Morse Pitts has a simple goal – to make a living farming and help others do the same, particularly beginning farmers. It’s what he’s been striving for all of his life, growing salad greens, fruits and edible flowers with organic practices and zero pesticides in Orange County – just 65 miles north of Manhattan. Not surprisingly, competition for farmland in this area is high because of pressure from real estate development. This in turn drives up the price for land, and makes it difficult for beginning farmers to get their start.
The farm came into Morse’s family by complete surprise. A deceased relative had given the farm to a neighbor for the duration of his life, and when they passed away the farm came back to the family, to Morse’s father Charles – who named it ‘Windfall Farms’ in honor of this unexpected inheritance. A retired engineer, Charles never attempted to farm beyond his garden but was pleased to watch Morse’s gardens grow into a farm. “He greatly valued farmland preservation,” Morse recalls.
“He died after the first huge warehouse was built next to us, knocking down the biggest, most beautiful old farmhouse in Orange County and taking a big chunk of New York State farmland out of production forever. He died expecting the same fate for our farm.”
At age 64, Morse now owns the farm and wishes his father could see what Windfall Farms has become. “You get the most value from a farm over generations,” Morse says. “You can’t farm for just one lifetime – you need to be a part of the chain.”
Over the years Morse has employed many young farmers. Some of these farmers have remained at Windfall Farms for over 25 years, and others have ventured out to start their own farms. “One of the high points of my life was having dinner with one of these farmers, and him telling me he wouldn’t have been able to buy his own farm if he hadn’t started here,” Morse says. Because of these relationships, he’s become very aware of the challenges facing the next generation. Recalling a recent discussion with a group of young farmers, Morse says, “One kid listed every hurdle he faced. Listening, I realized only half of these hurdles existed when I started out.”
But over the years, farming has grown to be more challenging where Morse lives. When his family first moved to the area, Route 84 didn’t even exist. Now it’s one of the major highways that transports goods from the warehouses and factories that surround the farm. The dirt road that Windfall Farms was located on was paved and redirected into a Route 84 interchange, causing more developers to buy land around him. Morse noticed more and more farms disappearing. He was trying to produce enough for the farm to pay for itself, but he couldn’t compete with the value of the land for development.
“I was looking into selling the farm and moving,” Morse says. “But I would lose everything I’ve put into the farm and the soil.”
Morse turned to GrowNYC and Orange County Land Trust, two partners in American Farmland Trust’s Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HVFN). Morse is a 30-year grower for the GrowNYC Greenmarkets and a founding advisor to their FARMroots program, which provides technical assistance and training to beginning farmers and established producers. FARMroots helped Morse build a team of advisors that could help him realize his vision. Through the program, Morse received cost-sharing assistance to acquire needed infrastructure for the farm, develop new marketing materials and cover legal costs.
Morse also connected with HVFN partners at Orange County Land Trust (OCLT) to discuss the possibility of protecting Windfall Farms with a conservation easement. Working with OCLT, Morse applied for the easement through the New York State Farmland Protection Program, which had just emerged from a six-year funding freeze triggered by the Great Recession. American Farmland Trust and HVFN partners like OCLT worked hard to advocate for the rejuvenation of the program to help farmers like Morse, whose farm was in jeopardy of being lost forever.
In 2014, OCLT was awarded state funding to protect 142 acres at Windfall Farms with a conservation easement in perpetuity, with a significant contribution from Scenic Hudson. They officially closed on the sale of the development rights in December 2016.
“A miracle deal,” as Morse calls it, the easement has helped secure the future of the farm.
Thanks to the preservation of Windfall Farms, Morse has a fresh vision for the farm’s legacy. He would like to divide his land among multiple young or second career farmers with long-term leases. GrowNYC helped Morse jumpstart this plan by pairing him with a young farmer, Zach Pickens, who had just graduated from their Farm Beginnings course and was looking for a mentor.
Zach was growing a lot of the same things as Morse on an urban farm, but was eager to dig into a bigger piece of land with the guidance of a seasoned farmer. “You can’t go from zero to farming,” Morse says. “It’s good to be able to take time to learn.” Zach began with a 1,500-square foot plot his first season on Morse’s land, working alongside his wife, Manda Martin, who helps manage the business side. With Morse’s guidance they expanded to grow on a full acre this season, an area 30 times the size of their first plot.
At the end of 2017, they plan to transition onto three acres. It may seem ambitious, but they’re striving to meet a growing demand for produce from their restaurant customers in New York City. GrowNYC helped Zach and Manda develop a business plan with input from their restaurant customers. This has helped Zach decide what to grow, and how much to grow, to serve his primary customers. GrowNYC has continued to play a key role throughout the mentorship, from helping negotiate their first lease to gaining access to capital to cover the farm’s start-up costs.
“It wouldn’t be easy for us to buy farmland around here,” Zach says. “I’m just really lucky to be working with Morse at this point, and to have the flexibility to be as small as we want to be starting out.”
With Zach as the pioneer of this program, Morse hopes to bring more beginning farmers onto his land. “He saw something better than selling a $2 million farm,” says Chris Wayne, director of GrowNYC’s FARMroots program. “In doing so, he’s opened the door for next generation farmers to get their start and he’s provided a model for others to do similar projects. Morse is the type of person who makes our whole staff love the work that we do.”
“The biggest challenge is having farms for people to succeed on,” Morse says. “My basic goal is to have people here who can make a living farming, gain equity, and preserve the land.”
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.