By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, May 21, 2021
ANGELICA, N.Y. — It feels like a no-win situation for Charlie Bares ever since Great Lakes Cheese set its sights on fertile Genesee River Valley land that is integral to growing forage and hauling manure for the 3000-cow Mallards Dairy.
The Allegany County (New York) Industrial Development Agency (ACIDA) has moved forward with eminent domain proceedings to condemn 321 acres of Bares’ land, identified in county documents as Marshland LLC, so the county can use the land to build a 480,000 square foot cheese manufacturing facility for Great Lakes Cheese.
The county has a deal with the Hiram, Ohio-based cheese company to give $220 million in tax savings and incentives to build the $500 million plant on Bares’ land.
The new plant would double the company’s current production at its Empire Cheese plant in nearby Cuba, New York.
According to documents in the public record, Great Lakes Cheese intends to close the Cuba plant after production would begin at the plant it seeks to build on Bares’ land.
ACIDA and the cheese company began working on this project in October 2019 and have set a timetable for groundbreaking later this year and operations to begin in January 2025.
The public record also indicates that 200 jobs at the Cuba plant, and additional jobs with the expansion, as well as milk markets, are “in jeopardy” if Great Lakes can’t build on this particular land.
Cows have been milked in this operation since 1860, according to Bares, who joined Joe Strzelec as a partner in the 1990s. As the ownership and business changed over the years — with Bares becoming the principle partner and expanding the operation — the Genesee River Valley land the county wants to take has become a key to the dairy business 20 miles away.
“IDA has begun the eminent domain process, and we are fighting it,” said Bares in a Farmshine phone interview. “We are arguing that this is not an overwhelming public benefit, but that it is an overwhelming private benefit.”
A few weeks ago, attorneys representing Bares and Marshacres LLC filed a petition challenging the county’s actions. The legal case is currently in the New York State Appellate Court.
Bares was approached a year ago about selling more than half of the 400 acres for the cheese plant.
“We didn’t want to sell, and we gave a price that reflected that. This land is the biggest and best field for us, and it is an integral part of our business. Selling it would weaken our dairy business,” he explained.
In addition, Bares is concerned about the environmental impact of losing land like this to concrete. While his operations are just outside of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, he is a supporter of the clean water blueprint for the Bay, and has invested over the years in technologies and best management practices profiled in 2015 in a Chesapeake Bay Foundation blog. Tree plantings and riparian buffers for water quality in the Genesee River Basin were also highlighted, among other things, in 2018.
The ‘market value’ of this land is irrelevant under these conditions. What is relevant is the value of the land to Mallards Dairy and its owners.
In fact, in a letter reported by the Olean Times-Herald, Bares’ attorney John Cappellini observes: “You are taking property from one company and giving it to another? You have decided that one commercial use, the farm, is somehow less important than a cheese factory.”
Explaining in the letter that the threats from Great Lakes Cheese to close all area facilities and leave the area have motivated officials against his client, Cappellini stated further that, “They are extorting from the taxpayers of Allegany County, and the County Legislature is complicit. They threaten to leave ‘unless you give us what we want.’”
The ACIDA notes that 80 sites were evaluated as Great Lakes Cheese had specific criteria to build a plant that would double its production after the Cuba plant is closed.
Of those 80 sites, the county says this is the only property that meets the company’s criteria.
Reports indicate the land meets three criteria: flat land, proximity to the river and being just off a major highway, I-86. The greenfield approach is the company and county’s least expensive build option with access to cheaper highway transportation.
Bares believes the company has not negotiated in good faith.
Answering questions about milk supply, Bares notes there has been no ‘provincial talk’ guaranteeing this project must use any percentage of its milk from New York State farms. No such stipulations are noted in the public record, except the ACIDA record includes a mention and link to Dairy Farmers of America (DFA).
Over the years, this region of New York has received milk from Michigan, Ohio and northern Indiana as it sits in a part of the state that falls just outside of Federal Milk Marketing Order maps — sitting as a bridge between the Northeast FMMO 1 and the Mideast FMMO 33.
