Farm project finds common ground

COPAKE—If you live here and want to get the dirt on where your food comes from, you will soon be able to look out your window and see.

The 122-acre parcel of vacant land between the Town Hall on Mountain View Road and the backyards of hamlet homes on the north side of Main and Church streets has been purchased by an organization dedicated to keeping it in farming.

The parcel, considered prime agricultural land, was sold in 2004 by Odyssey Farm South and purchased by Housing Resources of Columbia County, Inc., (HRCC) for $650,000.

A private not-for-profit organization that has assisted residents with housing needs since 1984, HRCC proposed to build a 138-unit senior and mixed-income housing development there called Copake Green. The controversial project never really got off the ground for lack of funding and in April 2010 HRCC put the property back on the market for $1.2 million.

In December 2013, Farmland Renewal, LLC, an affiliate of Northeast Farm Access (NEFA) closed on the property for a purchase price of $650,000.

NEFA, an organization that forges “partnerships between farmers and investors that broaden access to farmland, preserve natural and financial capital, restore our environment, and create more resilient local food systems” calls its Copake project, the Copake Agricultural Center.

When complete, the project will total 197 acres and include three houses: two now-vacant homes on Church Street, where farmers will live and one house now owned and occupied by Alice Belt, which will become a “farm stay,” providing visitors with accommodations on a working farm.

The organization hopes to close on the purchase of the two single-family houses by mid-March and the Belt house and surrounding 75 acres in the coming months, NEFA Managing Director Bob Bernstein told The Columbia Paper this week.

A community-based development practitioner with 37-years of experience, Mr. Bernstein is originally from Mahopac, Westchester County, and now lives and in Keene, NH.

Always on the lookout for “good-sized parcels” suitable for “sustainable agriculture,” Mr. Bernstein said he became aware of the Copake farmland through personal connections in the area at Camphill Village and Hawthorne Valley Farm. He also found that Copake’s Comprehensive Plan “endorsed what we were proposing to do.”

In part, the 66-page plan adopted in 2011 states, “Farming makes a vital contribution to the well-being of our residents… by preserving quality agricultural land, providing jobs, maintaining open spaces and expanding tourism. Farms protect our soil and water resources, preserve wildlife habitat, scenic resources, historic places and the vistas that define Copake’s character.”

At present, three established farming operations are leasing portions of the Copake parcel, two vegetable farms: MX Morningstar Farm and Sparrow Arc Farm; and one fresh cut flower grower, Tiny Hearts Farm, which is already starting seeds in the greenhouse on the Belt property. Sparrow Arc Farm specializes in heritage and hard-to-grow vegetables for the restaurant trade and MX Morningstar has plans to start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.

The farmland was “cover cropped” last fall before the purchase was even final, said Mr. Bernstein, and soon the installation of infrastructure—irrigation and fencing—will begin.

Finding farmland and investors sets the stage for the NEFA goal of getting farmers access to land.

A National Young Farmer’s Coalition study mentioned on the NEFA website says that 78% of farmers ranked “lack of capital” as a top challenge for beginners, with another 40% ranking “access to credit” as the biggest challenge; 68% of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners.

“For a large cohort starting a farm exceeds their financial resources,” said Mr. Bernstein, who noted that the NEFA model puts multiple operators in long-term leases on single pieces of land. This promotes collaboration between farmers, offers security that even if one farmer leaves others will stay and “the economics are good,” he said.

Farmers participating in the Copake project have entered into a 30-year lease agreement with the option for renewal. The amount they pay is based on a rate per acre, which takes into account the cost of the land, taxes, insurance and a charge for infrastructure.

The length of the lease is of value because it allows the farmer to engage in long-term planning, he said.

About the community development aspect of the project, Mr. Bernstein said, three sets of young people will move here, creating six jobs and they will hire another eight people. “It’s a good economic development piece. It’s important to us and the town, which has given us a great reception.”

“It took 22 investors to pull this off,” he said, describing one third as local residents, another third as weekenders and the remaining third as other folks who support the NEFA strategy for farmland renewal.

He also credited Kinderhook Bank, Hudson River Ventures, Farm Credit East and the Hudson River Agribusiness Corporation for their partnership in the project.

Also noteworthy is that the Copake land will forever remain in agriculture thanks to a conservation easement arranged through the Columbia Land Conservancy and Scenic Hudson. The project will pay taxes as typical for agricultural properties, Mr. Bernstein said.

The project still seeks someone interested in running the farm stay, which will not necessarily be an accommodation for those who want to work on a farm.

“It could be like a B & B on a farm that has animals and a greenhouse and produces local food. The people that come to stay there may want to go out and collect eggs or see goat kids,” said Mr. Bernstein. Though if a visitor had an interest in shoveling manure, he is sure that could be arranged for a slight upward fee adjustment.

To contact Diane Valden email .


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