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The tractor factor: Bill Hoffay

Agriculture Wars
By Rick Marshall
Photos By John Whipple

Homebuyers seeking a peaceful country life can make uneasy neighbors for the region’s remaining small farmers

 

‘As our nonfarming neighbors increase, it’s become necessary to remind everyone that farming is not a beautiful thing,” begins Bill Hoffay during the public comment period of a recent Town of Sand Lake board meeting. Tucking his faded, mesh-backed hat under one arm and speaking with gruff intonation, he leans forward into the microphone, noticeably concentrating on the pace at which he reads his prepared statement.

Hoffay is in attendance to voice his support for a recently proposed right-to-farm law, which, he claims, will allow local farmers to weather the storm of development around the region. With more people making the move from nearby cities and suburbs to rural surroundings (and some of those rural surroundings evolving, in turn, to suburbs), farmers like Hoffay have begun finding themselves more frequently at odds with their new neighbors and, in some cases, questioning their future in the transforming region.

“It was all farmland when I was growing up, but in the last 10 to 25 years, [development] has spiked around here,” shrugs Hoffay, leaning against the frame of a large barn door a few evenings ago at his family’s Rensselaer County dairy farm. “With the city just a few minutes away, people who work there just get off at [Interstate 90’s] Exit 8, see the fields and the grass, and decide they want a home in the country.”

“Every piece of land we’ve got is surrounded by houses now,” he continues.

Behind Hoffay is a trailer stacked with pumpkins and a framed black-and-white photo of the farm in the early years of its 57-year existence. He gestures out past the long barn where his cows are milked, out toward the wooded boundary between his land and the creeping fringes of suburbia.

“But it takes a while for people to get used to the farming life,” he remarks, adjusting the brim of his hat and lighting a Lucky Strike.

As many farmers ar ound the region are discovering, that period of adjustment can often be a tumultuous—and, in recent years, repetitive—experience for all parties. Whether it’s neighbors’ complaints about late-night and early-morning use of machinery, hard feelings over the smell of manure, or simple misunderstandings about the nature of today’s farming industry, the exodus from the city and suburbs to farm country has not only created conflict between some of the region’s oldest and newest residents, but also illuminated just how far apart these worlds have grown.

“People that are moving to the country these days often don’t realize that the beautiful landscape they’re looking at is an industry,” says Tim Kilcer, agricultural program leader for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County. “Just like having a factory next to you, those rolling fields and grazing animals are an active industry.” Conflicts between farmers and their new neighbors have been growing more numerous in recent years, according to Kilcer.

Ask local farmers about their experiences with neighbors new to the agricultural lifestyle, and you’re likely to hear a long list of baptism-by-fertilizer scenarios.

“Some people in Brunswick didn’t like that a farmer was out late at night using his chopper in the field behind their house,” says Kilcer of one such incident in which he found himself serving as mediator. “[The farmer] told them he’d much rather be in bed, but there was a heavy rain coming, the crop was already mowed down and he needed to get it all in or he’d lose it all.”

In some cases, neighbors seem to be so primed to be suspicious of farm practices that they jump to conclusions. One neighbor claimed that a farmer’s use of chemicals in a nearby field had sent her to the hospital. The only problem with her story? The crop duster she had seen had been spreading seeds, not chemicals.

While such experiences were once an occasional source of humor, for many farmers the Green Acres jokes have grown old from overexposure. According to some, they receive just as many complaints about operating their equipment too early in the morning as they do about operating it late at night, leaving many farmers wondering exactly what their new neighbors’ impression of farm country entailed. In other cases, it’s the sound of the cows, the pace of the tractors on country roads or, in the most common focus of conflict, the smell of manure-based fertilizer that has inspired animosity between farmers and their neighbors.

“More and more these days, developing communities are trying to force farmers to work according to their idealized image of a farm—where it’s seen and not heard or smelled—and definitely not how a competitive agricultural operation needs to be run,” explains Kilcer.

And with the pace of development around many of the region’s rural areas, the situation may get worse before it gets better.

Many local farmers contend that the real problem is simple: a lack of awareness about the realities of rural living.

“Most people are separated from farm life by multiple generations,” says Kilcer. “Their grandparents or great-grandparents may have farmed, but that’s as close as they get.”

“There’s a big disconnect about what agriculture really is today that’s growing even larger as farms disappear,” he adds.

