Farmers hit pay dirt with landowners
Photo by Jake Borden
Marie Antoinette spent many debauched hours at the Hameau de la Reine emulating the “simple” life of a farmer. But if you’ve lived in this region even for a season, you know that life on the farm—whether you’re raising livestock or vegetables—comes with its fair share of challenges. Arguably the greatest challenge to farmers is the quest for fertile ground. With land at sky-high prices, leasing is a less costly option.
“The truth is that farmers around here are vastly at the mercy of other people’s land,” says Kathy Orlando, director and 25-year veteran of the Sheffield Land Trust. “The demand for land here always exceeds the supply for land. Everybody’s always looking.”
Landowners also want a hand in working the earth. While their intentions may be noble, many know little to nothing about farming. Orlando says she has received concerned calls from landowners about calves “being separated from each other in small huts” and “the smell” coming from the fields. “I told the landowners that the calves need to be separated for herd health, just like in a daycare, and as for the smell in the field ….” Orlando says, laughing. “What’s really important is education, letting landowners know about the realities of farming and about farming by-laws.”
Ensuring safeguards for farmers once they start leasing land is a priority for the Land Trust. For many veteran Sheffield farmers, land leases are generations old and are built on nothing more than a handshake. Orlando is trying to encourage more of these relationships to adopt legal paperwork to protect farmers, just in case the land switches hands or landowners decide they don’t want to rent to farmers. Safeguards such as these are essential, especially as the demand for local produce continues to grow. In response to this growth, groups like Berkshire Grown act as agricultural matchmakers—connecting farmers, land trusts, landowners, and foodies with each other.
“This is a slow, slow process,” says Berkshire Grown executive director Barbara Zheutlin, who has been fielding queries about land and potential land use since she began her job in 2001. “What is so challenging about the matchmaking is that each case is its own story.”
Funding for farmers isn’t reserved for the landed few. The Carrot Project, Land for Good, and Northeast Farm access (whose Copake agricultural Center is now a model for social investment and sustainable agriculture) are just a few of the regional supports in place for farmers and can provide anywhere from $2,500 for business and succession planning to $50,000 for increased crop production and sustainability. Each farmer is required to submit a detailed business plan, a timeline of farming experience, and most importantly, a land agreement that extends at least through the terms of the grant/loan period. “There are so many resources like New England Farm Finder, and there are people who are willing to share their land,” says Zheutlin.
Sharon Wyrick had to jump through several hoops before she finally got her hands into some pay dirt. Wyrick is the founder of the 1.5-acre Many Forks Farm in Clarksburg, now in its fourth season. An avid gardener, Wyrick, who is in her early 60s, was a volunteer land “scout” for would-be CSA farmers in north county as part of an organization called Hoosac Harvest, but she never imagined she’d be a farmer herself. While searching for potential land for a livestock farmer, a plot came along that was perfect for a small vegetable farm. She finally approached the landowner with a plan.
“I told them I was going to be there every day on their property, all day, for ten months out of the year. I think it’s important that landowners know that,” she says. “They think that the farmer comes, plants the seeds, maybe comes back and weeds a little every few weeks. Yeah, right!”
Things went well, but like most leasing farmers, Wyrick was vulnerable to the tide of circumstances. When the landowners announced that they were selling, she scrambled, knowing that an application for a Farm Service Agency loan from the USDA would be out of the ordinary, coming from a small-time vegetable farmer in Berkshire County. “It is a mountain of paperwork, just never-ending, and I didn’t get it the first time,” she recalls. “But I worked with the loan officer and she was very helpful, which is unusual. Maybe they are cultivating this diversity of farms, knowing this needs to be part of the infrastructure.”
Crop diversity is just one benefit of cultivating more farms and farmers in the region. According to Orlando, many local, natural ecosystems—wetlands, plains, woods edge—have evolved around tracts of farmland and now rely on diversified crops and land use for their existence. And numerous industries rely on farming as a draw, particularly to an area that is experiencing an exodus of young people.
“Agriculture is supporting cultural economy and it is front and center in the economic development piece of the whole region,” says Orlando. “The average age of a farmer is still around 56 years old. We need to make and keep the land available and accessible for more farmers.
(Photo of carrots by Many Forks Farms)