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.”

simple gifts

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.”

 

 

 

burnt rock

When Justin Rich called Yankee Farm Credit to see about a loan for the $40,000 in improvements to one of his barns, he faced a complicated system not set up for small farmers.

“They said they didn’t have a way to process such a small loan,” said Justin. “They’re set up for commodity loans. Real estate is more secure than that. The interest rates don’t match up.”

The difficulties with traditional farm credit didn’t dissuade Justin and his wife, Lindsay Lyman-Clarke, who own Burnt Rock Farm in Huntington, VT.  It did lead them towards a non-agricultural based financing option for their 900 square foot barn improvement: a home equity loan.

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The duo purchased the riverside property in 2008 in a foreclosure auction. The house, 150 year-old barn, two-car garage and about 12 tillable acres went to the highest bidder at $215,601. Again, the couple used a traditional route. “The market was seizing up. No one could get access to capital. The only people buying were first time home-owners with a down payment,” shared Justin.

When the property dropped gradually from an asking price of $350,000, the couple put in an offer of $220,000. The bank rejected it and sold it at auction the next morning, where they made the deal. For less than their original offer. They made the down payment, moved in and started farming.

“It was a lot of self-financing, working other jobs, on other farms,” says Justin. Lindsay still works a job in town, and Justin worked at several local farms during the first years at Burnt Rock.

It wasn’t for a lack of looking for other options. Justin considered starting a farm in Burlington’s Intervale, a farm incubator program. He also shared that he had responded to a Vermont Land Trust Request for Proposal for a farm property in nearby Hinesburg, but in Vermont there is no shortage of eager young farmers, and the property went to a couple with an established farm.

Even the established Current Use Program in Vermont doesn’t make it easy for small farms. The program, designed to offer tax breaks for land in agricultural use enrolls farms over 25 acres automatically. Burnt Rock and other viable small farm businesses have to do the legwork to get Current Use paperwork in for a September deadline, a notoriously busy time for farmers.

The small farmer is emerging in droves. Justin remarked on the many young people farming in Vermont. The resources to help the new agrarian succeed are a step behind. Justin and Lindsay’s story is a good reminder that even in areas where sustainable agriculture is booming, the work still remains.

Small creativities sneak up: Justin and Lindsay put the $5,000 they would have spent to rent a tent for their wedding towards a 25×200 3-season super tunnel, and hosted their guests where they would soon sow their crops.

The network of support is only now aligning its support beams above the strong foundation of new agrarians, ready to dig in. “We all have to be more excellent at what we do,” said Justin. His advice to young farmers? “Find something that suits your strengths.” And watch them grow.

New Spirit

In the wide-open midwestern states, especially in places like Lamberton, Minnesota, there is no danger of commercial development of farmland. Still, young agrarians like Ryan and Tiffany Batalden face the very real challenges of land access and land tenure.

Ryan is a 5th generation farmer who now runs a successful 350-acre organic farm, but making a living as a full-time farmer in Lamberton, where the population is less than 1000, was not always possible. Batalden Farms sells certified organic beef, pork and chicken. They also grow a variety of crops for seed along with other grains, tofu-grade soy, popcorn. Without large growers like Batladen Farms, organic farmers across the country would have a hard time finding organic seed for cover crop and forage.

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In the Batalden’s area of Minnesota, about 50 miles north of Iowa, farmland goes for about $10,000 an acre. “If a farmer buys, let’s say, 80 acres at that price, that’s $800,000 . . . they’re not going to make that back very fast.” That’s if they can come up with nearly a million dollars to begin with, which Ryan and Tiffany could not.

So, Ryan began making a try at full-time farming in 2003 as a sharecropper. “I think, at least in our area, sharecropping is an overlooked way of helping a young farmer get started.”  He went on to explain that with this arrangement, the farmer pays no rent up front, but at harvest time the land-owner is given 40% of the crop.