Doug LaGrange, whose family has operated one of Albany County’s largest dairy farms for eight generations and who also serves on the Town of New Scotland’s planning board, says he stopped being surprised long ago by the children who arrive at his farm for a tour and “still don’t know where milk comes from.”

Even more frustrating, says LaGrange, is that so many people don’t realize the seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year commitment required to operate a successful farm, where each and every crop can mean the difference between making money or going broke. The idea of a job in which there are no hours and no way to “clock out” for the day is often a foreign concept to the typical nine-to-fiver, he explains.

This basic misunderstanding, often combined with the smell of manure, can add stress to even the best neighborly relations, says LaGrange.

“I’ve even had old friends ticked off at me because we spread [fertilizer] and it blew in their direction,” he laughs. “But I just have to tell them, ‘Guys, we don’t do it out of spite, it’s just something we have to do.’ ”

LaGrange adds that few people realize that the conditions leading to many of the typical complaints have an equally negative impact, if not more, on the farmer than the neighbors. For instance, the late-night use of machinery is often necessary only when there’s a dramatic shift in the weather forecast, while fertilizer—which tends to be more effective when rain or machinery are used to embed it in the soil—stands to lose many of its nutrients if broken-down equipment or unexpected weather cause it to be left out in the sun. That, of course, is also when it is more likely to send odor across property lines. In effect, the best farming practices on a functional level are often the best farming practices on a neighborly level.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that some compromises between farmers and their neighbors can’t help in maintaining a successful rural life, too.

“You don’t want to spread manure near someone’s property when they’re having a wedding reception the next day,” he laughs. “Can we go around to everyone in the area every time we’re going to spread manure and ask if they have anything planned? No. But our neighbors can give us a call, let us know they’re going to have a graduation party and ask us to hold off on the manure—and if they let us know soon enough, we can do that, of course.”

According to Hoffay, who says he tries not to spread manure until it’s late enough in the season that most homes have their windows shut and refrains from using slow-moving tractors during rush hour, compromise is usually possible—when there’s an adequate level of understanding. But sometimes his attempts at compromise fall flat. After a neighbor complained about his use of an audio deterrent to keep birds out of his cornfields, he agreed to turn off the cannon-and-distressed-bird-call system each evening. But the neighbor wasn’t satisfied, insisting that he should just use a scarecrow instead. That, says Hoffay, would render much of the field unusable.

In the event that com promise and communication fail to achieve a satisfactory result, a recent push toward state and local right-to-farm legislation has given many farmers the legal protection they need to continue the day-to-day operation of their farms as development draws nearer to their doorsteps. From requiring “buyer beware” disclosures for property in rural areas to protection from nuisance lawsuits and town officials with hands in developers’ pockets, many of these laws give farmers a legal leg to stand on when it comes to preserving their livelihood.

“By law, we’re required to have buyers sign an agricultural district disclosure,” explains Estelle Momrow, branch manager for Coldwell Banker Prime Properties in East Greenbush, where she says there’s been a dramatic increase in buyers interested in Rensselaer County property over the last 10 years.

“[The disclosure] says they understand they’re buying in an agricultural district and there could be noise from tractors early in the morning and, well, odors,” she laughs. “Isn’t it interesting, though, that we have a disclosure for agricultural districts but not for urban districts? . . . Is it expected that urban buyers are more likely to understand what they’re getting themselves into?”

According to the 1971 New York State Agriculture and Markets Law, such a disclosure is required from all potential homeowners whenever the property involved is located within one of the state’s 300-plus agricultural districts.

This state law also provides economic incentives for farmers to continue putting their land to agricultural use and protects them from expensive, frivolous lawsuits and local laws that would restrict their ability to use their machinery, spread fertilizer or go about their daily routines. Such farm-friendly legislation was necessary, according to the bill’s text, in order to slow the rapid disappearance of the state’s agricultural land due to such restrictive local ordinances, speculative investments and other forms of property competition that occur “when non-agricultural development extends into farm areas.”

However, not all of the region’s farms are located within the boundaries of established agricultural districts. According to Hoffay, whose farm is located entirely within Agricultural District 6, the rights of some of his counterparts in mixed-use and other districts are often far less defined. Farms located within mixed residential and agricultural zones often find themselves negatively affected by local laws such as noise ordinances, he says, because homeowners expect the existence of housing developments to mean residential zoning standards. Such conditions make the passage of local right-to-farm laws, which often overlap with their state-level counterparts, a helpful reminder to residents new and old.

