Muscoot Farm has long been a unique destination for families and school groups to learn about animals and explore the natural beauty of some 777 acres.
Now, the continued survival of the farm is being put at risk by the 2016 Westchester County proposed operating budget, which would drastically reduce the farm’s full-time staff from five to two positions. Jobs on the chopping block include the farm manager, curator and farm laborer. The two positions that will remain are the farmer and assistant sarmer.
Sue Moga, a retired farm manager at Muscoot, is worried about the implications of the 2016 budget proposal, which she described in a phone interview as a “deliberate cut to conservation.” Once privately-owned, the Muscoot Farm property was acquired by Westchester County in 1967.
“The biggest issue will be safety,” Moga said. Two full-time staff members rather than five means that there will be less people to adequately deal with both the visiting public and the animals on the farm. If the two remaining staff members are to get any days off, then there will be four days a week when only one worker is present on the farm. According to Moga, this presents a major safety hazard.
“You can’t not take care of animals properly,” she said. “You have to have at least two people [on site] so that the public stays out of harm’s way.”
While the farm has 15 local high school student volunteers, Moga pointed out that with a downsized staff, there would be less people to train and supervise volunteers.
“It’s physically demanding work that requires awareness,” Moga said. She believes it is not enough to expect volunteers or hourly workers to fill in for the lost full-time staff.
This is not the first time the farm has faced such a budget reduction. At one point, because of staff cuts in 2010, Moga was forced to work seven days a week. She only accepted this heavy work load because she is “passionate about the farm.”
Moga emphasized that the 2016 budget would have a considerable impact on the farm’s ability to create and sustain community programming. During the summer, the farm hosts a popular summer camp, which Moga says is the “biggest in the county.” Muscoot also organizes 160 programs a year for school groups.
Moga also disclosed that Muscoot Farm provides 4,000-5,000 pounds of produce for the local food bank each summer.
“A reduction in staff means they can only focus on the ‘have to’s.’ The ‘want to’s’ like the food bank garden won’t happen,” she wrote in an email.
Westchester County Legislator Mike Kaplowitz called the proposed cuts “unfortunate,” and stated that it is his “highest priority to restore all five positions and allow Muscoot to operate in the wonderful fashion that it has.”
It was also announced on Nov. 20 that Muscoot Farm would be re-named after former Westchester County Executive Alfred DelBello, who died earlier this year. Moga said in an email that the name change “was done without any input from the Muscoot Farm Advisory Board or anyone associated with Muscoot.”
The proposed budget cut would affect many other county nature preserves such as Cranberry Lake in White Plains and Reed Sanctuary in Rye by eliminating all full-time staff from the county’s nature centers.
In a letter that Moga penned to the County Board of Legislators, she argued that a reduced budget will negatively impact public well-being:
“Every time there are budget cuts, the Conservation Division, especially the curators, are the primary targets. The reason, the commissioner tells them, is that they don’t bring in enough revenue. This is the crux of the problem. You, as elected officials know that your constituents value education and that there is a serious problem today of children not spending enough time out of doors being active. The issue is that you cannot put a dollar value on what the curators do as educators and as mentors motivating today’s youth to enjoy being outdoors. This is a life skill that is priceless.”
There is currently an online petition protesting the proposed cuts via Change.org, titled “Save our Curators! Save our Parks!” As of press time this past Monday, there were already 2,653 people who have signed. The petition page encourages signees to attend upcoming public hearings, where they can voice their opposition to the 2016 budget cuts.
The next one to take place will be at 7 p.m. on Dec. 9, at the Board of Legislators Chamber in White Plains.