Sharon Slate always wanted a lot of land to call her own- somewhere with a view and the space to raise and ride horses. She remembers going for rides in the country as a little girl and wondering who were the lucky folks that owned all of the property they passed by. Even from a young age, she found it unsettling that there was a persistent trend towards development everywhere she went and was aware that the window of opportunity to own farmland was shrinking. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone” she recounted. It quickly became her goal to have her own land and horses to roam around on it someday.
Sharon and her husband, Gary Slate, began chipping away at this goal in 1987 when they purchased a 17 acre piece of land in Van Buren. At the time there was nothing on the property, but by the following summer they managed to build a horse barn and paddock as well as purchase the house next door, adding an additional acre to their land. Over the years the Slates would buy more adjacent sections of farmland as it came on the market, until they owned 8 parcels on 4 different farm properties totaling 83 acres! Today, the land is known as Clover Hill Farm. They use the 10-15 miles of trails on the land for riding their 4 horses and also rent to a dairy farmer who uses the farm for hay production.
Clover Hill Farm started out as a private show stable where the Slates got involved in competitive pleasure carriage driving; the type of carriage driving that can be seen at the Lorenzo Historic Site in Cazenovia, NY every July. Through the years they would earn several championship ribbons, trophies, and coolers with their horses. They enjoyed getting to develop good working partnerships with their horses during this period.
From the beginning, part of Sharon’s motivation for owning farmland was to prevent it from falling into the hands of developers –and she happens to own notably rich land, very worthy of that cause. Clover Hill Farm is in the Seneca River Watershed and contains 2 acres of protected wetland. Of the Slate’s 83 acres, 63% has been classified as prime soil or soil considered of statewide importance. Therefore, when Sharon and Gary began inquiring about ways to forever protect their property, the Onondaga County Agriculture Council offered their support (in addition to the support from NYALT) to the Slates in obtaining a conservation easement since it would further the goal of the Onondaga County Farmland Protection Plan.
In the end, Sharon and Gary Slate were able to put all 83 acres of their farmland into an easement. Rather than selling the development rights to the land, which New York State allocates only limited funding towards the purchase of each year, they made the noble decision to donate their development rights instead. Sharon said they were willing to choose a donation of development rights in the hopes that it would inspire others in a similar financial position to do the same. In fact, the Onondaga County Agriculture Council encouraged the Slates to set up a subcommittee tasked with spreading the word to others in the community who owned land but primarily worked off the farm, like them. The committee was made up of knowledgeable individuals from CCE, the Soil and Water Conservation District, NYALT, etc. who together launched a successful mail recruitment plan to assess interest in the community. Most importantly, Sharon and Gary were able to create a Donation Program, which provides a clearer pathway during the process of obtaining an easement for those who would like to donate their development rights. Thanks to their efforts another farmer in the area, Leroy Peck, donated the development rights to his farm in Warners, NY
When asked what she would say to her peers who are on the fence about this process, Sharon replied: “don’t hesitate, just go for it.” She followed by explaining that NYALT is willing to work with anybody –all they need to have is 50 acres of land and the desire to protect it for the future. She and Gary are grateful for the support they received from NYALT and the Onondaga County Agriculture Council to reach their goal of forever preserving their farmland. Sharon hopes that down the line, Clover Hill Farm is still being used as productive cropland, and, of course, that it continues on as an equine facility.
Interview and story by Jessie Smith