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


News & Issues July 2017


Saving a strawberry farm

$1.5M campaign aims to preserve Columbia County destination


Don and Marnie MacLean have been running Thompson-Finch Farm, best known for its pick-your-own organic strawberries, since 1982.By JOHN TOWNES
Contributing writer



Don and Marnie MacLean have been running Thompson-Finch Farm, best known for its pick-your-own organic strawberries, since 1982. But a generational change in the farm’s ownership has threatened to force the sale of the property. Local conservation groups have launched a campaign to save it. Scott Langley photo

For many years Thompson-Finch Farm has been a popular seasonal destination for lovers of organic strawberries, and now people in Columbia County and beyond are rallying to keep the farm’s agricultural traditions alive for future generations

A new $1.5 million fund-raising campaign, dubbed “Strawberry Fields Forever,” aims to help the Columbia Land Conservancy buy the 196-acre farm and permanently protect the land for agriculture and conservation.

The nonprofit land conservancy has helped to protect more than 16,000 acres of farmland over the past 30 years through easements and other strategies, but the Thompson-Finch project marks the first time the organization has attempted to buy a farm property outright.
“This is a major undertaking and something we have not done before,” said Marissa Codey, the organization’s deputy director of conservation. “We believe this is worth it, because the Thompson-Finch Farm is an important property that has a significant place in the hearts of many people. “

The project is a joint effort of the conservancy and Don and Marnie MacLean, who have run Thompson-Finch Farm for the past 35 years and developed its niche as a pick-your-own berry operation. Several other land-preservation organizations are also involved in the project, including Equity Trust, Scenic Hudson, and the Duchess Land Conservancy.

The situation at Thompson-Finch Farm reflects larger issues involving development pressures and rising land values that are affecting farming and the rural character of the Hudson Valley – particularly as the region has seen an influx of new part-time and year-round residents from metropolitan New York City over the past two decades.

Thompson-Finch, at 750 Wiltsie Bridge Road, between state Routes 22 and 82, has been in Marnie MacLean’s family for five generations. She and her husband have been living on the property and farming it since 1982.

The couple had leased the farm from her parents. But after her parents died in recent years, the MacLeans were faced with having to buy out other family members, raising the prospect that the farm would have to be sold on the open market.

“Don and I wanted to stay here and keep the farm going, but we could not afford the huge loan that would be required to purchase it,” MacLean said. “We had to figure out what to do.’

Crafting a plan
The MacLeans discussed the situation with the Columbia Land Conservancy, and the talks led to the crafting of the preservation plan they are now pursuing.

Last fall, to secure the farm, a short-term loan of $1.5 million was arranged to allow the couple to buy the property at its appraised market value. The loan was provided by Equity Trust, a national nonprofit organization based in Amherst, Mass., that is dedicated to supporting sustainable and community-oriented models of land ownership and use.

“Equity Trust offered a loan on the condition that the Columbia Land Conservancy would then purchase it from us, and preserve the property for conservation and agriculture,” MacLean explained.

The money from the current fund-raising drive will be used to repay the loan, thereby enabling the transfer of ownership to the conservancy.

If the conservancy is able to buy Thompson-Finch Farm, it will lease the land to the MacLeans on a long-term basis, and they will continue to operate their farm there.

In the future, when the MacLeans stop farming, the conservancy will lease it to another farmer. It is also possible that after the conservancy takes ownership of the property, it could makes some sections that aren’t currently in production available for rental to other farmers.

The fund-raising campaign was launched at the beginning of strawberry season in June. The conservancy has had tables and staff at the farm to explain the effort and to seek contributions from customers. The organization is also soliciting its members and supporters and conducting other public outreach, including through a Web page (clctrust.org/thompsonfinchfarm).

By the last week of June, about $600,000 had been raised through public contributions and support from other organizations including Scenic Hudson.


Famous for strawberries
Although the MacLeans grow other crops, Thompson-Finch Farm is best known as one of the few farms in the Northeast to offer “you-pick” organic strawberries on a large scale. During the June and July harvesting season, people flock to the farm to pick from its five-acre strawberry field.

“Some people drive for two or three hours to go there,” Codey said.
Locally grown strawberries are prized for their flavor, but few farms produce them organically on this scale. To provide a five-acre crop every year without using pesticides, the MacLeans have to devote a much larger area to strawberry production in rotating fields.

Codey said that beyond its berries, the farm is important to the region’s environment and its scenic, rural character. The farm includes 100 acres of tillable land with high-quality soil as well as woodland and 13 acres of wetlands. The Roeliff Jansen Kill, an important stream for trout and other sensitive aquatic species, runs through the property.

