Taking Away and Giving Back

I have a friend from Kentucky. Coal Country. He’s been in Yankee territory now for as long as I’ve known him, but he is most definitely from Dixie. Even his accent still shows it.

He was in a Masters Program in Soil Science when he had this harebrained idea for a graduate project. He would go back to the land of his youth with, what might be called by his neighbors, a “Northern” idea.

Those blue hills of his childhood were not fit for agriculture. You can’t put crops on the side of an arbored Appalachian slope. That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar. Many farmers prefer to grow on flat land. The thing was, some of those mountaintops were flat now, thanks to the controversial mountaintop removal method used to access more coal with less labor.

So my friend had this idea to try and reclaim those areas, revitalizing the soil and introducing an agricultural landscape. At least one of the coal companies heads he spoke with was happy to throw some money at the project. A lot of money. Especially for a good ol’ Kentucky boy.

Whether it was the perception of that money being less than clean, or the impressive scope of the project, it has not yet come to fruition.

This project may still come to be, but what strikes me is the concept of how much money there is to be had, and how we just need to figure out ways to channel it onto and into farms, farm common land and land access projects.

Groups like the Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC), who are hosting a conference May 8th, are already working with similar goals in mind. The REC works to change the way colleges invest, shifting from investments that fund social and environmental destruction and creating pathways to investments that build community, a clean energy infrastructure, and a just economy.

Colleges and Universities can divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in land, agriculture and community. In a way, a big picture version of turning the abused mountaintop into a farm.

Learn more about the Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC) and

Attend their Conference May 8th in New York City

Barnard Divest

The following is information on the REC’s fossil fuel divestment initiative.

College students and alumni at over 300 colleges and universities across the United States are demanding universities:

Stop: Freeze new investments in the fossil fuel industry.

Drop: Divest and implement screens to ensure their portfolios are fossil free within the next 5 years.

Roll: Reinvest 5% of their endowment into community and energy solutions like credit unions and revolving loan funds.

Fossil fuel companies like Chevron, Shell, and Exxon are responsible for thousands of deaths each year. Most directly affected communities that have been fighting these extractive industries for decades have called for support from students. Divestment is a way to take action against these corporations locally, and end the silence around the deadly impacts of fossil fuels.

Additionally, as supported by the newest IPCC report, the urgency of climate change cannot be overstated. The burning of fossil fuels is the leading contributor to climate change. Divestment and reinvestment not only tackles the root of this problem, but spurs the development of innovative sustainable technologies and enables communities to creatively come up with solutions by investing money directly into community-controlled institutions.

We are asking for 5 percent of the endowment to be reinvested in climate solutions, with 1 percent in community investment and 4 percent in traditional endowment asset classes.  For specific examples of appropriate reinvestment, click here.

Sign up here to let us know you are interested in getting in touch with a REC staff member for support on your fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment campaign. You can also send an email to organize@endowmentethics.org.

For more resources on fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment, click here.

Going Home and Finding It’s Still There

Matt Volz had been working the small farm circuit on either side of Lake Champlain, both in upstate New York and Vermont, when he decided to head back to the town he calls home, Cazenovia, NY. “I was really looking for a management position,” Matt recalls, “I wanted to save enough money to eventually buy a farm.”

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Cazenovia is in Madison County, located right in the center on New York State. Matt started out looking for farmwork through a list of farms compiled by the Madison County Agricultural Economic Development Committee. One of the farms on that list led him to Kaye Osbourne. “I heard that Kaye had land to rent out, so I contacted her. At the time I thought it was something that might work out down the road.”

The two met up in 2010. “She took me for a walk around the farm,” Matt said. She told him the story of the property, which had been owned and farmed by the family for 100 years, and had been operated as a dairy by Kaye until the late 1980s. “She was hoping someone would come along and want to farm the land.”

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“What she was describing lined up very well with what I wanted to do,” Matt remembers. “She said — Come up with a business plan, and we’ll go from there.”

