a farm to be sustainable, secure tenure is necessary.
Building healthy topsoil, nurturing diverse plantations of
annuals and perennials, and establishing reliable markets
and supportive community relations all require long-term investments.
In the U.S., the ideal for most farmers, organic or conventional,
is to have their own farm and to hold it as private property.
Over the past decade in the United States, a few organic farmers
have sought out alternatives—long-term, inheritable
leases on land owned by nonprofit land trusts, or conservation
easements held by land trusts. Under U.S. law, these arrangements
are as close as you can come to turning private property into
community property. The farms function as private businesses,
but the broader society has the opportunity to invest in the
farmland, reducing the financial burden on the farmers while
guaranteeing the preservation of an essential resource.
||The farms function as private businesses,
but the broader society has the opportunity to invest
in the farmland, reducing the financial burden on the
farmers while guaranteeing the preservation of an essential
When the owner of the 18 acres my partners and I rent offered
to sell us the entire 140-acre farm, we decided to contact
our local land trust. At that time, we had a five-year rolling
lease with the Kraai family, a medium-term and moderately
secure form of tenure. We approached the Genesee Land Trust,
a conservation trust, with a proposal that they accept a conservation
easement on our farm. GLT’s Mission is to “preserve
and protect waterways, wetlands, farmland, natural and unique
habitat, scenic and recreational lands.” We intended
to replicate what the Decaters had done at Live Power Community
Farm in Covelo, California.
In 1995, Equity Trust guided Gloria and Steve Decater of
Live Power Farm through a set of complex maneuvers. The Decaters
purchased the land they had rented for many years at its value
as farmland while the members of their Community Supported
Agriculture (CSA) project purchased the development rights
and donated the conservation easement to Equity Trust. In
consultation with Equity Trust, the Decaters wrote the conservation
easement requiring themselves and all future farmers on that
land to earn at least 50 percent of their living from farming
it and to use organic or biodynamic methods. They also included
limitations on the resale price of the land to prevent market
forces from driving the price above what a farmer could afford.
We thought we could ask the members of our CSA to finance
the purchase of an easement so that we could buy the farmland
at its agricultural value. We knew that farmland in our area
sells for $1,000 to $1,200 an acre and that the development
value constitutes about half the price. To our surprise, the
land trust agreed to depart from its usual practices by purchasing
the farm and leasing it back to us for a very long term. In
doing this, the GLT is taking the step of functioning like
a community land trust. We are purchasing the improvements
on the land, a barn and a packing shed, but not the land under
them. To raise the money to buy the land, the members of our
CSA, together with the land trust, are engaging in a fundraising
|The decision to partner in stewardship
with the GLT follows from our commitment to a long-term
vision of social justice and environmental responsibility.
By GLT owning the land, it will remain affordable for
We could have obtained a conventional mortgage that would
have enabled us to purchase the land as our own private property.
The old Humbert dairy farm is a rich and beautiful place in
Newark, New York with 88 acres of tillable prime soils and
50 acres of woods and wetland areas with rare wildflowers.
My partners Greg Palmer, Ammie Chickering and I do not want
to finance our retirements by selling this farmland, as U.S.
farmers so often do. The decision to partner in stewardship
with the GLT follows from our commitment to a long-term vision
of social justice and environmental responsibility. By GLT
owning the land, it will remain affordable for future farmers.
We want to make our farm business solid enough financially
that we can provide living wages, full benefits and retirement
to the farmers without selling the land. Without the financial
burden of a mortgage, the total investment in the farm business
will be smaller, allowing younger people who want to farm
but do not have a lot of money to become a full partners through
sweat equity over a few years.
Greg and I founded Peacework Organic Farm in 1998 on 15 of
these rented acres. We have had a five-year rolling lease
with the Kraai family, which means that we renew the lease
every year, but either party has to give five years notice
to end the lease. Although this has given us reasonably long-term
tenure, it has been clear to us all along that, with or without
the legal agreement, our remaining on the land depends on
maintaining good relations with the owners. Greg and I, and
since 2000 – Greg’s wife Ammie – grow organic
vegetables and herbs, most of which we provide to the Genesee
Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture project (GVOCSA)
in its 17th year in 2005, and to Abundance Cooperative Market.
The GVOCSA dates back to the winter of 1988-89 when I first
moved to Rose Valley Farm in Wayne County, New York. Alison
Clarke, Politics of Food founder, recruited a retired Xerox
engineer to brainstorm with my farm partner and me –
we decided to ask everyone who purchased a share to participate
in the farming and distribution and in setting CSA policy.
At the beginning of our seventeenth year in 2005, I can say
that we have a model that works. In 1989, the CSA started
with 31 shares for 29 households. Gradually, we expanded –
45, 90, then 130. When Greg and I left Rose Valley in 1997,
the GVOCSA came with us and helped us find the Kraai land
for our new farm. We spent the 1998 season building infrastructure
– the beds, greenhouse, cold frame, cooler and packing
shed. For 1999, our first production year on the new land,
we attracted 160 families. Since then, we have expanded to
293 shares that support 4 full-time farmers and 2 interns.
In 2004, we fed a total of 817 individuals: 564 adults and
253 children. In 2005, we expanded the farm business a little
more so that we can add a fourth partner, Katie Lavin, who
has been an apprentice on our farm for two seasons. She is
26 years old and owns nothing but some college debts. Hopefully,
bringing a farmer from the next generation into our partnership
will set a pattern for future successions and many years of
sustainable, ecological production.
||Managing for soil health is a long-term
investment that is not compatible with insecure tenure
of the land. To allow a soil to reach full maturity and
peak capabilities, one needs to use organic methods for
at least a decade.
