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Future of Niagara County farmland will be focus of agricultural forum

PORTER -- Local farmer Tom Tower, whose family farm dates to 1812, has seen drastic changes in the local agricultural market over the years.

"Local farmers everywhere are struggling to survive," said Tower, who owns Tower Farming Company, a fruit and vegetable farm in Youngstown. "We've seen a huge amount of change in the market, [including] the loss of farm markets to foreign competition."

Tower, who also runs Tom Tower's Farm Market at 759 Lockport Road, says many of the fruits and vegetables sold locally come from foreign and West Coast markets. "The West Coast apples taste like the toe of my boot," said Tower, who also has sold produce at Buffalo Place Downtown Country Market and the Elmwood Village Farmers Market on Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo.

He and other local farmers are looking forward to a forum about the future of agricultural land in the town being held by the town Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee at 7 p.m. Monday in Town Hall, 3265 Creek Road, Youngstown.

"I think this is an excellent opportunity for the township to take a good look as to how they want the future to unfold," Tower said. "It's an opportunity for the town to say 'Gee, where does agriculture fit into the fabric of life here.' "

Patricia Lynch, co-chairwoman of the committee, said the comprehensive plan promotes preservation and development of local farmland. She said taking action now on issues such as zoning would help prevent the overdevelopment that other areas such as Amherst have seen. "It's going to be the first step in eventually developing a strategy to revive the agricultural economy and preserve agricultural lands," Lynch said.

Competition from foreign growers and farmers in other states is also part of the problem local farmers -- and those nationally -- have in trying to pass their businesses on to a younger generation.

"Most farmers have gone out of business and the [rest] of us are probably headed that way," said Sandy Tuck, daughter of Glenn Sanger, owner of Sanger Farms, 862 Youngstown-Lockport Road, Youngstown. "My dad was just saying to me that no younger generation wants to take over the farms because no one wants to lose money."

Glenn Sanger said the local markets have been feeling the pinch from imports.

At age 76, he said he has seen a lot of changes in farming. Now, he said, "It's low prices and foreign markets. Everybody's quitting. People don't care as long as it's cheap. They don't care where it comes from."

He said part of the reason that imported produce is less expensive is that foreign growers have less expensive labor costs. "They're only paying a fraction of what we're paying," he said.

According to the last federal Census of Agriculture, completed every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Niagara County saw a decline in agricultural sales of about $120,000 between 1997 and 2002, while neighboring counties saw slight increases. "I would say there's been a decline in recent years," said Paul Lehman, program leader for agriculture and community issues with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County in Lockport.

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