“While we can't control the price of land, we can help farmers obtain land,” said Marissa Codey of the Columbia Land Conservancy south of Albany that helped the Gails find their land. The conservancy's matching program has grown quickly through word of mouth since it began in 2009, now counting about 85 landowners and 65 farmers.
“There's a pretty steady flow of new people to the program,” Codey said.
Some of the landowners are urbanites who bought former farms as second homes and would like to lease some acreage to someone who'll farm it. Others have had their land in production for generations and would prefer to pass it on to a new farmer rather than see it developed.
The Columbia Land Conservancy's primary focus is on facilitating leases rather than sales.
“Leasing land is not a new concept,” Codey said. “The change we're seeing is that so many farms are now participating in the local food movement.”
While a casual, short-term lease may be fine for a farmer looking for some extra grazing pasture, it's not good for the new generation of farmers interested in organic vegetable farms and orchards. Those farmers need the security of a formal, long-term lease if they're going to invest the time and resources needed to develop their operations.
Landowner Larry Steele said he and his wife, Betty, had wanted their 89-acre property to be an active farm since they bought it 15 years ago, but they knew nothing about farming. They joined the Columbia Land Conservancy's matching program three years ago and interviewed about a dozen farmers before signing a lease with 29-year-old Anthony Mecca, who grew up in the New York City suburbs and became interested in sustainable agriculture as a young adult.
“We were looking for someone who was committed, who had a great work ethic, who was passionate about what he did,” Steele said. “Someone with integrity that we could build a long-term relationship with.” They negotiated a lease where Mecca pays no monthly fee until the farm reaches a specific level of annual sales; when lease payments begin, the Steeles will reserve half of each payment for improvements on the farm.
For some landowners, the incentive is more spiritual than financial.
“We felt almost a moral obligation to use the land the way it was intended,” Steele said. “It was originally a farm in the late 1800s; we wanted to resurrect it and have it be operational again.”
Now in its third year, Mecca's Great Song Farm is a community-supported agriculture operation that feeds about 95 families.
“We couldn't be happier,” Steele said.