Still thinking about the land in the long-term, Matt went to work a short stint for some farmer friends upstate. As promised, he came up with a business plan to bring to Kaye. They met again and long-term ideas turned into short-term plans.

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“It started out as a handshake agreement. There was no lease at all for the first six months.” That initial period Matt says allowed him to start connecting with customers and establishing a foundation for what would become Greyrock Farm CSA. That was in August of 2010. Once 2011 rolled around, the farm hired employees and signed a three-year lease for a portion of the property.

Three years would allow Matt to evaluate whether the farm was going to work. The farm quickly became viable, and he decided that he wanted more long-term security. “About a year in I decided I wanted an option to buy the property, and I wanted a set price so I knew how much I needed to save.”

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So in 2012, the lease was extended to include an option to buy. The agreed future purchase price for the 270 acres and buildings is $480,000. Kaye had put a conservation easement on the property about the time she met Matt. This made the property considerably more affordable for a farmer than it would have been before the easement was put into place.

Establishing a relationship with Kaye was crucial in allowing the option to buy. “I don’t think she would have agreed to that at first,” Matt speculated. Beginning the business by leasing the land gave him the opportunity to show his capability, and open the door for more permanent land tenure.

The current lease is for about 100 acres of the total property. That is divided into vegetable production, dairy, pasture and hay fields. Greyrock leases the fields, barns and tractors separately. Matt and his girlfriend also lease housing on-farm in a separate arrangement. All of this, in addition to the remainder of the farm, will be combined in the anticipated purchase.

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Matt points to National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil maps as one of the helpful tools he used when looking for land to farm.

When asked about Greyrock and his connection with Kaye Osbourne he said, “I feel like I really lucked out a lot. There are a lot of great capable people out there. I was just working in an area where I had a lot of personal connection.”

 

This post was first published by me as part of the Agrarian Trust Project.

 

Investing in the Land

From the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, head east into Wisconsin for just over an hour to find the land Caleb and Lauren Langworthy lovingly farm and call their own.

The couple runs Blue Ox Organics. They began farming on rented land, with a year-to-year lease agreement. “We pretty quickly into that lease realized that we wouldn’t be able to invest what we needed into the soil,” Caleb explained. He and Lauren were looking to grow vegetables sustainably, and couldn’t justify the investment to build up the soil with no long-term security in the land.

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So, the duo started looking for a more long-term lease. Their two major markets were Just Local Food and Menemonie Market, both co-ops in Wisconsin. They had built up a relationship with these two markets and were looking to stay within the region. “We maybe talked to a couple dozen landowners about a long-term lease, but everything came with a catch,” Lauren shared. She explained that a lot of the land in their area went to corn farmers and it was difficult to break in and get land tenure.

One of their buyers, Bob Andruszkiewicz at Just Local Food, ended up helping the pair connect with some investors. “He ended up being a real champion for us,” Caleb remembered. Lauren added, “When we would be in the store delivering food he would pull us over to customers and make us blush and talk us up very wonderfully.”

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Bob, along with a local farmer, led Caleb and Lauren to two private investors that were interested in using their purchasing power to help small-scale local agriculture. “They were looking for something that fit their ideals to put their money into,” explained Caleb. The Langworthys began talking with the potential investors about what they wanted to do and everyone involved decided that they were well matched.

The couple came up with an extensive business plan to present to the investors, given direction from the Land Stewardship Project. The investors were satisfied and ready to commit to the pair. A handshake agreement led to a switch from looking for leased land to a search for land to purchase. The understanding was that the investors would purchase the land and the farmers would either lease or mortgage that land.

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They began to search again looking at another couple dozen properties. Many were out of their price range because of lucrative mining and hunting in the area, or were homesteads that had fallen into disrepair and were more of a liability than an asset. Of the many properties they visited, they only brought the investors in on 4 of them. Much of the legwork and time commitment was on the shoulders of the farmers. This allowed them to make decisions based on their own needs and ideas, as well as making the process easier for the investors.