Codey said the MacLeans, whose farm is certified organic, have long practiced careful stewardship of the land to protect the habitat of native plants and animals.

The purchase arrangement will include conservation easements and provide for a trail to allow public access to the stream.

Codey said the current fund-raising campaign is crucial to the long-term protection of the site. The outcome of the effort will depend on the level of financial support it receives, because neither the Columbia Land Conservancy nor Equity Trust has the financial resources to carry a $1.5 million loan indefinitely.

The fund-raising campaign will continue until the early fall.
“In October, we’ll evaluate where we are, and how much we’ve raised,” Codey said. “If we haven’t raised the full amount by then, we’ll look at the alternatives.”

Those options could include extending the campaign or pursuing a more modest conservation plan. But if contributions are too short of the mark, an outright sale of the property might still be necessary.

Codey pointed out that agriculture can’t compete in a real-estate market driven by demand for upscale housing and other more lucrative uses of land.

“The price of land is no longer affordable for farmers,” she said. “If we are not able to raise the money to do this, the land would have to be sold on the open market. It is likely it would be purchased for a subdivision or other private development, and it would be lost as farmland.”


Reinventing a family farm
Thompson-Finch Farm has been an active agricultural operation, in one form or another, for most of the decades that Marnie MacLean’s family owned it. Her late parents lived in Connecticut and rented the land out to local farmers.

Marnie grew up in Connecticut but spent summers at the farm as a child. She moved to southeastern Vermont when she married Don, who lived in Westminster.

The couple moved to the Ancram farm in 1982 to manage the property, and they established their own farming operation there.

At first they farmed on a very small scale on a part-time basis, working at other jobs to support themselves. Over time, the farm became a full-time enterprise.

“We initially thought we would just do a small homestead,” MacLean recalled. “We never imagined it would morph into what it has become. But the land spoke to us, and the farming operation continued to grow.”

In addition to growing strawberries, the MacLeans have a small blueberry field and a 1.5-acre orchard that produces apples they sell to a local cider maker. They also grow vegetables, which they sell to Camphill Village, a therapeutic community in Copake, and to several retail outlets, including Hawthorne Valley Farm Store, Berkshire Co-op Market, and Guido’s Fresh Markets.
MacLean said the strawberry business developed its own momentum after she and Don started selling the berries in a small patch on a pick-your-own basis.

“We found that people loved to come and pick the strawberries,” she said. “People aren’t interested in picking zucchini. But they enjoy coming to the farm and picking strawberries. “
She said she and her husband resisted the idea of adding the entertainment and agri-tourism attractions offered at some pick-your-own operations, instead keeping the farm experience simple.

“This is a special place, and we believe it’s valuable for people to be able to come for the basic experience, without distractions,” she said.

Over time, they were able to operate the farm as a self-sustaining business and support themselves from it. But they faced uncertainty about the future as her parents aged.
MacLean explained that her parents had a personal connection to the property and had been determined to keep it. But other family members did not have that level of connection to it, and the MacLeans were aware that it likely would be sold at some point.


Separating land, buildings
Although the solution the MacLeans devised with the Columbia Land Conservancy is straightforward, it has several aspects.

In a separate transaction, the MacLeans have set aside a section of the original 206-acre property, which includes their house and adjacent land. They are arranging to finance the personal purchase of that parcel privately to enable them to own their home and land for personal use.

“We want to be sure people understand that we’re doing that part of it on our own,” MacLean said. “All of the money that is contributed to the campaign will go toward the conservancy’s purchase of the main farm.”

The conservancy is only buying land, which it will rent to farmers through a “ground lease.” The farmers will own the buildings and facilities on the surface.

Codey explained that a long-term ground lease provides security for farmers. It is a form of shared ownership that enables farmers to establish equity in buildings and other farm facilities. The farmers then receive a return on their investment in improvements when the lease is transferred.

The rental cost of the ground lease will include the transition of surface-facility ownership to succeeding farmers as well as the conservancy’s maintenance costs and taxes on the land.
To provide financial support for the project, and to formalize the preservation status, Scenic Hudson has agreed to buy development rights to the farmland. The Dutchess Land Conservancy will also control a conservation easement.

“It’s preferable to have different entities control easements, because it adds an extra layer of protection,” Codey explained. “It provides a third party to ensure that the conditions of the original protections and agreements are being met.”

The MacLeans see the overall plan as an example of necessity leading to a solution that is in the interests of the overall community while enabling them to continue operating the farm.

“This is the ideal solution, because it is preserving and protecting the land for the future, beyond our own business,” MacLean said. “It will ensure that this wonderful property is protected and will continue to be available for new generations of farmers. That’s much more important to us than whether we actually own the land or not.”