NEW SCOTLAND — The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy has reached “well beyond the halfway mark” of raising $1.2 million needed to purchase the historic Bender Melon Farm by May and preserve it, according to MHLC Executive Director Mark King.
King said that much of the raised money so far came from a $400,000 state grant through the Regional Economic Development Council in December 2019, which MHLC applied for in the summer. “We track grants all the time and it was there so we were aware of that opportunity for a while,” King said. “It really makes a difference in the project and I’m not sure we could possibly succeed without it. It’s a giant boost.”
Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven said, “I think it’s fantastic and a wise move on the state’s part to support this important initiative. Preserving this farm will have an impact on residents and life. I think it’s great we have a group like the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy that’s willing to work across municipal lines. That’s great for the region.”
New Scotland Town Supervisor Douglas LaGrange also expressed support for the fundraising campaign although he has been seeing “Save the Bender Melon Farm” signs across town. He said the signs may confuse people because there is no other information provided.
“I think the word is getting out about the fundraising campaign and I think we need to do a better job,” LaGrange said. “I’ve gotten some reactions from folks about the signs which I mentioned to Mark. We have to continue better outreach by letting people know that it has until May to come up with the money. I give Mark and his organization a lot of credit for taking this daunting effort on.”
Beyond the state grant, the remaining funds raised came from private donors.
Asked why the conservancy wanted to purchase and preserve the farm, King said there are several reasons, including its historic significance, maintaining its scenic views, possibly making it a recreational spot for the public and addressing rising development in the local area.
Located near the intersection of Routes 85 and 85A, the Bender Melon Farm takes up around 198 acres and is owned by 306 Maple Road, LLC. A historic marker by its entrance only tells a fraction of its historic significance, which dates back to the late 19th century.
According to “Charles Bender and the Bender Melon Farm: A Local History,” a 1990 book written by Voorheesville’s Village Historian Dennis Sullivan, it was where New Scotland farmer Charles Bender experimented with melon seeds in 1884 to develop cantaloupe melons — later known as Bender melons — which became popular across 33 U.S. states, England, Mexico and France.
After the farm switched owners several times during the 20th century, it declined and in 2008, a proposal to build a big box store on its property generated controversy although it never moved forward.
“I’d say that many residents at the time certainly knew the history of the Bender Melon Farm and any history is significant to hold onto,” LaGrange said. “It’s another reason New Scotland is on the map with the history we’ve had. It’s also a nice buffer from development.”
King chimed in, “The farm is sort of this bridge between Voorheesville, Slingerlands, Bethlehem and New Scotland. As development is rapid there, we think there’s great value in this green space to help define community boundaries and that’s an important vision.”
If the farm gets preserved, King said the conservancy hopes to take advantage of how the Albany County Rail Trail runs through the farm.
He said this could promote public recreational use in and around the farm, and it can maintain the area’s scenic views.
Other possibilities include establishing nature and mountain biking trails in the area and it can complement the adjacent Hilton Barn property.
He added that 10 to 15 acres of the Bender Melon Farm’s southern portion which runs along Route 85 “may have some commercial use. We will not directly do this as someone else has to but since there’s some businesses near the 85 and 85A intersection, we could see an expansion of commercial space. But the farm will mostly stay agricultural.”
LaGrange said the town of New Scotland has worked with MHLC for various projects in the past and “it’s always exciting and it’s an opportunity to keep working with them.”
VanLuven said he hopes Bethlehem residents can help donate funds to the campaign.
“Human nature has assumed that landscapes will remain the same but gets surprised if development comes in,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s important for us to protect property like the farm.”
King concluded, “We always have a lot of other projects too but I appreciate how people from New Scotland, Bethlehem, the City of Albany and lots of different organizations have come through with their support. It’s challenging and exciting at the time.”
For more information, visit mohawkhudson.org/bender. To help donate to the conservancy’s campaign, visit mohawkhudson.org/benderdonate.