Sweeton said. "He has been a great advocate for farming and he receives no benefit from any PDR protected farm. He has done it all for his love of agriculture." Sweeton and Joyce both credit Gordon with keeping the Future Farmers of America program alive in Warwick schools. "He is the reason it is still in existence," Sweeton said. Now 81, Gordon continues his work toward protecting farmland. While he has never been a farmer, he is an avid gardener, growing flowers and vegetables on his little piece of property in the Village of Warwick. This year he grew beans, broccoli, cabbage, celery, carrots, arugala, strawberries, kale, sweet corn, radishes, and much more. Not bad for a guy who lives in the village. He certainly paid attention to the farmers with whom he did business. As for the town award, Gordon says he is elated. "I don't want to feign humility," he said. "I know what I've done is worthwhile. My kids are proud of me. Shirley is too." "I'm just so proud that he has finally been recognized," said his wife, Shirley. "He has been selfless in all he's done." Going back to the reason he put so much effort into this cause, Gordon quotes a phrase from Jewish teaching: Tikun Olam, which means "To Heal the World." "For someone who follows the tradition of Judaism, it is imperative," he said. "What I'm doing is a corrective. I owe it to society." So, when Warwick's next generation looks out and sees rolling farmland and dairy farms throughout the countryside, tell them about Seymour Gordon, the soft-spoken gardener from the village who did more for farming in Warwick than anyone else in history.