Featured HVFN Partner: Agricultural Stewardship Association
Zack and Annie Metzger were searching for farmland. They had spent the first five years of their marriage farming in Zack’s native Illinois, providing for a 50 member CSA and selling at the local farmers market. “We were building what would have been a very successful business,” Annie says. “But we were working on leased land.” The landowners were preparing to transfer the farm to their children, and the future of the farm was uncertain. Annie missed her family and the scenery of the Northeast, so they headed back to New York to find something more permanent.
In the rolling hills of the Upper Hudson Valley, they met retiring farmers Rich and Linda Bulson who were looking to hire a manager to run their farm in Brunswick, a suburban town in close proximity to the cities of Albany, Rensselaer and Troy as well as to Annie’s family. It was the perfect opportunity.
“We were able to move into a business that was already existing – a huge leg-up in the Northeast farming [business] climate where the sustainable, local food movement is so far advanced,” Annie explains.
Zack worked for the Bulsons as a full-time farm manager while Annie, pregnant with their daughter Willa, worked an off-farm job to supplement their income and provide the growing family with health insurance. After one year, Zack and Annie decided it was a good fit and approached the Bulsons about leasing the farm. They negotiated a lease arrangement that allowed Zack and Annie to inherit the original farm’s customer base as well as its space at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market – two big advantages when starting out.
While Zack and Annie would have happily leased the farm for years, the Bulsons eventually decided they needed to sell their farm in order to be able to fully retire. As is the case for many senior farmers, much of their retirement funds were tied up in the real estate value of their farmland. The Bulsons wanted to sell the farm right to Zack and Annie. The only problem was Zack and Annie couldn’t afford to buy it. Sprawling real estate development had driven up the price of the town’s remaining farmland, making it unaffordable for farmers, especially new farmers like Zack and Annie.
“There’s been a lot of farmland in Brunswick that has gotten developments put on it,” Annie says. “Cul-de-sacs and large single-family homes with million dollar views because Brunswick is very hilly. It’s been a tragic loss of really wonderful farm soils.”
After reaching out to Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HFVN) partner the Agricultural Stewardship Association (ASA), a regional land trust working in the Upper Hudson Valley, Annie learned of a possible solution to their problem. Upon hearing their situation, ASA recommended the Bulsons and Metzgers consider selling the development rights to the farmland, protecting it from real estate development into perpetuity. This would provide the Bulsons with retirement funds and allow them to sell their farm to the Metzgers at its more affordable restricted agricultural value.
“They really liked the idea, and we really liked the idea,” Annie says. “We said this is the perfect fit for us because we know this will be farmland forever. And the bonus of that, is it actually made the farm purchase possible for us. So it’s really a double-win, where it meshed perfectly with our values but also with our financial needs.”
ASA applied to New York State’s Farmland Protection Program for the funds to purchase the development rights on the land and the state approved the application in October of 2014.
Now everyone was on board, but the clock was ticking. The landowners had farmed there for many years, and were ready to move on. Because the state Farmland Protection Program was just recovering from a six-year funding freeze triggered by the Great Recession, ASA and other land trusts and local governments across the state were working hard to close farmland conservation deals on farms caught in the resulting project backlog. Zack and Annie needed to get creative to make this work. They needed to take out a loan to purchase the farm until the state farmland protection funds came through.
After researching their options, the Metzgers decided to apply for a bridge loan through Equity Trust, which would allow them to secure their mortgage with Farm Credit East and put the farm and the easement in their name. As part of the bridge loan, Zack and Annie sold Equity Trust their preemptive purchase rights, which gave them a bit more money to work with. In selling the preemptive purchase rights, the next buyer of the farm must prove that the majority of their income comes from farming. “This is just a further way of ensuring that it’s going to be actively used as farmland,” Annie says. “It’s going to be someone who says, ‘I’m a farmer, I want to grow things on this ground.”
“Without the state farmland protection program we wouldn’t be on this farm,” Annie says. “We’d be buying a much smaller farm, probably with no house on it and having to start from scratch, really. We’d never be able to buy a farm of this scale or of this integrity.”
“But this isn’t a quick fix,” Annie warns. “Be prepared for a long, strenuous journey, and find yourself a good guide for the trip.” Connecting farmers with the people and organizations who can help them are two major components of HVFN which offers workshops and networking opportunities for farmers and landowners. When they had questions or concerns, Zack and Annie knew they could turn to the staff at ASA and HVFN.
In the spirit of paying-it-forward, Zack and Annie offer opportunities on their farm for other beginning farmers to “cut their teeth” in agriculture. “Because we are sort of new at this, our interns get to watch us make mistakes and decisions, which are crucial to learning,” Annie says. “If we had everything figured out, the interns might have an easier season, but they would also have a harder time replicating our operation in another place.”
“What we hope to do down the road is to find other beginning farmers who do not have access to land, and offer them low-cost rent to pasture animals here, or explore other ventures,” Annie says. “They would have access to not just our land, but our markets and our knowledge as well - so we could be like the atoll for the baby fish, offering some shelter while they learn to swim, before they head out into the open ocean.”
Learn more about Laughing Earth Farm on their website.
The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HVFN) is a partnership of 15 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.
Photos by Anthony Aquino Photography