Farming and food from two Upstate New York journalists

Canton explores new zoning for small farms

A field at littleGrasse Foodworks last summer in Canton. Photo courtesy littleGrasse Foodworks.

Here's one way the local food movement is having an impact on rural communities.  It used to be the farms on the outskirts of towns were zoned agricultural.  They were mostly left to their own devices.

Today, entrepreneurial farmers are coaxing nearly every vegetable you can think of from just a couple acres of land.  They're raising chickens and hogs.  They're signing up CSA members and, if things work out well, actually making a living.

These small businesses can exist close to town, so they do.  That makes it easier for the farmer to bring crops to the market and for CSA members to pick up their bounty.  In some cases, they're farming in tiny parcels that were never dreamed of as "agricultural".  And they may be bumping up against the neighbors' expectations of quiet, smell, or what kind of activity they expect next door.

The town of Canton in New York's St. Lawrence County is digging into these issues.  Tonight the town board will consider revised zoning rules to allow small farms to produce and market in areas never before considered agricultural.  Right now, they're zoned residential.

The proposed changes were led by littleGrasse Foodworks, a farm and CSA owned by Flip Filippi and Bob Washo.  Right now, they're illegal.  They're farming land that's right at the entrance to the popular village park and swimming area.  So they're not going unnoticed!

I asked Bob Washo via email what the changes are about.  Here's his reply:

The town of Canton has a genuine opportunity to lead the way by adopting more inclusive language into their code surrounding sensible food production near population centers. For the longest time the St Lawrence Valley has tried to play "catch up" on so many issues. We have a rich Agricultural tradition and an even brighter future but only if we meet the needs of today and anticipate those of tomorrow.

You can watch a nifty slide show presentation they put together here.

The Canton town planning board has been receptive to the changes.  It's already rezoned rural areas to allow animal slaughterhouses to be built to cater to the growing local meat demand.  Town supervisor David Button told the Watertown Daily Times, "we’re hoping people see how ag-friendly Canton is and consider bringing jobs and businesses to our community."

Button also told the paper he supports some of the zoning revisions for small farms, but he's against raising animals in residential zones.

Canton's planning board meeting about rezoning for small farms is tonight at 7pm at the town hall on Main St.

I'd love to hear how these issues are playing out in your hamlet.  Are roosters making the neighbors complain?  Is there a place for a "microfarm" in your town?  Or is that what should happen on all those unplowed acres outside of town?


  1. Thanks for the report David!
    Just a couple of clarifications.
    Tonight's meeting is before the Town "Planning" Board.
    Also, our land and much of the other properties "now" zoned residential actually
    have been historically used for agricultural production, be it commercial and or subsistence. A few of these farms are still operational, albeit non conforming. The way the code reads these enterprises are left to whither on the vine as they can not expand or cease operation for longer than a year without risking their "grandfathered" status.
    We hope to have a full room tonight with much public input.
    Thanks again for putting this out there for discussion.

  2. It would be nice to get the input from some Clarkson professors of environmental risk into this discussion. Their expertise could put any fears or concerns that the town has to rest. Dr. Alan Rossner and Dr. Michelle Crimi come to mind.

    • Please forward the post to them and better yet invite them to tonight's meeting.

  3. I was somewhat amused recently to hear that Canton will discuss allowing farming in areas outside the village….I was amused because I don't remember there ever being a discussion about allowing residences out in farm country.
    Folks have been moving out of town to get away from it all for a long time. It's not at all uncommon to see a beautiful new house, built by a newcomer, right next to a working farm. The location isn't accidental…the good life beckons to many townsfolk…always has.

  4. A couple people mentioned to me this: Canton village allows raising chickens, but not the town in residential areas…

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