(click to see large photo)
Photo Peter J. LaGrasse
May 22, 2002:
Sanitizing A Scruffy Farm from Another Era
Suburbs Surround 80-Year Old Farmer in Guilderland, New York
Town Officials Enforce New Suburbanites' Distaste for Pigs, Sheep, Odor, and Old Cars
By Carol W. LaGrasse
People don't want to know about where the food they eat comes from. They don't want to see their waste products once they're out the door, and they don't want to know about recycling or reuse, except for colored plastic containers into which they toss used bottles and cans.
Farmers and junkyard owners take the brunt of the outrage of suburbanites faced with affronts to the imagined reality of their sanitized world.
Guilderland is an old Dutch farm town less than ten miles west of the capitol city of Albany, New York, where government servants and other prosperous people have bought upscale suburban houses during recent decades. Only two farms remain, one of them a 33-acre spread belonging to old William Vojnar. At eighty years of age, he still raises pigs, sheep, goats, and a few cows and geese where he once raised large numbers of animals and whatever the good land would produce, as well as the nine children that his aged wife once bore him.
To his neighbors, who bought their landscaped residences near where his farm was already operating in its long-established scruffy and at times odiferous style, the farm is an offense.
The result is the usual conflict of the powerful against the weak, the self-interested majority against the minority. Age, service in World II, hard work, property ownership, and even the fact that the neighbors freely chose to move in next door to a pig farm make little difference. Mr. Vojnar has kept himself fit through a lifetime of hard work. But the barrage of inspections, citations, and orders become harassment and cause great stress for the farmer and his family. The last line of defense is the historic justice system, but it involves a highly technical legal structure.
Once, Mr. Vojnar kept 300 pigs. Now only a few dozen can be seen wading in and out of a muddy pond. His cows are largely gone. To satisfy a court order, his sons have put up 15,000 feet of fence to contain the sheep, according to his daughter Doris. Now that the sheep are all corralled, she hopes that none of the excellent jumpers will leap over the fence to play with the deer that are attracted to the property. The Vojnar Stock Farm is one of the few local green places of any size left for the deer. And maybe no more of the cows, sheep, or pigs will be shot or mysteriously missing, she wishes.
Mr.Vojnar has hired a car crusher, who has set up on the back land and is working daily squeezing down the hundreds of cars brought to him by people from the neighboring countryside and town officials over decades.
Town officials have asserted that Mr. Vojnar needs a formal permit to keep pigs, but his farm, which he has operated since 1941, predates the requirement. Forty years ago, Mr. Vojnar recalls, when the swine permit system came into effect, an official told him that he was exempt because he was grandfathered. But the official never gave the unsuspecting farmer any written proof of that decision and the town has no record of it. Today, if Mr. Vojnar were to apply for a swine permit, he would have to comply with many expensive requirements, including a building with a concrete floor for his pigs. This is too expensive for him to build.
Mr. Vojnar has no employees. His sons help with the farm work. One thing that Mr. Vojnar fears is that the town will hire a contractor to bring his farm into compliance and then bill expensive charges for cleanup work.
On May 20, Mr. Vojnar waited with his daughter Audrey, her husband, and attorney Louis Chicatelli, Jr., in the large courtroom in the imposing new town hall for the town attorney to arrive for their hearing. It was one of several such hearings. After the Town Justice Steven Simon dispensed fines for speeding offenses and meted other decisions out to over sixty people packed into every seat in the room, he again entertained the case of William Vojnar's miscreant farm. Because the town attorney failed to appear, the reluctant Guilderland animal control officer made his statement directly to the judge. Mr. Vojnar received a good report on the progress of his farm fencing. Temporary fencing was built and the permanent fencing underway, the uniformed officer said.
Next, Justice Simon asked Mr. Vojnar and his lawyer about the progress of permanent fencing and the cleanup.
"Yes, we've been ordered by the town," replied Mr. Chicatelli. "We want to comply as soon as possible. He has a car crusher working and is making good progress removing the cars and cleaning up debris."
Mr. Vojnar's daughter noticed that the judge was less abrupt at the hearing that evening. The family had been concerned that he'd expect the fencing and cleanup work to be already finished, but the judge pronounced, "The Court will adjourn this. Return in four weeks."
Outside the courthouse a few minutes later, Mr. Chicatelli remarked, "Maybe the fact that the town lawyer wasn't here was part of what helped us. It was also the good report. I think that the judge understood that you're making a good faith effort."
With another four weeks to work on the cleanup and fencing, Mr. Vojnar expressed his long-range hope after the hearing, "I want to keep the farm 'forever green.'" He uses old trucks for many purposes, such as for shelter for the pigs and for equipment storage. But it may work into his vision for the future of his farm as a green oasis for him to invest in the cleanup of cars and other scrap even though these things could be useful for spare parts.
Earlier in the day, Doris had mentioned that a local newspaper was on her father's side. She appreciated the paper's saying that people from the area could offer their help instead of complaining. But the only person on her father's side at a town board meeting recently, she said, was a man who came from Albany to point out that the farm is good for the butterflies. A preserve for the Karner Blue butterfly, the Albany Pine Bush, is nestled among interstate highways, shopping malls, and houses not very far from the beleaguered farm.