How to Love a Lease—Young farmers
Two farms, two relationships: advice from farmers in the fields
Written onJuly 03 , 2013
At the end of a mostly impassable class 4 road in Calais lies the brick farmhouse of Fair Food Farm. In some ways it seems remote, but as Emily Curtis-Murphy sees it, “It’s a great place to farm.” Before she delves into her experience of farming on leased land, Emily takes me on a brief tour. She and her family rent their house from one landlord and, two miles away, rent land owned by a different landlord for the rest of Fair Food’s operation: a greenhouse, a network of high-tensile fencing, and two acres earmarked for the coming season’s veggie crop. All told the farm occupies just a small portion of the nearly 50 acres of farmland—12 tillable and 35 in pasture—that Emily and her partner Matt (both in their 30s) lease. Like a young plant that will eventually grow to fill a large pot, they are starting small, making sure there is room to develop as their vision and business expand.
“Calais is a great place to grow veggies,” Emily tells me. “It has a strong agricultural identity and a highly supportive community.” In the warm, open kitchen of the farmhouse, she and I are discussing the complexities of producing food on someone else’s land, and the value of this option for young growers in Vermont currently facing a daunting challenge: finding good, affordable land for farming. According to the USDA National Land Value Summary from 2012, farm real estate in Vermont is priced at an average of $2,750 per acre. This means that the 50 acres that Fair Food Farm currently leases could have cost somewhere in the vicinity of $137,500. For some young people in Vermont who are ready to find land of their own, possibly after working on farms for years at minimum wage (or, in the case of interns and apprentices, in exchange for only room and board), this is an understandably daunting amount of money.
Emily and Matt have a combined total of more than 20 years of working on multiple farms in Vermont and had originally thought about purchasing the acreage they needed for their farm. “When we first began our land search, we had considered buying land outright,” Matt says, “but we realized that we would be putting all of our money into the land with none left over for actually starting the farm. At the time, leasing land seemed like our best option.”
Scouting in the Montpelier area for land to potentially lease, Emily and Matt heard that the town of Calais had set a goal to source a high percentage of the community’s food from the local area over a period of a couple decades. Emily approached the Conservation and Planning Commission (CPC) and received an enthusiastic welcome and a list of several landowners in the area who were interested in having young people farm their land. Emily highly recommends this approach to young growers thinking about leasing land: “The CPC of any town is made up of people who have been members of the community for a long time. They are plugged in and know who in the area has land and is interested in having someone farm it. They can make it a lot easier to find a potential lease partnership.”
Not long after receiving their list of potential lease partners, Emily and Matt found themselves working out a leasing arrangement with an older couple in their 60s who had limited agriculture experience but were eager to see their land used for farming. The official written lease gave Emily and Matt the right to farm on 13 acres of tillable land and 35 or so acres of pasture in exchange for a payment in goods that sounds straight out of a ledger from the 1800s: half a pig, 15 chickens, 2 turkeys, and a year’s worth of veggies. In retrospect, Emily wonders if this arrangement could have been a little more balanced. “A landowner having someone farm on their land gains in several ways that we never accounted for in our lease, including valuable improvements to depleted soil, and the tax benefits and social and cultural benefits of having an organic farm on their property. These things are difficult to quantify, but are important to acknowledge in a written agreement.”
Over the past three years, Fair Food Farm has certainly had some setbacks—including a tractor breakdown last year that partly derailed Emily and Matt’s plan for accelerated farm success—but they remain positive about their situation and their lease arrangement. They feel that most of the hurdles their farm has faced are endemic to the nature of farming and aren’t derived from the nature of their lease. “There are limitations with any lease, and having a good landlord who you know—someone who shares your aesthetics and who you can really communicate with—is crucial, but in our situation the limitations didn’t prevent our success.”
While they still dream of eventually owning their own land where they would feel more comfortable making long-term investments (such as improved infrastructure and the planting of fruit trees and other perennials), Emily and Matt are committed to making Fair Food Farm profitable over the next several years on their leased land, partly with a more conservative, scaled-back approach and partly with the help of off-farm income through Emily’s landscaping work. Reaching across the table in her cozy kitchen to offer me a dried apple slice from a mason jar, Emily shares some advice for other young farmers: “I would tell people: ‘Wait for your gold-mine opportunity. Whether it’s a free lease on 500 acres, or 80 acres of cheap beautiful farmland, it’s out there. Be patient, don’t rush it, don’t force it, but work on it a little at a time, and you will find your gold mine.’”