The public record does show conditions that the over 200 employees at the existing Cuba plant would be offered jobs at the new plant.
Meanwhile, Mallards Dairy employs 35 to 40 people and feeds and milks 2500 cows with a total herd of 2900 mature animals. The land the county wants to take is key to that business.
At the March ACIDA meeting, officials noted publicly that they hope to break ground in the third quarter of 2021 and be fully operational by Jan. 1, 2025. If the ACIDA is successful in the eminent domain process it has begun, the county would own Bares’ land and lease it to Great Lakes Cheese.
At one point, early on, Bares notes that not only did the selling price he offered reflect the importance of the land to the dairy business, but also the idea of securing a milk market was mentioned to the company. He says Great Lakes Cheese declined, noting simply that they purchase their milk from cooperatives.
A prime supplier of Great Lakes Cheese is DFA, as the public record reflects. Bares markets his milk through a small independent cooperative.
Having been unable to reach an agreement that would reflect the impact to his dairy business, Bares hired a lawyer.
“This area is very hilly with narrow valleys. There’s not a lot of farmland. This Genesee River Valley land is very good, very fertile, non-erosive land,” said Bares of the land around the main dairy operation outside of Cuba, and the land the county wants to take 20 miles away. “We want to hang on to this land because it’s hard to replace. Every farmer has land that is their best land, that they aren’t going to let go unless they are done farming.”
He says going through this process over the past year has only strengthened his resolve to keep the land and fight the eminent domain process. He notes that his wife Elizabeth has helped him tremendously.
New York’s history of interpretation for ‘public use’ in eminent domain cases is a broader notion than for most states. Bares knows it will be an uphill battle to fight the county’s taking, but he is hoping that his battle will ultimately help others in the future facing a taking of their land.
“Our dairy jobs — and the cows — depend on this collection of land resources we have grown,” says Bares. “This whole thing is wrong for the profitability of our dairy to chip away at the best land. It’s wrong for the environment because this is a beautiful riparian river valley and land like this is disappearing fast. It’s wrong from the social aspect the way the government is using eminent domain to help one private enterprise while harming another.”
He says his attorney is confident and always believes he can win every case until he loses, so Bares is trying to stay positive.
Their petition was filed recently in New York State Appellate Court. The Allegany County IDA has reportedly petitioned the court to expedite proceedings. Bares had expected both sides to be writing briefs through the summer with oral arguments in October, but that could be expedited to August or September.
“I think everyone should take a dim view of this. Every farmer — everyone — has a property that is head and heels above their other land, their best fields,” Bares suggests. “If the state — under the auspices of the Industrial Development Agency — can decide how these properties can be used, I think as farmers, we need to realize we can lose our land through eminent domain takings. My case is just an example.”
This case is an example because the ‘taking’ is not for a public use. It is for a private business use that the county is using economics to declare as a public use.
Bares has had some support from the community. Some rallies with some turnout, especially in April. There has been support online, and he has received a few phone calls.
But largely, outside of the southern tier New York and northern tier Pennsylvania region, the story is not known.
A petition by Marshacres and citizens of Allegany County has been started, which has nearly 5500 signatures to-date at https://www.change.org/p/acida-stop-eminent-domain-seizure-of-working-farmland
“No one’s lining up (manure spreaders) at the county courthouse and threatening to open the valves, if that’s what you mean,” he answered.
After a long and quiet pause, he communicates just how difficult this situation has become for everyone.
“The farmers around me, my peers, they want this cheese plant and a stronger market. I believe that’s a big carrot, so it’s not easy. It seems there is little chance that I can come out ahead, either way. Either we chop off part of our business or the cheese plant will not expand here so everyone will view us as economic martyrs,” he explains.
“I feel like I cannot win.”
Even though each of two outcomes at the moment represent a different kind of difficult for Bares, he believes fighting the county’s eminent domain proceedings could help someone else — as untouched land like this that is important to agriculture and the environment is disappearing.
“Once it’s paved over in concrete, ” he says, “it’s not coming back.”