Hoffay has been one of the most vocal supporters of the right-to-farm law in his own town, and he points to similar laws in the towns of Poestenkill and North Greenbush as evidence of such laws’ feasibility around the region.

Even with the existence of such legal protection, the threat of a court battle can become the straw that breaks the small farmer’s back, notes Kilcer.

“Sure, [the agricultural district law] gives a certain amount of protection,” he explains, “but that doesn’t stop someone from getting a lawyer and hauling your butt to court anyways—and when you’re just getting by and getting worn down by it all, it can be enough to make you say, ‘To heck with this.’ ”

What many people fail to realize, says LaGrange, is that once a farm is gone, there’s little chance that another will take its place.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s just one more farm,’” he sighs, “but unfortunately, it’s one more farm every day.”

And while the complaining neighbors might achieve a short-term victory, the decision could end up coming back to haunt them, he reasons. In some cases, the alternatives may be worse than the current situation. Confronted with the skyrocketing value of property around the region, many retiring farmers opt to cash in on their land and sell it to developers—giving nearby residents an environment free of manure and farm machinery, but jam-packed with other neighbors.

As many rural homeowners have discovered in recent years, when farmland disappears, housing developments tend to fill the vacuum.

“We lose a lot of farms that way,” says LaGrange. “People don’t realize that those of us who work our own land don’t have a big retirement fund. The land is our 401(k).”

Even farmers who are covered by right-to-farm laws are now encountering problems in a relatively new realm of activities that fall outside the standard operations of a farm—namely, the world of “agri-tourism.”

For many small farms, the seasonal hayrides, cornfield mazes and pumpkin-decorating parties that fall into the category of agri-tourism have become as important a source of income as their original dairy, vegetable or floral focus. In many cases, farmers have begun supplementing the living they eke via milking cows or growing vegetables by transforming the relative scarcity of such operations into a moneymaking opportunity. Hoffay points to his “Harvest House,” a banquet-hall-style building he recently built to host banquets, sell vegetables and rent out for all manner of farm-themed activities, as just such a necessary extension of the family business.

“Small-farm farmers can’t survive anymore with just milking cows,” he explains. “I wish we could, but that’s just not the case anymore.”

But these other activities—which fall outside of the standard cow-milking and corn- harvesting—have become the new focus of neighbors’ ire. And, as many local farmers have discovered, their new neighbors are willing to challenge whether these activities count as farming at all.

“This law . . . severely limits recourse of adjacent property owners regarding complaints of noise and other nuisances,” reads an anonymous letter distributed to homes near Hoffay’s farm around the time when the local right-to-farm law was introduced. Similar letters, written by members of a family living near Hoffay’s farm and sent to the town board in April, demand that the law be rejected because residents of the nearby development “will not tolerate an extension of the scope or meaning of farming that denies us our peaceful environment.”

“A potential home buyer was completely discouraged from building in our development because of witnessing the [Harvest House] party noise,” claims another letter, written by Carol and Carmen Ciccarelli, neighbors of Hoffay.

Calls placed to the Ciccarellis for comment were not returned.

“I think people are hesitant to be perceived as against the right to farm,” reasons Flora Fasoldt, a member of the Sand Lake town board, when asked why the number of letters and complaints is often much greater than the number of residents who appear at town meetings and other public forums to speak.

While Hoffay argues that he is already protected by many of the state agricultural laws, he’s concerned that passage of a local right-to-farm law—with specific mention of agri-tourism—is a necessary step to protect his counterparts in mixed-use areas.

The forecast isn’t all gloom and doom for the region’s farms, however. Hoffay says his farm’s longtime neighbors have rarely had any problems with the day-to-day farming routine—and, like LaGrange, he says he’s generally been able to make arrangements with those neighbors who have made an effort to understand the situation and approach him about it.

Leaning against a railing of the Harvest House, Hoffay grins and nods toward the shiny black sport utility vehicle pulling up to the vegetable stand. Its middle-aged driver, a neighbor of Hoffay’s clad in a pair of leather loafers, khaki shorts and a pastel-blue polo shirt—complete with upturned collar—smiles at Hoffay and begins examining the sweet corn on display. The two men, Hoffay in his splattered jeans and work boots and the new arrival looking as if he had just stepped off a J. Crew photo shoot, chat for a while about this year’s harvest. They shake hands, the neighbor leaves and Hoffay returns to the railing with a smile.

“Yeah, it takes a while for people to get used to the farming life,” he chuckles. “But they usually come around.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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