The combination of rich soils and adequate water makes this
land a treasure that is worth preserving for the future food
security of this region. Greg and I looked long and hard to
find a place to grow food for the GVOCSA. We examined 20 other
sites before deciding on the Kraai’s land. We were very
excited when we discovered that the Humbert Farm offers prime
soils, Palmyra sandy and silty loams, as fine as any in the
Northeast. Since 1983, when the Kraai’s bought the land,
Doug used no chemicals on this or the adjacent lands he owned.
The land is crisscrossed by streams and has enough ground
water to assure irrigation for annual vegetable crops on such
Soil scientists in the Cornell Soil Health project have
been doing extensive testing on the farm. At a recent field
day, Professor George Abawi was lavish in his praise of our
management of the soil resource. Managing for soil health
is a long-term investment that is not compatible with insecure
tenure of the land. To allow a soil to reach full maturity
and peak capabilities, one needs to use organic methods for
at least a decade. We can look forward to ever- greater ecosystem
benefits over the years to come.
With technical assistance from Equity Trust and lawyer George
Parker, we are negotiating a land lease document with the
GLT. The members of the land trust board share our conviction
that this land is worth preserving in perpetuity. Few of them,
however, have any experience in organic farming and none of
them has ever engaged in a deal of this kind. Some of them
did not understand why a long-term lease is so important to
us until we explained how long it takes to regenerate the
soil and how heartbreaking it can be to do perennial plantings
and then not see them mature. It also made sense to them that
we could not afford to make the investments needed to upgrade
the old barn unless we could be sure to use it for many years.
We have had lengthy discussions about the appropriate lease
fee. Under the terms of their non-profit status, they cannot
offer us a “sweetheart deal” on the rental fees
we pay. They asked me to research what farmers pay to rent
an acre of land in our county. We were all surprised to learn
that the going rate, ranging from $35 to $50 an acre, just
barely covers the land taxes. As a result, we have agreed
that the farm will pay the land taxes and all insurance and
other local fees, but only pay a small administrative fee
to the land trust.
|A key to preserving farms is to make
the land and the infrastructure affordable to farmers....[to]
move beyond farmland preservation to farm preservation.
This is an important distinction and critical to the survival
of small family farms.
Because the Kraai’s sold the Humbert farmhouse and
only kept the land, there are no houses on the property. I
was fortunate to be able to purchase a house right next to
the land; Greg and Ammie commute 30 minutes from another town.
We asked the GLT if we could set aside two small corners of
the farm to build houses for farmers. At first, the board
resisted: they did not like the idea of being landlords and
pictured all the problems involved with owning rural housing.
A letter from Leslie Reed-Evans, director of the Williamstown
Rural Foundation (WRLF), a land trust that is entering into
a similar arrangement with Caretaker Farm, persuaded them
to see the matter differently. The letter stated: “The
WRLF needs to preserve farms. A key to preserving farms is
to make the land and the infrastructure affordable to farmers.
The Caretaker Farm project gives the WRLF the opportunity
to move beyond farmland preservation to farm preservation.
This is an important distinction and critical to the survival
of small family farms.” The GLT Board has realized that
only by allowing the construction of homes for the farmers
on the land and controlling the future sale price of those
homes, can they assure that farmers will be able to afford
to farm there.
To raise money to pay for the 140-acre farm, the core committee
of the GVOCSA set up a special “Preserving Peacework”
committee to raise funds in coordination with the GLT. Including
all of the ancillary expenses of land purchase – a survey
of the property, a land stewardship fund to allow the land
trust to monitor the land use on an annual basis, etc. –
the fundraising goal is $150,000. Because the GLT is a nonprofit
organization, members of the public can make tax-deductible
contributions towards the purchase price. To raise funds for
several land preservation projects, including Peacework, the
GLT is embarking on a $500,000 capital fund and will direct
appeals to land trust members and others. Since CSA members
have a special relationship with the farm, the fundraisers
are especially targeting them. After describing the purchase
and lease work in progress, the Preserving Peacework committee
made this special appeal to members: “So, what does
this mean to us? It means our CSA is going to benefit by knowing
that land ownership costs and the issues around buying and
selling land are not going to be issues our CSA has to deal
with, nor will the farmers need to worry about a landlord
who decides to sell the land out from under them. In short,
in addition to reaping the benefit of knowing that Peacework
farm – “our farm” will have a stable home
farm, the CSA will also be a partner in the permanent preservation
of high quality organic soils, Ganargua Creek wetlands and
floodplains, and hardwood forest land with important wildlife
habitat and beautiful wild flowers.”
As of August 2005, CSA members have pledged more than $113,000.
The very first contribution of $25,000 was anonymous and accompanied
by this eloquent note:
“I believe that the planet is in a serious
‘people created’ ecological crisis motivated
by greed and perpetuated by ignorance. The privilege and
good fortune of eating clean local food is mine, due to
the existence of the GVOCSA and Peacework Organic Farm.
… My donation of $25,000 has caused raised eyebrows
and not a few gasps. Conventional financial advice dictates
‘saving for a rainy day.’ Dear people, it
is raining today, and it has been raining for a long,
long time. It is rare that one has an opportunity to participate
in such a fine cooperative venture. I do this with complete
confidence in the ethics of the farmers, the GVOCSA and
the GLT. I participate with joy and hope so that my great
grandchildren will have safe vegetables grown on a beautiful