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April 4, 2014

County seeks farmers' input to update plan

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The number of dairy cows in Otsego County is only about half of what it was less than 20 years ago, and the amount of land devoted to farming has declined by tens of thousands of acres, experts say.

Have things begun to level off? Perhaps.

But advocates for local agriculture say will have a better picture of how much farming is taking place within the county — and a better understanding of the vision that farmers have for their operations — once they complete a survey that will be distributed soon to those who make their living off the land.

The results of the survey will be used to update the Otsego County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan, which was packaged after the viewpoints of local farmers were collected in 1997.

Some trends have already been documented. For instance, the number of cows in Otsego County has declined 44 percent from 1997 to 2012, said Scott Fickbohm, the district manager of the Otsego County Soil and Water District.

He is heading up the survey effort and is getting support from Rebecca Morgan the Center for Agriculture Development and Entrepreneurship and Chris Harmon, a beef farmer, member of the county’s Farmland Protection Board and the Milford town supervisor, among others.

No one knows more about the triumphs and travails of local farming than the farmers themselves, Fickbohm said.

“The direct involvement of the farming community is very important,” he said. “It has to be a bottom-up process, and farmers have to have a real voice.”

The surveys are to be filled out anonymously, assuring that individual farmers will not be associated with the answers they provide, Fickbohm said. He added he is hopeful that farmers will see the benefit of participating in the effort as the project is aimed at formulating strategies that benefit the local agricultural community.

“We appreciate how busy farmers are and that they have already filled out a few other surveys lately,” he noted. “But the county-wide survey about to go out really does speak to local issues.”

The goals of the plan framed in 1997 include promoting awareness of agriculture’s importance in the economy, developing farmland protection measures and identifying ways to make local farms more financially viable.

Said Morgan: “If agriculture in Otsego County is to be among the driving forces of our local economy and remain an important feature in our landscape, then additional efforts have to be made.”

She also noted that freshening the plan dovetails with other economic development projects in the county.

The revised plan will probably include many of the current long-term goals, but it has to be updated with short-term actions that take advantage of today’s economic and agricultural trends and opportunities.”

Harmon said, “The revised plan will probably include many of the current long-term goals, but it has to be updated with short-term actions that take advantage of today’s economic and agricultural trends and opportunities.”

Fickbohm said the grant funding for the is administered on behalf of the Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board by the county’s Planning Department, in partnership with local agricultural agencies.

Other initiatives also aimed at updating the plan include a review of census data, interviews with agribusiness operators and farmers and organizing farmer forums.

The funding for the project comes from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets as well as a donation from the Scriven Foundation, as well as a contribution from those participating in the working group.

Those seeking more information about the survey and the plan may contact Fickbohm at his office at 547-8337, Extension 4.