The issue | Gov. Cuomo announces second round of Southern Tier farm improvement grants.

Local impact | Through both rounds of the program, 55 Steuben County farms have received or will receive a total of $4.5 million in funds -- an average of about $82,000 per farm.

By James Post jpost@the-leader.com

BATH | “Last year’s drought put us behind the 8-ball,” Bath farmer Phil Weaver said.

He’d had plans, along with his brother, John, who operates Bluegill Farms with him, for a new grain transport and storage system.

“We never had a way to store grain before it got to the dryer,” Phil Weaver said.

With a bad year behind them, “it could have been five years out” before the improvements were made, he said.

He was at a Cornell Cooperative Extension meeting when he heard about the Southern Tier Agricultural Industry Enhancement Program.

“They had encouraged us to submit an application,” Weaver said.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets has worked in coordination with the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts to administer the grant program, which promised $25 million in farm funding across six counties: Broome, Cattaraugus, Chenango, Steuben, Tioga and Tompkins.

“We had to write a five-year plan,” John Weaver said.

“There’s certainly a process you have to go through,” Phil added.

“The business plan had to show that the project was going to enhance the farm’s profitability,” said Jeff Parker, of the Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office recently announced the second round of awards through the program.

Fourteen Steuben County farms will receive a total of more than $1 million in funding from the state for improvements to efficiency or environmental sustainability.

The Bluegill Farms project was approved in the first round of the program in August 2016.

In that round, 41 Steuben farms received a total of $3.45 million in funding.

"These grants provide farms the support they need to help expand the region's agricultural industry and protect New York's natural resources," Cuomo said in a press release. "By providing critical funding to advance strategic projects that develop local farms and boost the Southern Tier's economy, New York is investing in the future of this critically important sector, helping this region to soar."

“Most of the projects that were approved in the first round are either completed or close to completed,” said county Legislator Robin Lattimer, who heads the Agriculture, Industry and Planning Committee.

That includes Phil Weaver’s grain lift and storage.

The program covers 75 percent of the cost of a project, up to a maximum of $100,000 from the state.

But it’s not as simple as using the state money to pay for the work, Weaver said.

“They don’t give you the money up front, you get it at the end when the project’s complete,” he said.

He said Farm Credit East helped with capital to pay for the construction up front.

Still, he said, the process has been worth it.

“We can harvest all day long without waiting for the dryer,” Weaver said -- where before there might have been a line of loaded trucks sitting idle waiting.

The drying process is necessary because grain has to be dried to less than 15 percent moisture in order to safely store into the next year -- but it’s also slow.

So the new storage system has really changed operations at Bluegill Farms.

“It keeps us moving,” Weaver said.

Parker said projects coming up in the second round of funding include improvements at a tree farm, manure storage, milking parlor upgrades and a solar irrigation system for fruit trees.

Lattimer acknowledged that Steuben County has been one of the biggest winners in this state grant program.

Partly, she said, because “we’re a bigger county and we have more farms.”

“We (also) seemed to have some really good projects,” Lattimer said.

She said programs like this can have a real impact on local farms, because farmers, by the nature of their business, generally put profits right back into the operation and often don’t have the liquid assets necessary for these kinds of long-term investments.

“There (is) never enough money to do all the projects that (need) to be done,” Lattimer said.