Low prices and high taxes closing 199-year-old farm

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

December 27, 1993|By New York Times News Service

UNION VALE, N.Y. -- After 199 years of raising animals and growing crops to feed them, the oldest farm in Dutchess County is going out of business.

The 200-acre Ken-Ray Farm, founded in 1794, auctioned off its herd of 160 cows last month and plans a spring sale of tractors, balers, manure wagons and plows. The land itself is on the market, too, at a price of $1.5 million.

"It's not because I wanted to retire, but dairy farming is no longer profitable," said Raymond Vail, 66. Ever since he was old enough walk to the barn, he has been working on the farm, which is named after him and his brother, Kenneth, who died in 1975.

He said that low prices for milk, the sluggish economy and high property taxes were chiefly responsible for the decision to go out of business.

The demise of the Ken-Ray Farm has become another statistic in the continuing decline of dairy farms in Dutchess County and the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 171,560 dairy farms in the nation in 1992, down from 181,270 in 1991.

In New York, the third-leading dairy state in the nation behind California and Wisconsin, the number of dairy farms dropped from 15,371 in 1982 to 10,625 in 1992, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. But milk volume has remained high because of increased production per cow on large farms.

Over all, the remaining dairy farms in the state are in healthy shape, with $1.53 billion of milk and milk products sold in 1992, up from $1.4 billion the year before. Geographically, though, the picture is spotty, with upstate farms doing well and downstate farms poorly, mainly because of taxes.

"One of the problem areas is in the Hudson Valley corridor between New York City and Albany," said Richard T. McGuire, the state commissioner of agriculture and markets. "The real property tax is double there compared to what they are paying in the rest of the state."

Today, there are only 52 dairy farms in Dutchess County, down from 105 in 1987 and from 275 in 1972, said David Tetor, the dairy agent for Cornell University's Cooperative Extension Service.

He said he expected three or four more farms in the county to go out of business before the end of the winter, in part because of drought that forces farmers to choose between selling their herd or buying feed to support them, in part because of longer-term economic pressures on farms on the northern fringe of the New York City metropolitan region.

"If you ask farmers here what their major problem is, they will reply taxes," he said. "And what drives taxes up is people moving into the area."

For Mr. Vail, the result of increased services required for the rising population has been a property tax of $24,000 a year, double what it was 10 years ago.

"Five years ago, we considered selling out, but we wanted to farm as long as possible, and we probably continued too long," he said. "This year was probably the worst crop year since the 1950s because of the drought. To stay in business we would have to buy feed, and we didn't have the money."

Mr. Vail, who has six children and 12 grandchildren, worked the ** farm with a son-in-law, Victor Holmes, and an assistant, Peter Deforest. Mr. Holmes now works for an excavating company, and Mr. Deforest has been elected highway superintendent of Union Vale.

But Mr. Vail is still on the farm, uncertain about the future. Standing in an empty barn where he once milked up to 100 cows twice a day, Mr. Vail looked out a window at the empty farm fields and mused about his changed way of life.

"What I think I am going to miss the most is looking out and seeing the cows out there," he said. "I liked coming into the barn at 4:30 in the morning to see the sun come up and hear the birds sing."

For the time being, he goes into the barn at 6 a.m. to milk two cows that he retained and to care for nine calves that he has kept for his grandchildren.

He and his wife, Eleanor, a nurse who works at Sharon Hospital in nearby Connecticut, live in a house on the border of the farm, and plan to stay there after the land is sold.

"I'm a little on edge," Mrs. Vail said. "I was getting ready to retire, but now I'll have to wait and see what's going to happen on the farm."

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