Courtesy Westchester Land Trust/ Eileen Hochberg
To help revive a little of the country-gentleman farming so prevalent in the northern part of my county a scant generation ago, an innovative suburban land-use program, the Westchester Land Trust, last year established a Local Land, Local Food Farmers Network. Now with more 170 participants, the network runs a matching program through which landowners can lease a parcel of land to a would-be farmer. It paired six operations in 2010 and already has expanded to eight more in 2011, with more matching in progress.
Even though the earnings produced in these operations are not substantial enough to qualify the landowners for tax abatements in our agricultural district, owners are motivated to preserve land and to be part of the local-food movement by encouraging suburban agriculture. Suburban land can be made more sustainable by farming it, and this creative solution can also help owners to resist the pressure for development. It encourages the creation of conservation easements, which can make the land permanently available for farming.
The Land Trust provides some infrastructure for the program by surveying both parties about their needs and goals and making the matches. Once a project is launched, each party takes responsibility to manage it. The farmers bear the startup costs, but often the landowners forgo payment for the lease. The crops go to different places beyond the property, such as restaurants, on-site farm stands and farmers’ markets.
Some of the farmers are young county residents; others are experienced, mature gardeners from “the neighborhood,” who are interested in making the leap to small-scale farming. Farmer Louisa Purcell cultivates about 1½ acres at Tanrackin, an estate in Bedford, N.Y., but the whole 60-acre holding is now under conservation easement. Purcell sells the produce she grows from a small on-site farm stand. She also keeps about 136 chickens.
Another program run by the network is a “speed dating” event for chefs and farmers, where local chefs explore the availability of local products and plan how to expand those products on their menus. The chef-owners of at least a dozen respected area restaurants made new farm connections during this event last year, helping them add the cache of local labels to their menus and provide valuable suburban outlets for the farmers.
Monthly support meetings provide ongoing education and opportunities for network members, too. In February, the meeting featured discussions on innovative financing methods and product distribution. Two small-scale farmers from nearby Fairfield County, Conn., attended to spread the word on a new distribution initiative.
So, in a paradoxically affluent yet fragile area, the Land Trust supports small-scale, sustainable farming efforts in a number of ways to preserve quality of life, protect the landscape and value local food. Bravo! I’m impressed.