Even with the 80-acre parcel he was able to sharecrop on, he still had to work other jobs to make ends meet. When he received an email from his organic certifier about a land opportunity with New Spirit Enterprises, he didn’t hesitate to contact their founder, Robert Karp.

The budding project had the vision of creating a way to invest in farmland that was socially responsible. Many phone calls and several auctions later, New Spirit managed the purchase of a ¼ section parcel of land, or about 158 acres.

The land is owned by the investors, but leased by the Bataldens through New Spirit. The terms of the lease require that the farm be confirmed as a sustainable practice by a 3rd party, in their case this is the organic certifier. In exchange for this Batalden Farms gets a rental rate Ryan describes as, “Significantly less than what the landowner would get at a rental auction.”

What makes the arrangement more beneficial is the 15-year length of the lease, which Ryan explains allows him to make capital investment in equipment and in the land. “It gives me the confidence to invest soil-building crops and green manure, which on a year to year lease would be hard to justify.”

A couple years after the original property was acquired, New Spirit secured another parcel that Batalden Farms now also leases. The second parcel has similar lease provisions. Both parcels are in close proximity to the Batalden home, as well as the farm that Ryan’s parents raise a small herd of stock cattle.

When asked about his arrangement and how other young farmers could benefit from such arrangements, Ryan said, “Lately when I think about it, I think about the word value, about really showing land-owners all the different value their land has, not just financial. The land has value to the community, to wildlife and to agriculture.”

 His message to landowners: “Don’t be afraid to put financial value below all those other values.”

Faith and Trust

As the Agrarian Trust project I’ve been working on forges forward, it seems important to check back and define what this trust idea is really about. I remember my first reflections on mishearing our name as a growing trust, and all the connotations that came along with my understanding of what a trust is.

In current language, as applied to land, a trust is “a property interest held by one person (the trustee) at the request of another (the settlor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary).”

The classification applied to a trust is based primarily upon its mode of creation, in which it may be created either by act of a party or by operation of the law.

Many of the cases we have been unearthing through our land access stories are created “by the act of a party”, generally between land owner, land trusts and farmers. In these cases, trusts are divided into two types: express or implied.

The basic difference between one created by express act of a party and one created by implied act of a party is that the express acts are stated fully in language (oral or written), while implied acts are inferred solely from the conduct of the parties.

In the general legal, political and historical context of land access it is evident that going forward, trusts that are stated fully in written language will have the most staying power, although even they must be reinforced by our constant attention.

Let’s go back for a minute. Way back. The 18th century or so. Often when we look back at the founding fathers one of at least two things happen.

One. We are sidetracked by the negative. The loss of Native American life and sovereignty. Slavery. The lack of rights for women. The economic advantage enjoyed by those who set flame to the American Revolution.

Two. We miss the point all together. We see the American Revolution as over and successful. We thank our forefathers for their work and praise the liberty that they have given us. We compare ourselves to oppressed states and give thanks for the freedoms left to us.

Both of these do a disservice to the positive aspects of what our nation “and any nation so conceived” was built on.

Jefferson’s ideal Agrarian Democracy offered individuals the independence of farming their own land. This ideal has been largely replaced, as he himself anticipated, by individual debt and employment roughly equivalent to the factory work of his time. These and other modern factors often remove the economic autonomy necessary for a citizen to have true freedom and liberty.

Thomas Jefferson warned, even as the American Revolution raged on:

The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless . . .From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort . . . to the people for support.  They will be forgotten . . . their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves . . . in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights . . . The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”

I don’t know if even Jefferson could have anticipated the types of power that exist in our society today. Land, which once seemed so plentiful a resource is now a financial asset. Farmland is being purchased by corporate and private entities with no interest in working the land or being responsible stewards for responsible farmers.

This is where the trust comes in. Every one of us has an interest in securing the land that will produce food for our generations and our future. The more I talk to people about land and land access for farmers, the more hopeful I become. There are so many people who care about securing land for farmers, and many of them are already working on innovative solutions.

