Dirt Cheap?

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Left to right: Bob Bernstein; 60 acres of Reality

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Left to right: Marbury and Steph preparing for market; everything old is used, not just Bob.

From the beginning there has been a sense of “If you build it, they will come” around the Copake Agricultural Center. Two hundred acres of prime farmland now home to five young farmers, housing, barns and a greenhouse, all on the flats of Copake— where a few years ago a housing development had been proposed but roundly rejected by the town.

It all came together in less than two years; 18 proposals from throughout the Northeast were winnowed down to yield three new farms.

Yet the process was by no means easy, or clearly destined for success. At one meeting of investors this year most of the questions had been spinning around where things could go wrong. Then a question from Ed Herrington, owner of Herrington’s Lumber, shifted the focus from fearing the negative to expecting the positive.

“But what if it works?” he asked simply, and for Director Bob Bernstein, the question cut through the background noise and dispelled any lingering doubts.

Copake is a hamlet ready for new life. Over the past few decades, economic downturns and a series of arsons changed the face, if not the heart, of this once-thriving farm and summer community. Even recently, a cover story in Newsweek about the globally higher rate of suicides among farmers opened with the story of a Copake dairy farmer who killed most of his herd and himself in 2010. An organic farm in the center of town is a step to the future, good not just for the young farmers it supports, but the entire community and beyond.

That’s the intent. Bob Bernstein is founder and director of Northeast Farm Access, an organization based in Keene, New Hampshire, that works to preserve farms and promote sustainable farming, and he has been commuting weekly from his home near Keene to oversee the burgeoning Center. To date about 30 investors are committed to the project, a model of social-impact investment intended to help transform the economy of farming and to offer both financial and non-financial returns for the investors, the farmers and the community. They are two-thirds of the way to their goal of $2.5 million.

With the exploding locavore movement and a tripling of farmers’ markets since the mid-’90s and of CSAs in the past decade, it’s a propitious moment.

The makeup of investors was not entirely what Bob expected: An admitted idealist, he expected the majority would invest for the idea. But the largest group—more than one-third—is those with connections to the area. Copake’s long agrarian history helped ensure the community is enthusiastic, engaged and supportive.

Bob has been working in community and economic development for decades. His not-for-profit Land for Good was dedicated to working on land access for farmers—helping entering farmers get land; helping current farmers make succession plans; making more land available to farmers. Over time, one recurring theme emerged: More land was needed for farm-to-table production.

“In the Northeast, only 6% of the food consumed here is grown here,” he said. “That’s a really small number.”

In part it’s because many promising farmers don’t have access to land, or to enough. It’s just too expensive—larger tracts perfect for mid-size farms are swallowed up for other uses like a housing development or a shopping mall. Anyone who’s driven Route 1 in central Jersey has seen the results. For farms already in existence, building the soil is a long, slow process, while financial structures offering support don’t exist. Northeast Farm Access was created to help bridge these gaps and to prove there is economic value in farmland used for agriculture.

On a blustery day in April, with the legendary east wind whipping down off the ridge and the rain spitting in fits and starts, we walked the land. It took a leap of faith after such a long, deep winter to imagine these fields a few months hence full of produce. The farms are in year one of the required three-year transition to organic, and biodynamic practices will be employed, as well.

Overlooking it all is Allie’s Farmhouse, envisioned as a farmstay B&B/ agritourism center, which sits up on a hill with 70 acres and views to the Taconics. Its former owner is a big supporter of the Center and had held off selling her property in the hope of its being used for such a purpose. They are still looking for the right person to run the farmstay, Bob said, potentially as a business; it’s not really intended to be a teaching farm. A biodynamic orchard, garden, walking trails and play area are included in the current concept plan for this area.

As Bob was leaving for a meeting up at Hawthorne Valley Farm, a van drove up. Matt Linehan of Sparrow Arc Farm and his brother-in-law Ferron Reyes, down for the season, hopped out.

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Jen, Tiny Hearts flower farm, tending to the brood..

“Look at this,” Matt said, extending a tall paper coffee cup. As he tilted it, we all peered in excitedly, as if seeing gold panned from a stream. Matt sifted the extraterrestrial-looking grayish gritty matter, extracted through a well drilling, through his fingers. About two feet below the topsoil, this layer of slate-like bits mixed with grainy sand provides for exceptional drainage. It’s similar to what might be found at the bottom of a lakebed, or what is left after a glacier’s passage. In this case, both: A glacier passed down the valley, and for awhile what is now Copake was under a lake. The soil of much of the Center is Channery Silt Loam and has been designated as Prime, an increasingly rare distinction: only 17% of Columbia County soils receive this distinction.

