Those who purchase farmland for lease to farmers should do so with more than a profit motive in mind.
Landowner and farm land lessee needs to work in intentionally collaborative ways.
More policy wins, better social networking, and stronger cooperative relationships are key to the growth of the Hudson Valley food system.
Farmers need external support and guidance in their quest to make food more affordable, while at the same time maintaining viable farm businesses.
talking with Wes Hannah and Bryn Roshong of Solid Ground Farm
Contributor: Mark Phillips
Wes Hannah and Bryn Roshong have been farming in the Hudson Valley since 2011 and volunteering with the Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition (the regional chapter of National Young Farmers Coalition) since 2012. Before starting their own farm business in 2015, they spent multiple growing seasons at vegetable CSAs and pasture-based livestock operations. In the summer of 2016 they began leasing land outside of Kingston, New York, where they currently operate Solid Ground Farm. In addition to supporting the farm and volunteering with the Hudson Valley Young Farmer Coalition and the local chapter of Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Bryn works at Farm Bridge, a co-packing service provider for farm and food businesses in the region.
Access to land has been named as a top challenge for young and beginning farmers in the Hudson Valley. Wes and Hannah cited proximity to New York City as both a blessing and a curse: there is access to markets for farm products, but also an outsized flow of capital that imbalances the real estate market in favour of residential real estate.
Every time a farm gets bought and the farmhouse gets torn down and a fancy house gets built, that land is permanently out of farming. No farmer is ever going to buy a piece of land that has a beautiful mansion on it. It’s a one way trend — as more and more land disappears it is not going to come back to agriculture.
Everybody wants a charming farm property — people who don’t farm are buying farms and not using them for agricultural purposes. That’s a huge challenge that we face: maybe we’ll look at a piece of land and the agricultural value is $200K but the property could bring $1M from somebody in the city.
Wes and Bryn observe that there is a two-fold lack of awareness both for land trusts and land owners in the potential for preserving land in the Hudson Valley while also keeping it agriculturally productive:
Land trusts are working to protect scenic qualities of land, which is great, but they could do more to protect and enhance the productivity of the land. Land trusts can be neutral as to whether they support land preservation for country estates that have no productive value as compared with land that gets put into agricultural use by a farmer.
Something we’d love to see is a broader education for retiring farmers looking to sell into farm easements. It’s no loss to them (they get the same amount of money) but it makes it accessible to farmers and affordable for future generations. At the same time, we’re not sure how much people are aware of and using programs like these.
They cite New York State's recent passage of the Working Farm Protection Act as an exciting new development in land access for farmers in the Hudson Valley.
Reflecting on lessor / lessee scenarios for connecting farmers with landowners, Wes and Bryn have observed numerous challenges that often result from a mismatch between landowner and farmer expectations and unfavourable lease agreements:
We’ve known people over the years who’ve gotten into these situations with land owners who aren’t well educated about what a working farm is like and what real lease and licensing arrangements farmers need to run a successful business. When well-intentioned people owning estates lease them to farmers it can be fraught with challenges.
Wes and Bryn agree that there needs to be a better awareness of the economic realities faced by farmers, a clear lease agreement up front that both parties can agree on, and a timeline that is long enough (as much as five full years and more) for farmers to establish infrastructure:
We had a potential lessor ask us for $10K / year to rent a couple of acres, which was ridiculous. I think that people need to realize that nobody gets rich farming. If you buy land with the thought that you’re going to lease it to farmers you have to do it for something other than profit: the environmental impacts, local economic impacts, etc. When we talked to a couple of potential lessors there was a mismatch in terms of understanding the extent of what we actually needed. We spelled out in contract that our business might fail and we need to not be bound to a long-term contract because we’re starting a very risky business.
Every farmer should have a lease agreement drafted to work from when engaging in such a relationship, rather than working with a handshake deal (which often ends in disaster). It’s way better to come with a fair lease agreement to go over together and negotiate with.
Wes shared the considerable infrastructure costs required to establish their farm and noted that even a five-year lease needed to be paired with a healthy lessor / lessee relationship that afforded longer-term security for the farm business:
We started with a walk-in cooler, greenhouse (and of course decent land that has been well-treated, which is hard to put a dollar value on), and a deer fence - those would be the big things. I could see all of that costing $20 to $25K. In the first two years, we installed a second high tunnel and a third this year (those each cost about $15,000). And then there’s non-infrastructure investments like a truck, delivery vehicle, pump, another $20K that we spent. And building all of these things requires hundreds of hours of labour.
We have a five-year lease here and I felt comfortable enough going into this with a five-year lease specifically because we had a good relationship with the landowner— they are someone we trust. If I thought we’d be out after five years, even that wouldn't be enough in my head to make it worthwhile.
In offering solutions, Wes and Bryn see opportunities to reframe lessor / lessee relationships in favour of the farmers:
My ideal vision would be if a landowner and farmer had an agreement beyond a lease — a relationship where the landowner had an actual interest in the farm, not just making money off the lease. Or alternatively where the farmer has interest and opportunity in building equity in the land — a lease-to-own type of relationship.
