If You Build it, They Will Farm: An Architect’s Vision for Empowering a New Generation of Farmers

Featured HVFN Partners: CCE Ulster County, Glynwood, GrowNYC, Columbia Land Conservancy, Orange County Land Trust

Self-proclaimed urbanites Eugene Kwak and Claire Ko supported local farms in the ways you might expect from individuals who call New York City their home– shopping at farmers markets and belonging to a CSA. But deep down, the couple shared a conviction to do more.

One day, Eugene had a vision. He could use his experience as an architect and professor to embark on a project that could bring farming, food, and people together through agritourism and education. He’d create the space and find the right farmer to help bring it to life. And this vision had a name: TOGATHER.

“I wanted to use my position and skillset for the greater good,” Eugene said. “I want to create a viable model of a mutually-beneficial relationship that empowers a farmer with a long-term and secure lease.”

Yet there was much he still needed to gain: more agricultural knowledge, actual farmland – specifically in the Hudson Valley – and a farmer with whom he could partner. It was a big undertaking.

The professor became a student. Eugene quit his job and committed full-time to gaining agricultural knowledge and actively searching for land. For two years he coupled consistent volunteering at places like Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and Glynwood for hands-on experience with attending every workshop or training he could about land access and farm business planning offered by Hudson Valley Farmlink Network partners, including GrowNYC FARMroots’ nine-week Farm Beginnings Whole Farm Training.

Eugene was formally introduced to the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network during a Land Access Workshop put on by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County. The knowledge Eugene gained from his volunteer experience, workshop attendance, and exploration of the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder website helped to better inform and narrow down the criteria of his search for land – ensuring that the property he purchased would meet a vegetable farmer’s needs. With the help of a local realtor familiar with farmland, Eugene found a 15-acre parcel previously part of a dairy farm in Orange County that fit his needs and could continue the agricultural legacy of the land.

Once he made his purchase, Eugene was ready to move forward with finding a farmer with whom to partner. He went back to the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder website, this time as a landowner, and uploaded a request for proposals that he developed with consultation from Glynwood, GrowNYC FARMroots, Columbia Land Conservancy, and Orange County Land Trust. Eugene was seeking a farmer to revitalize the land with a vegetable operation and in exchange, offered a free 30-year land lease and below market rent on half of a two-family house he was in the process of building on the property, which would be split between the farmers and Eugene and Claire.   

The lease arrangement, Eugene said, was “designed to empower a young farmer by providing the opportunity to farm worry-free, for a long time.” After a robust response to his request for proposals Eugene found his match with Jack Whettam and Melissa Phillips, and their daughter Phoenix, a family from California seeking an opportunity to farm in the Hudson Valley.

Hidden Acre Farm was established in early 2019 and Jack and Melissa are intending to practice responsible, regenerative agriculture on the property. They will be spending the first year testing which crops work best on the land, building infrastructure, and selling their produce at three different farmers markets, including the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket, as Eugene finishes the final design components of the inside and outside of the house. Meanwhile, Claire, who is well-connected in food and drink hospitality, has helped the farmers connect to market opportunities in New York City.

Everyone involved with TOGATHER shares a goal to serve as a viable model for a mutually beneficial relationship between non-farming landowner and farmer, and to promote harmony between urban and rural lifestyles.

"It's been a pleasure to offer technical assistance to Eugene as he developed his concept for Togather. I got to know Eugene as a volunteer and farmer training workshop participant at Glynwood. Eugene impressed with his diligence as he solicited feedback from us and other partners in the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network to refine his vision and model for providing land access to farmers. Glynwood is excited to watch the continued success of this Farmlink match."  - Dave Llewellyn, Glynwood

“Over several years, Eugene continued to learn about farming in the Hudson Valley region and adjusted his approach based on feedback he received from service providers and the farming community.  In the end, his persistence and flexibility were integral in finding a match that helped him achieve his vision.” – Terence Duvall, Columbia Land Conservancy

The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network is a partnership of 17 organizations working to ensure the availability of farmland in the Hudson Valley for the farmers of today and tomorrow. Coordinated by American Farmland Trust, the network offers a Hudson Valley Farmland Finder website, training and networking events, and one-on-one assistance for farmers and landowners. The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network has received primary funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Additional funding has also been provided by the Environmental Protection Fund and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as well as the members of American Farmland Trust.