Across the road, the soil finally unfrozen just enough, Matt and Ferron had gotten the doorposts of their greenhouse in. With his wife, Heather, and three children, ages 6 and under, Matt had moved Sparrow Arc down from Troy, Maine, northwest of Belfast. From there he used to drive his heirloom and Old World produce five, six, seven hours to his clients, Boston and New York restaurants, including Clio, Henrietta’s Table, Toro NYC and Colonie. Now his commute will be two hours to each city and he has nearly tripled his farmable land. In Maine, he was farming multiple plots with miles between them.

Sparrow Arc has created a niche tailored to the needs and desires of high-end chefs. What Matt calls “life-cycle harvesting” extracts multiple uses from a single plant—for example, a nasturtium can be used for its leaves, and its flowers, and its berries, which are like seed pods and can be ground and used as pepper. Back in colonial times, Matt recounted, immature nasturtium seed pods were pickled and tasted much like capers, but were far less expensive.

Other crops, including two dozen varieties of heirloom peppers, a Bohemian heirloom radish and others so proprietary they won’t appear here, set Sparrow Arc apart. This is farming with a splash of scholarship, an eye to both the past and the future that may be part of a ticket to success and longevity.

We drove along the edge of a recently planted field belonging to neighbor Max Morningstar. His 60-plus acres of organic produce, MX Morningstar Farm, will stretch out literally from his backyard. Max came to Copake from a farm he managed in Sudbury, Massachusetts; he and Matt are friends who grew up together in eastern Massachusetts, and both chose farming. That they would end up neighbors in Copake, New York, adds an element of destiny, perhaps, to the story.

The wind battering the plastic of Max’s greenhouse felt like preparation for takeoff, and he asked one of his passing crew to batten down a few edges.

“We’ve been warned about the wind here,” he said with a wry smile.

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Left: Max Morningstar. Right: greenhouse at MX Morningstar Farm.

Max’s focus is on disease-resistant varieties of produce. Herbs and onions, including Cipollini and Ishikura Improved Scallions, were well on their way in the greenhouse. There will be a pick-your-own pumpkin patch and a farm stand on Mountain View Road, and the new Copake Front Porch store, the Berkshire Co-op Market, and local CSAs and restaurants will also carry his produce. The greenhouse will be enlarged later in the season to accommodate lettuces into December; a garage just behind will be transformed into a giant rinsing station.

Max’s great-grandfather had a dairy farm in New Jersey and so his grandfather knew firsthand how tough the life could be, and wasn’t thrilled when Max declared his intent to farm. Max wasn’t dissuaded. He sees this as a unique time in agriculture.

“One of the things I find most interesting is that people my age and younger are choosing to become farmers. They’re going to college, and choosing it.”

While the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ’70s had a homesteading bent, now it seems more about the farming, he believes—a passion for food, and a sense of how it all fits in the bigger environmental picture.

Tiny Hearts flower farmers Jenny Elliott and Luke Franco moved up to Copake from Westchester, where they had one acre on a handshake lease and couldn’t afford housing. Now their 10 acres will yield cut flowers destined for farmers’ markets, CSAs and special events—mostly in Westchester, so not a threat to local growers—and they have a house to live in, to boot.

“This project has given us the means to actually run the farm we’ve envisioned,” Jenny said. “We have enough farmland to grow what we want without limitation—we can practice good crop rotation, and have access to water, electricity, a greenhouse.” Theirs is the permanent greenhouse on the property, shared for the moment and full to bursting.

The average age of the farmers is early 30s, but there is experience backing up their passion and enthusiasm. Matt, Heather and Max have been farming for about 10 years, and Jenny and Luke, about seven. They know how to farm, as Max says; now it’s about building community.

And that’s where Bob and Northeast Farm Access will offer support and the benefit of their experience working on hundreds of projects throughout the Northeast. The farmers will have access to farm-business training and a program called Scaling Up, farmer-to-farmer skill building, is planned; the effort is viewed as a likely template for other projects, in the Northeast or anywhere.

While the fields must be fenced to keep out deer, a dozen locust-wood gates will be open to the public dawn to dusk. Bob likens it to a working park, and the community supporting it is encouraged to come right in and walk through—see it, smell it, be a part of the rebirth that is taking root in the center of Copake. If you’d like further information or interested in being an investor, visit NEFarmAccess.com. You can also send questions to Laura@nefarmaccess. com, or call 603.355.6600.

Brigid Dorsey is a freelance writer and editor living in Columbia County. Her C.V. includes teaching, consulting, not-for-profit and corporate stints; she holds a PhD in French from Princeton. Read more of her work, and see her locally sourced, small batch jelly and preserves, les collines, at: Facebook.com/thelifeipicked?

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