Lauren and Caleb would rework the business plan for each piece of land, adjusting it to the unique aspects of every property. When they finally found a situation that suited both the farmers and the investors, the investors purchased it outright. “They used their purchasing power to take (the property) off the market,” said Lauren. The owners wanted to close by the end of the year. This would have been a nearly impossible time frame if they had gone through a bank. The cash purchase also had the added benefit of a better price per acre.

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After the closing, everyone decided that it would be best for the farmers to purchase the land. The 153-acre property includes a home. Caleb and Lauren were able to purchase the land and satisfy the investors by splitting the mortgage. The private investors hold about 60% of that mortgage. The remainder was obtained through a Farm Services Agency (FSA) mortgage. In this respect, the risk of the investment is split.

The investors have the first lien on the property. The second lien belongs to the FSA. This way, if something goes wrong, the investors will be able to recoup the initial investment. If the value remains steady, the FSA will also be able to see their investment returned. If for some reason the property value depreciates, the private investors will still get the first $220,000 if the property is sold and the FSA will receive the rest.

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As extra assistance to the farmers, the dual mortgages come with some additional help.

The mortgage with the FSA is interest-free for the first year, then had a graduated interest scale, until year 5 when the Langworthys will be paying the full interest. The private investors will sit on their investment for the first 5 years, at which point the mortgage will begin to be paid. The interest from the first five years are added to the principle.

The FSA agent who handled the Blue Ox mortgage, Sheri Houtakker, had neard of split mortgages but this was the first time she had been able to use the shared-risk method. “She was excited to partner with us. It was really exciting. Everyone involved kind of felt like they were fulfilling their mission,” Lauren recalled.

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Both Caleb and Lauren thank the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Program for helping them “speak business.” The financial side of farming is one they felt was often left out of farm internships. “I had a lot of experience working on farms and I was ready to jump into running my own business,” said Caleb, “(The LSP program) really helped give me confidence in creating a fiscally sound farm business.” Being comfortable with the business side, the couple says, put them on a level playing field when negotiating with investors.

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Learn what Caleb and Lauren are up to at the Blue Ox website.

This profile was written and first published by me as part of the Agrarian Trust project.

We respect the wishes of private investors, like those who helped the Blue Ox farmers, to remain anonymous. If you are interested in investing in sustainable farming, Contact  the Agrarian Trust Project.

Other Dreamers of the Golden Dream

Arron Wilder has wanted to have his own farm since he was 19, learning the ropes as a farm apprentice. It’s taken 15 years of looking to create Table Top Neighborhood Farm in Point Reyes Station, CA.

“It’s taken a really long time for me to have the right opportunity, the right amount of money. I wanted to have the farm in a community,” says Arron who recalls getting many offers in the rural central valley of California. What he was looking for, a semi-urban, community farm, he has pieced together by being a part of the farm community in Point Reyes, an inlet an hour north of San Francisco.

A. Wilder hoeing weeds

Looking for farmland to lease is a challenge in any zipcode. In Point Reyes, the ante is upped by magestic views of the coastline and the appeal of California sunshine. “It was the most expensive land in the whole US last year,” said Arron, “which is really interesting in terms of agricultural use.” He points to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust which has been preserving farmland in the area since 1980. The trust preserved the land that now serves as Table Top’s flagship acreage, a four-acre parcel that is part of Black Mountain Ranch.

The ranch needs to keep part of its land as a viable agricultural business. Part of this is allowing Table Top to put crops in the 4 acres of bottomland suitable to vegetables. This acreage is one of four plots that make up the neighborhood farm.

All four locations used by Table Top Farm were offered to Arron by neighborhood residents after he began farming in the area. “I had replied to a call from Marin Organics. They had someone willing to offer up some land for agritourism. I did that for about a year and ended up farming their neighbors land.”

A. Wilder Wheel hoe

Three landowners approached Arron to offer the farmland. He approached one. “I found out there are a lot of people out there who are supportive of local agriculture in their community.”

