hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2015


Cultivating connections

Hudson Valley program matches aspiring farmers to landowners


Miriam Goler and Mark Stonehill are starting their first season at Full Circus Farm on 15 acres of leased land in Pine Plains, N.Y. They found the property through a database that matches aspiring farmers with landowners who want to keep their land in agriculture. Susan Sabino photoBy JOHN TOWNES
Contributing writer



Miriam Goler and Mark Stonehill are starting their first season at Full Circus Farm on 15 acres of leased land in Pine Plains, N.Y. They found the property through a database that matches aspiring farmers with landowners who want to keep their land in agriculture. Susan Sabino photo

Miriam Goler and Mark Stonehill were living in Maine and working on a farm several years ago when they decided to start a farm of their own.

The Hudson Valley was at the top of their list of preferred locations, but that didn’t seem a realistic possibility given the high cost of land in the region.

“We love the Hudson Valley, and we both grew up in New York City and wanted to be closer to our families,” Goler said. “However, land is so unaffordable here that it did not even seem to be worth thinking about. So we started looking in Maine, where land is less expensive.”

Then they were told about the Farmer Landowner Match Program, an initiative of the Columbia Land Conservancy, based in Chatham, in partnership with the Dutchess Land Conservancy.
The program operates as an online matchmaker in the two counties between farmers who are searching for land and property owners who want to lease farmland for agricultural use. The program is free to participants and includes an online database (clctrust.org/working-farms/farmer-landowner-match-program).

Goler and Stonehill began to browse the online database while they were still in Maine. They found a 15-acre site near Route 199 in Pine Plains, just south of the Columbia County line, that seemed like a good candidate. They contacted the conservancy and came to look at it in January 2014.

“As soon as we saw it, we said to each other, ‘I think this is the one,’” Goler recalled. “After considering it carefully, we contacted the owners in March and told them we wanted to lease it.”
After negotiations with the owners, who didn’t want their identities disclosed, Goler and Stonehill signed a lease in August and began preparing the property. They are now starting their first season of operation as Full Circus Farm.

“We chose the name to because farming is hard work, and we want to remind ourselves to have fun with this too,” Goler explained.

Goler and Stonehill, who live in an apartment in a former barn on the property, will initially grow vegetables on about two acres.

Full Circus Farm (fullcircusfarm.wordpress.com) is following the model of community-supported agriculture, in which customers pay in advance for shares of each season’s harvest and then pick up weekly installments of produce. The farm is not certified organic, but Goler and Stonehill say they will follow organic methods and will not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
The young farmers also are growing 500 grafted fruit trees from seedlings that they will sell as genetically pure varieties to nurseries, orchards and other buyers. They plan to start selling those in two years when the seedlings have grown large enough.

They are using other sections of the property as pasture for a small stock of animals, including a dairy cow that produces milk for their own consumption. They also use two draft ponies for plowing and other tasks, to minimize their use of the tractor and fossil fuels.


Helping priced-out farmers
Goler and Stonehill had faced a challenge shared by many people who want to enter farming, or expand existing operations, in regions such as the Hudson Valley where real-estate values have increased dramatically in recent years.

That larger dilemma is what prompted the Columbia Land Conservancy to start the Farmer Landowner Match Program in 2008.

“Farmers can’t afford to buy land in the Hudson Valley,” explained Tom Crowell, director of development and community outreach at the Columbia Land Conservancy. “However, there are landowners who are not farmers but own good farmland and want to see it in agricultural use. This program offers a way for them to connect with each other.”

The project also helps the overall goal of the conservancy, which is to protect land and the environment. It is part of a larger initiative called Conserve a Local Farm, or CALF, that identifies farms and farmland that are susceptible to development and provides resources and assistance to preserve it as working farmland.

“If land is in active agricultural use, it is less likely to be developed in ways that are detrimental to the environment,” Crowell said.

Last month, the CALF program was formally expanded to cover both counties in a joint effort with the Dutchess Land Conservancy.

The program also has inspired the formation of a larger network and database, called Hudson Valley Farmlink (hudsonvalleyfarmlandfinder.org), that includes land from Saratoga and Washington counties in the north to Orange County in the south.

That program, launched last year, is a separate initiative co-sponsored and managed by American Farmland Trust and a coalition of 14 partners including local and regional land trusts and other environmental and agricultural organizations.

While the Columbia and Dutchess listings are being integrated into the larger database, the Farmer Landowner Match program and database will continue to operate autonomously.
“One of the benefits of managing the program locally is that it allows for a personalized approach,” said Marissa Codey, the manager of the match program and acting director of conservation programs for the Columbia Land Conservancy. “I talk to everyone who signs up and get to know them. There are a lot of options and details involved, and we help them think through the process, and provide other assistance.”

The conservancy also sponsors workshops in the fall with other guidance and information about leasing farmland.


Making a match
The match program does not disclose the identity of participants, nor the exact locations of properties, on its Web site. Those who register for the service are given an individual identification code. When one party sees a potential match, they tell the conservancy the code.
“We then pass along that information and put the people in touch with each other,” Codey explained.

After that, the two parties handle negotiations themselves and draw up the ultimate lease agreements. However, the staff of the conservancy is available to assist them, provide sample agreements or steer them to lawyers or other experts. The conservancy also helps participants to obtain agricultural and conservation tax easements and other incentives to add to the financial benefit of leasing the land and preserving it for agriculture.

Codey said the database currently has listings for 150 farmers and 148 properties.
“For some reason the numbers of farmers and properties have always tended to track each other very closely, but it’s a coincidence,” she said.

Since 2009, the program has arranged a total of 49 matches, of which about 36 are ongoing.
“Many arrangements become long term, but it doesn’t always turn out that way,” Codey said. “In some cases, leasing can be a springboard for the farmers, and they are able to eventually buy land of their own. Occasionally a situation turns out to be less than perfect and doesn’t work out. But the great majority have been ongoing.”

The leases take many different forms. They include relatively small sites as well as larger ones. The terms vary depending on the needs of the individual landowner and farmer.

In one case, the program matched three women -- Jenny Parker, Lauren Jones and Aliyah Brant -- with a landowner who also does farming but had additional land that wasn’t being used.
The three are leasing seven acres to operate Ironwood Farm, a community-supported produce farm in Ghent.

“We had worked together on another farm and wanted to start one of our own,” Parker said. “We found this site through the program, and it’s worked out really well.”

In another match, the heirs of a farm family had moved on to other pursuits. They wanted to keep their land in agricultural use, so they found another farmer who is leasing it for a current operation.

The program also works with existing farmers who want to upgrade their operations. One cattle farmer was able to find additional land to lease to enable him to expand his grazing area.
In the case of Full Circus Farm, Goler and Stonehill have a five-year lease that can be reviewed and extended after three years. Goler said they anticipate remaining at the Pine Plains property for the long term.

The two say the idea of building a community is one of their primary goals. They are creating educational programs to bring children onto the farm to learn about farm life and the natural world.

Goler said she and Stonehill believe the site is ideally suited to them.

“We could have done something else somewhere if we hadn’t found this,” she said. “But this program made it possible to find a site that we can afford and which fits our needs and goals perfectly. And we were shocked that were able to find this and start the farm so quickly.”