Making a point of putting community, agricultural and human value above financial value is crucial in our time when so much land is at stake. Taking the time to entrust farmland, with specific written language, in perpetuity for sustainable agricultural use is a simple, individual act that will leave an invaluable legacy.

In some ways, it’s almost the opposite of our understanding of the word “trust”, which we know to mean confidence in, or reliance on the integrity, justice, etc. of a person (or society). By writing down what we mean to happen to our land almost says that we don’t trust that our society will protect our farmland.

It is more like William Penn spoke about the charter of my home state of Pennsylvania: “I want to put it out of my power, or that of my successors, to do mischief.”

It reaffirms that great vision that founded our great nation, and contradicts the Jeffersonian prediction that we “will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for our rights.”

Instead, it will write our destiny to be the former of his dichotomous prediction that “our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”

first published by me at agrariantrust.org

book smart

The farm-to-school initiative has grown popular in recent years, but seldom does the name fit so well as in the case of Book & Plow Farm in Amherst, MA. Here the farm has quite literally been brought to the school.

 Although farming land owned by educational institutions is not a particularly new idea, (nearby University of Massachusetts started as a school of agriculture), the specifics of the arrangement make Book & Plow a unique picture of innovation in agricultural land use.

Pete McLean and Tobin Porter-Brown are the ambitious farmers that were chosen to farm several parcels of farmland owned by Amherst College, beginning this season. They named the project Book & Plow Farm, referencing the town seal of Amherst.

 The process began for them when Amherst College put out a Request for Proposal in 2012 for farmers willing to develop the land into a sustainable farm. The idea came a little earlier.

 About 3 years ago, two Amherst college students came up with the idea, explained Pete. Alex Propp and Arne Anderson approached the college administration with the idea that some of the food for the school’s dining hall could be provided by a farm right on campus. “It really was a very student led initiative,” he adds, “and both of the guys who started in are graduating this year. They’re really excited to see their project come to fruition.”

 What started with Alex and Arne back in 2010 is now weidling it’s own sails, with Pete and Tobin at the helm. The pair met while working at nearby Brookfield Farm, one of the first CSAs in the country. Their experience there and on other farms made them attractive candidates, and they were chosen from about a dozen responses to the Amherst College RFP last fall. Months of negotiations later, they are beginning to work the land.

 Unlike other campus farms, Tobin and Pete are not employed by the school. “What’s unique about the farm is that we’re our own business. We’re not salaried.” Pete went on to explain, “The school wanted to help form a business through start-up capital, set it up for success, then cut it free.”

 Logistically, this means a lot of different things, which is mostly what the months of negotiations have been about. What Amherst College has offered is:

 Land. Book & Plow is farming on a 5 year-lease set at $1/year. This season they will put about 6 acres in vegetable production and 8 acres in cover crop.

A market. The school will buy produce to satisfy the needs of Valentine Dining Hall, at fair market value.

Infrastructure. There is essentially nothing that resembles farm infrastructure currently, but the school has agreed to provide a greenhouse, water, electricity, a wash station, a tractor and some other equipment.

 All other tools and consumables will come from the farm’s operating budget. Labor, seeds and irrigation are just some of the expenses that would fall under this category.

In exchange, the school gets the benefit of having farm fresh produce. They also will have students working as summer interns on the farm, and have Tobin and Pete for an additional 10 hours a week as educational resources. They define those hours as any time spent away from the fields.

The young farm has already been a resource for existing educational programs. A hydrogeology class did a geological survey of the land, to determine the best position to dig a well. Both the school and farm hope experiences like this will be frequent in years to come.

In addition to the immediately tangible benefits, the school will also see a reward in the agricultural development of the land. In recent years, these parcels had been rented out by the year, mostly to conventional farmers. “The ph and fertility were horrible,” says Pete, “The farmers hadn’t been interested in investing in the land.”

With the 5 year lease, The fellas at Book & Plow have just the opposite prerogative. They see the potential not just to continue to grow on the handful of acres, but to expand the operation in years to come. “The college has close to 400 acres, we found maybe 20 ideal for vegetables, but a lot of it would be ideal for livestock.”