Table Top does not pay to lease any of the land they farm. Arron says the benefit for the landowner is better land quality . . . and a little notoriety.

Table Top has a written agreement for three of the parcels, and an umbrella liability insurance policy that covers all of the locations. In all, the acreage that makes up Table Top Farm amounts to about 7 acres. This was the farm’s second season, and 3 of those acres were put into production. The first season was spent almost entirely on infrastructure including two greenhouses and a 24/7 self-serve farmstand. Arron continued to work full-time as a soil scientist.

A. Wilder and tractor

“It’s an interesting challenge,” he reflected, “If I was just farming it would be more solo. Instead I’m delegating tasks. It really forced me to work with others, bring more people into the farm. As we grow we have more of a solid group of people working together.”

The farm sells produce through the farmstand, to local restaurants and looks forward to developing a CSA. As Table Top continues to farm In Point Reyes, landowners continue to offer their land. What causes neighbors to offer up the most valuable land in the country?

“There’s some other kind of value having land that’s dedicated toward small-scale agriculture in the community,” supposes Arron as he continues to piece together Table Top Farm.

This post was first published by me as part of the Agrarian Trust Project.

Not a vegetarian

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There was a time in my life when I would be surprised, in certain circles, were someone to say that they were not a vegetarian.

Of course, I was a teenage girl in the 90s who listened to a steady rotation of the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Bob Dylan and Ani DiFranco. One year I gave up red meat for lent (although even at the time church was something I tried to get out of at all costs) and for nine years afterwards went down the winding road of vegetarianism, even bottoming out for a full week of being vegan.

I was the girl that wrote the well-researched editorial for the university newspaper encouraging others to ditch the blood thirst. I cited the environmental impact, the cost to taxpayers through meat-industry subsidies and of course love for the little furry guys.

As you may have guessed, I have matured since then. The hot pink once in my hair is visible only in a few hard-to-find photographs. Where once there was a thin metal ring dividing my bottom lip, there is only a pin-point scar. Now, not only do I eat chicken — I’ve slaughtered them.

Many new young farmers point to their involvement with agriculture as the catalyst for their reintroduction to the omnivorous lifestyle. Mine was not quite like that, although the farm will come back around as the point of this story.

I was slinging sandwiches at a busy bakery cafe in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes, we messed up. They wanted dijon, not honey mustard. Smoked turkey, not roasted. Any combination of things could go wrong. At the end of the day we could have four or five sandwiches that would just go in the garbage. Until they didn’t. Because I ate them. It was awesome. Meat. Is delicious.

Then, of course, my body got used to the new proteins and soon enough I was fully (and happily) back on the hamburger express. I ate meat with full knowledge of the meat industries downfalls, and with a little guilt . . . sometimes. Mostly, I just figured, this is how the world is and I would be thankful that I had food to eat at all (another form of guilt learned from Guatemalan co-workers who shook their heads back in my vegetarian days).

A few years later I was in Massachusetts working harder and longer than ever before, hauling grain and moving fence for the happiest pigs, sheep and cows I could imagine. Slowly, the guilt began to fade. Good animal husbandry and well cared for animals would put a dinner on the table that I could live with, appreciating the life that was sacrificed.

This is the compromise I’ve come to with my morals, and it tastes better, on all fronts. The freshness of farm products is unachievable by factory meat, milk, eggs and cheese. I sometimes cringe at the price tags, but remember that I am paying for my neighbors good work and swallow the extra cost.

In so many ways, it is worth it. Supporting farmers, but also supporting ourselves. This is how we nourish ourselves. What do we want to feed the person that must get up everyday and continue to go on and do good in the world?

This short 6-minute video is a tasteful exposure of what mass meat and dairy looks like. It’s worth a watch.

Growing from the Cracks

The Food Growing program started 5 or 6 years ago when the county jail donated ½ an acre of land to the Food Bank for Westchester (NY) as a vocational training garden. A few years later, they acquired another ¼ acre at a school for disadvantaged youth in Yonkers.