Beyond the doors of the Montpelier gymnasium where the Capital City Farmers’ Market takes place each winter, the scene is as hearty, wholesome, and colorful as a roasted root-vegetable soup. On one side of the gym, Ben Uris and Nicole Duch (both in their 20s) of Seedfolks Farm are selling their attractive produce: stacks of onions and other root vegetables displayed in neat wooden boxes and bottles of bright pink sauerkraut on one side adding a splash of color and drawing in the eye. Three years ago, Ben and Nicole established their farm in the Northeast Kingdom on several acres owned by another agricultural producer, a large dairy and meat operation (hereafter known as the Livestock Farm to keep their identity anonymous at Nicole’s request).
Nicole describes for me the origins of Seedfolks Farm’s unique land-use situation: when Ben first met the owners of the Livestock Farm in 2010, “They told him that they were looking for someone to grow veggies on their land. He said, ‘Are you serious? I’ll grow vegetables on your land.’ He ordered garlic, built a little cabin on their land and started planting.”
Ben had worked out a loose arrangement with the Livestock Farm, formalizing their working relationship and land-share agreement with no more than a handshake. Once he had his seeds in the ground and a hoe in hand, though, Ben’s vision quickly solidified and his plans took off: by the end of 2011 he had established two acres of veggies and a budding 15-member CSA. In addition, by that time, he had gained a tractor, a greenhouse, and—probably most important for Seedfolks Farm—a farm partner in the form of Nicole. The next year saw more rapid growth: the farm tripled in size, to almost six acres in production, still on land owned by the Livestock Farm, and still founded on that first handshake. By the time I was talking with Nicole, the Livestock Farm and Seedfolks were just beginning the process of crafting a long-term, written lease for the first time.
There is a mix of excitement, relief, and nervousness in Nicole’s voice when she talks about formalizing the land use agreement. “Just this past year we’ve really become our own business and our own farm. Creating a lease is great because there were a lot of things with our arrangement that were unclear. I think both parties might have questioned at times, ‘Is this working?’ Now we are coming back together, thinking, ‘We can make this work.’” She’s quick to point out (and to emphasize as advice for other young farmers just starting out) that Ben himself didn’t know exactly what he wanted when he first stepped foot onto Livestock Farm’s property and shook hands with its owners. “At first maybe Ben was just trying it out. He thought, ‘This is a great opportunity, I’m so excited,’ but he didn’t necessarily think about what he really needed to grow food. The problem is, if you’re a very young farmer, you yourself might not even know what you need until you start doing it.”
Nicole’s suggestion that other young farmers carefully consider their potential farm’s needs before entering a lease agreement goes well beyond concrete concerns such as roof space, a vegetable processing and wash station, or water and electricity for daily operations. Echoing the words of Emily at Fair Food Farm, she emphasizes that other young farmers need “to make sure that your goals and your ultimate vision are the same [as those you’re leasing from], because if they’re not, then it’s really not going to work.”
Seedfolks Farm is fortunate to be renting their land from another active farm, so finding common philosophical ground is easy. For other young farmers, though, the situation can often be much more challenging. “A lot of landowners are just not aware of what a farmer’s needs are and aren’t really familiar with farming in general. Maybe they don’t realize there’s going to be these compost piles or this pig shit on their land. I think talking about everything [in the lease-crafting process], getting everything out on the table, is important”, Nicole said.
Formalizing a land lease agreement can be a challenging and tenuous process for all parties involved, marked at times by tension and uncertainty. “We don’t get stressed out by farming,” Nicole says, “but we do get stressed out about our unstableness with our land.” Despite some of the inherent difficulties in the process, Nicole remains confident that Seedfolks Farm will continue to evolve and mature as a unique business entity on land owned by another farm business. “It’s just beautiful land—for vegetables, it’s amazing. There’s no other place in Vermont like this. When we see other properties, we realize that being on this land that just pumps out these beautiful vegetables is pretty special. We’re working hard to make an agreement that works for everyone so we can all continue to grow food and support the community.”
The bluegrass band at one end of the farmers’ market finishes a rousing tune as someone announces over the loudspeaker that the market will be closing in 10 minutes. Nicole leans out to wave and smile at Ben, who is manning the Seedfolks Farm booth below us and filling people’s bags with beautiful carrots and onions. She turns back to offer some last advice for other young farmers.
“I would recommend leasing—I think that we couldn’t have gotten off our feet if we’d had to purchase land. And right now the reality is that just working on farms doesn’t lead you to farmland—you can’t save enough money to buy farmland from just working on farms. A lot of young people in our area are working other jobs to fund their farm dream and their hopes of having land. We’re going about it differently. We’ll get our own farm someday through farming.”
Photo by Matthew Snell-Callanen