It’s hard to tell from the first year, but a full-diet farm on Amherst College land is something that may be in the cards in years to come. This year the duo plans to stretch its market to include other area institutions.
It will be exciting to see this young project grow and evolve, and perhaps serve as an example of how community partnerships in agriculture can emerge from a little creativity and a lot of hope.

Originally written by me for the Agrarian Trust project.

then

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Memories return like dreams, if they return at all. Something reminds. A flash flood, and you are elsewhere, in another time.

It’s hard to find your way back.

Last night. House show in Philly. Erik Petersen was doing what he does when he’s not sharing the stage with the rest of Mischief Brew, filling an entire room with his voice, a guitar and an occasional train whistle. The song I didn’t know. With shows like this, often the words are inaudible, but with Erik the words are largely the point, so most came across clearly. It was a generational account. The kind where the grandpa tells the grandson who becomes the grandpa who tells another grandson. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me. But, I wasn’t there for most of the song.

It didn’t take much to take me away. This grandpa had lost his limbs to the railroad. The words came out, the crowd yelled along. They were all there, but suddenly I was on a sidewalk in Seattle.

He didn’t have either leg. To get around he used two standard crutches, designed to help someone with a sprained ankle get around for a week or two.

I feel guilty that I don’t remember his name. I don’t even remember if anyone knew him, or if he had just shown up. That happened all the time in that life.

We didn’t ask how it happened. We just knew, or thought we knew. The train had taken them. That was who we were. The people that passed through, if they didn’t ride trains, they spent time walking around the freight yards, chasing whistles. Trying to get close to them. It was how I’d got to Seattle.

I was there for a week, and in traditional fashion we cooked food, made alterations to torn clothes and drank. A lot.

In those days that was how I got through. I ran. I risked life and limb, and I tried to get happy by inducing it with whiskey.

I guess for our nameless friend, the story was similar, the whiskey never quite worked. Sure, it brought you elsewhere, for a time, but it always brought that elsewhere back. “You’re not a happy drunk,” a friend once said to me. She was right. The whiskey felt good, maybe only because it brought you closer to the desolation that was otherwise just below the surface.

The boy was barely in his 20s from the looks of it. We welcomed him in. Somehow we had ended up on the sidewalk just around the corner from the house where we were staying, down a hill in the central district. We sat by the street like it was just an extension of our living room, laughing and talking. Making friends. I remember him smiling. He was having a good time. There was whiskey, wine and probably more than a few Olympia tall boys.

It turned. Like it does for me. All it takes is one free moment. The mind has a split second to think, and you look down at where your legs used to be. You remember what you were able to do before. The strangers around you don’t know what happened, and you don’t want to tell them. They know the basics. You are still mad at yourself, mad at existence. Living like this was dangerous. It still is. You want to be strong, because we’re all being strong. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t choose this life. We’re smart enough to choose the easy way.

You know the way they look at you. They do their best to see you for who you are, and they succeed, until you try to stand up. You don’t want help. It’s not exactly pride, but that you must cling to some semblance of self-reliance. You’re not helpless yet. But the whiskey, even with legs, you’d stumble. The tear begins to form in your eye. Your new friends, you know they’re not repulsed, but that they can’t help but pity you just a little.

They’ve invited you back to the house, but you can’t go anymore. Now it is pride. You would like nothing more than to rest. Sleep it off, wake up around people who care about each other and may care about you in the morning. Maybe share some breakfast. Ingredients pulled from the Whole Foods dumpster. Maybe some from the food bank.

That is what we do. We take what we have and break it into enough pieces to nourish those who still have the strength to hope.

Instead he got up on the crutches. Placed them of the cracked sidewalk, and swung his torso towards downtown. I don’t remember his name. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but he still lives here, in the space where these songs play on repeat. Everybody’s there and nobody leaves.