The focus then was mainly on education and training, explained Doug DeCandia who became the Food Growing Program coordinator three years ago, when the food bank decided that they wanted to increase production.

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At that point, the program expanded production in Yonkers to a little over ⅓ of an acre and started a garden at a juvenile correctional facility in Valhalla, about 20 minutes north of New York City. Another two ½ acre plots were made available. One at the Hartsdale School for the Deaf, and another owned by the Westchester Land Trust in Bedford Hills.

In all the program has 5 market garden plots, about 3 acres in all. With Doug at the helm and production as the focus, the program grew about 40,000 servings of food for the food bank last season. All of the farmwork is done by volunteers, students and inmates at the various locations.

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There is no curriculum, but students learn through engaging in day to day activities. “The education comes along when the inmates or children are participating in day to day activities on the farm,” Doug said about the benefits for the food growers. Inmates and volunteers are also allowed to take as much produce as they like, a fresh benefit for the incarcerated. The prisons and schools can not take the food because of contracts with commercial vendors.

Doug’s unique situation has allowed him access to 3 acres of farmable land, and also a chance to work with a variety of different populations.

“As a farmer: This, for me. This is what I want to do,” he asserted. “I thought about buying my own land, but I’ve found this to be much more fulfilling.” He lists some of the benefits of his situation as addressing social factors like hunger and poverty, educating the public, and having a secure job with a salary and benefits.

“There is a lot of need and a lot of resources. It can be replicated. There are different ways to make a living farming.”

As a program, the results of replicating this model would reach far past the 40,000 servings produced annually. Seed spreads. Teaching and learning to grow food is a powerful asset to our communities. It is a transformative tool for rehabilitation and . . . regrowth.

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A version of this profile was first published on the agrarian trust website.

brookfield farm

When working with alternative economic models, it is imperative to adopt alternative and innovative ways to do business. At Brookfield Farm in South Amherst, MA, no agreement at all has proved to be the best agreement for managing the 30-odd-year-old biodynamic farm.

In 1986, The Biodynamic Farmland Conservation Trust (BFCT) was established by Claire and Dave Fortier, who then donated the 47 acre parcel to the trust. The trust is now managed by a board who review the farm’s budget annually.

“We have absolutely no written agreement,” says Dan Kaplan who has managed the farm since 1994. “We’ve tried several times, but it always comes down to adversarial disagreements that you’ll never have to think about when you’re actually running the farm. We stopped (trying to make a legal agreement) ten years ago, and I’ve never felt insecure.”

The trust owns the land outright and has no income source, explains Dan. The trust acts as a holding company for the farm. He submits a budget to the board every year for approval, and runs the farm without any oversight for the rest of the year.

When he arrived at the farm nearly twenty years ago, he said he didn’t make any demands. He proved himself first, and after a few years, they liked what they saw. He liked what he saw too, and has grown what was the 3rd CSA program in the country to a thriving farm share program in high demand. “I don’t know if we had gone a different direction if we would have made it here,” he suggests about the lack of legal documentation.

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When questioned whether he’s ever worried about the risk, he replies, “There’s always some kind of risk. If you don’t like risk you’re never going to be a successful farmer.”

Early on at Brookfield, Dan used some innovative fundraising ideas to finance some farm infrastructure. He would target an item or improvement on the farm wishlist (like a new tractor), and borrow capital from community members. The lender would agree on a low rate, between zero and three percent. Then, the farm would sign a promissory note and make monthly payments to repay the amount. Dan estimates that 10% of the farm’s current infrastructure came from that community borrowing model.

As the farm grew, the price tags on infrastructure also grew. The farm began to borrow from banks and cooperate with lending groups like Equity Trust to make up another 70% of their infrastructure. Now, Brookfield Farm borrows from itself for improvements.

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When Dan Kaplan thinks about what has made BFCT and Brookfield Farm such a successful long-term partnership, he does not hesitate to say that it is the trust’s sole interest in the farm. “(BFCT) has no other projects. There’s no growth agenda, they’re not trying to amass capital. Their sole purpose is to make sure the farm exists.”

