Erie County went out of its way Thursday to let farmers know that it values the region’s rich history in agriculture and recognizes the importance of protecting farmland and ensuring the profitability of the industry.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz rolled out a new Erie County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan – after 20 months of work – hoping that it sets the stage for guiding how the county views and plans to help agriculture over the next decade. The last such plan was completed in 1996 but then languished, and by and large was ineffective.

“We’re not going to abandon the industry, but help as best as we can,” Poloncarz said in announcing the plan during a news conference at Eden Valley Growers. “The No. 1 thing this plan does is lets farmers know we’re serious. We want to do everything we can to keep the sustainable economy in Western New York.”

Since the early 1970s, the county has lost substantial amounts of farmland, when the county population peaked. And since then, sprawling development has pushed past the inner-ring suburbs of Buffalo and into the second-ring suburbs. Between 2002 and 2007, county officials said, development of farmlands resulted in the number of farms decreasing by 6 percent, while acreage in farms decreased by 8 percent.

Today, Erie County’s 14 agricultural districts cover 1,215 farms, with 149,356 acres actively farmed, according to the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. That amounts to 39 percent of the county’s land area. All but two of the 25 towns in the county have adopted Right to Farm laws.

James Agle, a partner in the fifth-generation Henry Agle & Sons Farms of Eden, said the plan has merit. “I know the county is making an effort to preserve agriculture, and the only way to do that is to save farmland,” he said. “The county is doing the right thing. I don’t know how much it will accomplish, but it’s a step in the right direction. At least, it’ll have the general public thinking they have to keep the farmland available to the people producing a sufficient quantity to feed the people on this earth.”

Agle, whose family grows vegetables on 90 acres, said suitable land to grow vegetables in Eden already is being used. “For vegetables, there’s really no more good land in Eden because it’s already in production,” he said.

The comprehensive plan, totaling 70 pages, zeroes in on land-use planning, increasing links between producers and consumers, better marketing of produce and mapping tools identifying where prime soils are in the county and helping improve the viability of all farms in the county.

“Obviously, we want to protect clusters of prime soils,” said Tom Dearing, the county’s deputy commissioner of environment and planning. He said he could not estimate how many of the county’s nearly 150,000 acres of farmland might be threatened by development.

“The focus of our efforts is to try to preserve farmland in second- and third-ring towns,” he said.

Poloncarz said a primary focus of the plan is to have proper land-use planning so development is not destroying workable, usable farmland.

County officials stressed the need for the efforts to help continue the next generation of farming in Erie County. David Zittel, one of the owners and operators of Amos Zittel & Sons Inc. of Eden, praised the county’s interest in crafting a plan that had included input from farmers. “Anytime you get government backing you, it doesn’t hurt you,” Zittel said. “I love the idea that they recognize that the economic importance of agriculture is huge.”

County officials said they also hope to do more educational outreach in the farming arena and would like to see more agricultural education classes offered in high schools.