All Kerry and Eric Beiter want to do is use the milk from their alpine goats to make organic, handcrafted soap.
Kerry Beiter sells the soap at farmers’ markets and has a growing Internet business.
But the Town of Wales is requiring a special-use permit for the goats, and now the rural town in southeast Erie County – population 3,000 – finds itself accused of violating farmers’ rights.
The small family operation on East Creek Road is caught up in a tussle between a local zoning provision that restricts them and state agricultural law they contend allows the operation.
“We’ve stuck it out for 22 months,” Kerry Beiter said. “Most startups would have just scrammed and found land somewhere else in a different town.”
The town is just as exasperated.
“We’re in a very frustrating position,” counters Supervisor Rickey Venditti. “We’re trying to work with this person, to make things easier.”
The town requires the special-use permit, but New York State says that is unreasonably restrictive for a farm in an approved agricultural district like the Beiters’. It said Wales “must not” limit the operation in that way.
Town Attorney Ronald P. Bennett replied to the state but declined to provide a copy of the letter to The Buffalo News.
“They’ve threatened litigation,” he said. “The town contends that what it has done is right.”
The story of Beiter and Sons – they have two young boys – started when the couple got three goats several years ago. Eric Beiter is a science teacher in West Seneca Central Schools, and Kerry Beiter was an agriculture inspector at the U.S.-Canadian border before their first child was born in 2004.
The town code enforcement officer noticed the goats in 2009 and told the Beiters they needed a large-animal permit from the town. They received the permit allowing no more than six goats and requiring the barn be cleaned out every couple of weeks. The next year they received a two-year renewal.
Most of Wales, including East Creek Road, is part of Erie County Agricultural District No. 12, which protects farming operations. The county’s 14 agricultural districts cover 37 percent of the land in the county, and under the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law, local municipalities are restricted in some of their authority over these lands. They cannot “unreasonably restrict or regulate farm operations” in the districts unless “the public health or safety is threatened,” according to the law.
The Beiters took to the goats, and Kerry made cheese and soap for the family. They bought and leased additional land, acquired more goats and started their soap-making business, Alpine Made. Today, they have 14 goats on their certified organic farm, have passed state inspections and have approved grazing and nutrient management plans.
Their permit limited them to six goats, and last year, they started asking the town about approving more goats.
Then this year, the town changed the code, making the permit permanent instead of renewable, and changing the definition of what constitutes a farm. The new permit can be revoked if conditions change.
But the Beiters don’t want to invest additional money in their farm if the permit could be revoked in the future, and they don’t want to be limited to six goats.
“We can’t really have a business if we’re at the whim of the town,” Eric Beiter said.
Diane Held, senior New York field manager for American Farmland Trust, said local town legislation is not uncommon.
“The whole point of that law is to make agriculture viable and keep options open,” she said. “As long as they’re not doing anything that is jeopardizing public health and safety, they are allowed to farm in an ag district.”
The state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees state certified agricultural districts, has told the town several times it has gone too far.
“The department has consistently informed the town that to require Beiter and Sons Farm to operate pursuant to a special use permit is unreasonably restrictive,” Robert Somers, manager of the Agricultural Protection Unit, said in a Sept. 17 letter to the town. He added the state “may take appropriate action” to enforce the law.
Joe Morrissey, spokesman for the state Agriculture and Markets Department, said discussions are ongoing between the department, the town of Wales and the landowner.
“At this point it would be inappropriate to comment on the situation while this matter is under review,” he said.
The town maintains a different section of state law gives it the authority to regulate uses within its borders.
“The town has a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of not only the surrounding residents,” the supervisor said, “but also the farmers themselves, plus the animals.”