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There was excitement in Jeremy Barker-Plotkin’s voice when I spoke with him this spring. They had just been putting seeds in the ground that day at Simple Gifts, the farm in Amherst he co-owns with Dave Tepfer.

Jeremy and Dave have been farming in Amherst together since 2006, but plans to farm together had been in the works for awhile after the pair met at The Land Institute in Kansas.

Jeremy had been farming about 5 acres in nearby Belchertown, on land managed by The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI). The 100 or so acre parcel, as Jeremy estimates, serves an an incubator for small start-up farms in western Massachusetts. The tillable acrage was split between several farms when Simple Gifts lived there, and is now part of The Pioneer Valley Grain CSA.

Simple Gifts had an eye looking for a new place to farm, when Jeremy and his wife Audrey were driving down Pine Street in North Amherst and saw Don Gallager pounding in a sign that read “Save this farm.”

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Don was then co-President of the North Amherst Community Farm (NACF) initiative. NACF was then a group of citizens who had come together to raise the $1.2 million needed to buy the Dziekanowski farm, one of the last working farms in North Amherst.

The roughly 35-acre plot is situated just a mile from The University of Massachusetts down heavily trafficked North Pleasant street. It is surrounded mostly by student housing complexes. Without NACF efforts, the land almost surely would have been sold and developed to match its surroundings. “We never would have been able to afford the land on our own,” says Jeremy.

Even NACF wasn’t able to come up with the full amount. NACF took advantage of the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR) , a program designed to encourage land-owners to preserve farmland by offering a $10,000/ acre sum. This sum is exchanged for an easement agreement that keeps the land permanently safe from development. They were also benefited by the state-funded, but town operated Community Preservation Act. Another large chunk of money came from selling small parcels of the property.

Even so, the collaborative was only able to come up with about half of the $1.2 million mark. They took out a mortgage on the remainder.

Still, it was enough to get Simple Gifts on the land in 2006. “They closed in July, and we started farming in April,” laughs Jeremy. “I guess we didn’t really know if it was going to work out . . . but it turned out okay.”

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That first year they grew about 9 acres of vegetables, enough for a market and a 100 member CSA. “We kind of colonized a small part of the land, with an abandoned farm all around us.”

Once NACF had officially procured the land, there was still a lease agreement to be worked out between the trust now responsible for the farm’s mortgage, and the farmers, newly responsible for the land’s production.

The lease agreement was set up as a kind of series of phases, Jeremy explains. “What we’re working towards is a 99 year lease, where we own all the buildings, but not the land itself.”

The interim lease agreement started with phase one: a renewable 5 year lease where the land trust (NACF) owns all the buildings. The initial agreement was that Simple Gifts’ lease payments would continue to pay the mortgage, leaving the farmers with a hefty $2300/ month rent. Presently, through the help of non-profit group Equity Trust, the monthly rent is now $900. The farm owns any buildings or improvements they make to the property.

The plan is that this payment will do down once the 99 year lease is put into action. “The idea is that in phase two, our phase one lease payments will go retroactively towards buying the existing buildings, ” explained Jeremy.

The original buildings include four barns, in various states of functionality and the main farmhouse. Jeremy and Dave each have a house on the far end of the property, where they live with their families. These buildings are not part of the lease agreement, and are fully owned by their respective families.

Today, Simple Gifts has a little over 15 acres in vegetable production, as well as an expanding livestock operation, including chickens, sheep, pigs, a herd of beef cattle and a pair of oxen. They have Dave oversees the livestock and plans cover crop rotations while Jeremy runs the veggie side of the business.

At Simple Gifts, the foresight of a handful of individuals helped the farm to become an agricultural, educational and community resource, says Jeremy. “What we want to do is provide people with more of an idea of where food comes from and how land can be used. We’re an example of that right here in town.”

 

 

 

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