I have a radically different idea: I think all working farms, when they’re being sold, should have a working farm easement put on them, and then the farmers who buy the land can lease it to wealthy people who want to live on a farm — so it’s an income stream for the farmer.
Collaboration and Successes for Agriculture in the Hudson Valley: policy wins, farmer collaboration, and social networks as key support systems.
Wes cites three major areas of collaboration and development in support of Hudson Valley Farmers: 1) policy development and organizing; 2) group buying efforts; and 3) shared marketing:
On a policy angle, through organizations like the National Young Farmers Coalition and National Farmers Union there's a lot of opportunities to push for policies that are better for beginning farmers and local agriculture. As someone who has been involved with the NYFC for 6-7 years now we’ve had a lot of victories that have come from the work organizers did around making programs accessible to small farmers (the Working Farm Protection Act, for example). All of that is super important and a great example of positive collaboration.
I know people who go in every year buying certain supplies. There’s a certain type of seedling tray we could only buy in bulk. I know a farmer who acts as a distribution point for a fertilizer company — we all buy fertilizer from one company and they deliver it to one local farmer. Old Ford Farm buys in feed from Green Mountain in Vermont and they sell it at a discount to other farmers. There is cool collaboration on the business side but there could definitely be a lot more of it in the future. A lot of that is going to form organically as people develop relationships in the region.
I think there is potential in the future for more actual cooperatives— not just cooperation but actual cooperatives doing joint-marketing and joint distribution. There are some businesses that act as middle-man distributors, but I think there’s a lot of potential for other business types to address the missing link of helping farmers to aggregate and sell.
One thing I’m involved in already is the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition. As of three years ago this coalition formed and we are doing joint-marketing and organizing for CSA fairs, a road show to build awareness, and we’ve created an online directory. The CSA Coalition is pretty new but an excellent example of positive collaboration between farms. We can work together to promote the idea of the CSA and it’s going to benefit all of us in the space.
Bryn believes that the community of farmers in the Hudson Valley is a key source of support for producers in the region:
One strength of young farmers in the Hudson Valley is our social network. Everyone knows each other and we socialize. The Hudson Valley chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition organizes farm tours in the community. We have little mixer events and it feels like a very strong community. I was talking to somebody recently and realized all of my friends are farmers. Everyone I hang out with is a farmer and it’s unusual but great. Every day you text or call someone asking farm related advice and support.
When we started farming we were working on a farm alone, crazy hours, we did not feel emotionally sustained. It was the groups that were organizing tours that helped us build a social infrastructure, that while not as seemingly important as physical infrastructure are still what got us going.
The couple cites the social cohesion provided by the Community Supported Agriculture model as a key source of social and emotional capital for maintaining the business:
I really like farming because of the social element. We both worked in social justice movement careers before farming, and one of the things that drew us to local food production is that we’re building community and doing something positive for the community. That’s what drives me when it’s a crappy day and I realize I’m not making much money: I realize I’m doing something I feel good about. That’s why we love Community Supported Agriculture, because we have customers who are investing themselves into our farm, and they are family more than customers — it feels like we’re partnering together as we work the land.
Our son has a million aunties and uncles — our CSA members are extended family!
In reflecting on the double affordability gap, Bryn notes specific steps that Solid Ground Farm has taken to increase food access and also recognizes that outside support is necessary to address a systemic imbalance in the food system:
Another area with a lot of potential, a huge open space for us is food access: making our food affordable to more people. We have a pretty economically diverse member base, but overall I’m sure CSA’s naturally tend to appeal to those with more discretionary income. So building relationships over time so that we can do things like sliding scale and collaborative shares — all of these things are ways to make our food more affordable to keep food in the community and feed more people who want to eat fresh local food.
Just running the business itself is more than enough work, so having help from other people working on this to engage us would be awesome. This year we’re donating several CSA shares and we made all of our CSA shares sliding scale with a minimum and a maximum so people can pay what they feel they can afford. We need to charge more for our CSA shares but we didn’t want to exclude anyone, so we put in an additional upper limit and we are seeing people give a little more money—it’s been really helpful to keep the business going.
Even though the financial dilemma is systemic, we feel personal responsibility for it. We feel like we are charging too much for our food — someone could accuse us for charging too much but we could show them our books and say, “it’s not like we make much.” Really you would be sad for us if you knew what Wes takes home at the end of the year.
I think a big opportunity is for another organization to work on this and engage farms on ways to participate on food access, but not asking us to come up with solutions because we have zero time to do so. But we want to. Every farmer I know really hates raising prices. Yes we should charge $5 for this pint of green beans because that’s the going rate, and that’s what everyone is charging even if we don’t want to. It would be great to have someone else working on this larger dilemma faced by farmers and giving us some support and guidance in addressing it.