And for him, I can’t give up.

buffalo gals

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When I first visited my friends Margaret and Tracy on their (then) new farm in the mountains of Western Montana I was downright charmed by their life there. Margaret picked me and my dusty pack up from the greyhound station in Missoula and showed me around town a bit. She was excited. She’d just stopped working her job in town and her and Tracy were full-time farming.

It was a steep climb from town to their farm, County Rail. About an hour past some sprawling gas stations, through a reservation, we turned left across from the railroad tracks and the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

I met Margaret in Portland. Margaret met Tracy in New York. Then I met Tracy in New York and then there we all were sharing songs and stories in the Rockies.

They started County Rail shortly after relocating to Montana. Now, a short (or long) two years later my friends have a budding business. I got the chance to talk with them last week about how it all began.

To begin, It was a lucky personal connection. They knew they wanted to farm, but didn’t yet have the land. Tracy was visiting an old friend who told her about the property. Not knowing whether the land would be available or how much it would cost, Margaret and Tracy decided to pursue this tip and contacted the landowner, Steve Dagger. It turned out to be a good gamble.

Steve’s wife, Jane Kile had been a part of the beginnings of Montana’s local agriculture movement. Jane started one of the first CSAs in Montana in 1983, Dixon Partnership Farm, when the Community Supported Agriculture model was just beginning to surface nationwide. Jane and Steve helped found The Western Montana Growers Cooperative in 2003. This initiative organized the agricultural products of the area, allowing small farms to sell directly to one source, who in turn market to restaurants, grocery stores and farm-to-school projects.

Western Montana lost Jane to cancer in January of 2010. After her passing, Steve wanted to preserve her vision of providing fresh food to the local community. He continued to use part of the property, but was looking for a farmer (or two) to continue the Pommes de Terres legacy.

The lease agreement Margaret and Tracy have with Steve is what could be called a dream scenario. The monthly rent on the property is $550. This includes: Housing, Rental of the 3 acres they have tilled, in addition to some pasture and Use of all Equipment and Structures (barn, tractors, hoses, drip tape, etc.)

In this way, Steve is much like an unofficial land trust. His profit is not tangible, but perhaps more profitable than any sum of money.

“He’s interested in the integrity of the land,” said Tracy. “He just wants people around who are going to take care of it.”

This low rent has allowed Margaret and Tracy to move forward with their farm with more ease than if they were paying a heavy land access fee. Sustainable farming is expensive without the land question.

They have to pay for seed, irrigation needs, market fees, pest control and frost protection needs among many other unseen expenses. They are also certified organic, which comes with its own price tag.

To be able to put that organic sticker on produce, farmers have to do more than just use organic practices. The application, inspection and record keeping expenses for organic certification are in the thousands. This is a huge percentage for small farms like County Rail. The farm grows food on about 3 acres.

Again, though, these farmers have a lucky break. The Montana Department of Agriculture offers an incentive program for farmers growing organically. They refund a large portion of these fees.

The pair also mentioned grants given by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS grants help farmers with infrastructure needs like season extending high tunnels, fences, or natural barriers to separate organic growers from neighboring farms that use chemicals.

Programs like this, and land stewards like Steve help small farms make it in a world that fiscally favors the “go big or go home” mentality. There’s a bit of a war going on between those who think programs like this are important and those who don’t.

These programs, embedded in legislation like the Farm Bill (the most recent which expired in the fall of 2012), are essential for small farmers like Margaret and Tracy. Without these small farms, the American public gets more and more distanced from their food source, and less and less secure in the safety of their food.

This story is a strong reminder of why transferring land from retiring farmers to new farmers is so crucial, so that our food does not get entirely turned over to big business.

Good small farms keep the land in production, pay attention to soil health, properly rotate crops, cover crop . . . so that the land will continue to produce fresh healthy food.

Farming is cumulative. That’s why it’s so important to support the soil-friendly growers that are producing food now, and also to cultivate a relationship with the next generation.

Small farms like County Rail are sprouting up everywhere. Let’s help them grow.

This is a modified version of my land access profile on County Rail Farm. You can find it here.