Want a glimpse into the future of farming in the Hudson Valley? Come to the open house at the Esopus Agricultural Center this Saturday afternoon, October 8, from 1 to 4 p.m., and meet some of the farmers, investors and organizers who are creating a new collaborative model designed to keep small-scale farming sustainable for the long term — economically as well as ecologically.
The 200 Esopus Avenue site in the Town of Ulster is a 214-acre parcel on the east side of the Esopus Creek, west of Ulster Avenue, south of Boices Lane and north of the Green Acres Golf Club. It’s close to the Thruway, developed residential areas, TechCity and the shopping malls of Route 9W.
This land has remained rich riparian farmland since the earliest days of European settlement: Formerly known as the Chambers Farm, it was part of a huge land grant awarded to captain Thomas Chambers in recognition of his leadership in freeing the captives taken in the 1663 uprising by the Esopus band of the native Lenape people (an expedition that led to the settling of New Paltz by some of its participants).
Although there are some structures on the land, frequent flooding has deterred development there over the intervening centuries. One happy result is that the rich alluvial soil of the Esopus Valley doesn’t need remediation to support organic farming. That helped to bring it to the attention of Northeast Farm Access, LLC (NEFA), a New Hampshire-based “mission-oriented” development and management company founded by Bob Bernstein. A Mahopac native, Bernstein spent most of his 40-year career in the not-for- profit world, doing community economic development work, mostly involving affordable housing, but “I switched to farming about 20 years ago,” he says.
In 2002 he started an organization called Land for Good that concentrated on helping financially stressed New England farm families do succession planning instead of selling off their land. But years of working with the limited resources of not-for-profit land trusts convinced Bernstein that a new public-private partnership model was needed to bring socially conscious investors together with organic farmers in such a way that would buffer the economic risks of farming and keep land in agriculture.
“Farmers need long-term security to invest in land and build equity,” he says. So two years ago he founded NEFA, with the intent to create “farmland … security, equity and legacy” through a community-focused approach to owning and leasing farm assets.
“We position ourselves over the line into the for-profit sector, but we’re very much mission-driven,” Bernstein explains. “We’re just across the aisle from nonprofits.”
Searches for appropriate parcels of land in northern New England proved fruitless, and NEFA’s first demonstration project was in the Hudson Valley, 192 acres in Copake in Columbia County. A second one quickly followed in Chester, in Orange County’s Black Dirt countryside, encompassing 270 acres.
The Chambers Farm had been purchased in 2004 by the Herzog Supply Company and left fallow through several years of negotiations with Kingston’s school district, which had been eyeing it as a potential site for relocating Kingston High School. That deal fell through in the face of taxpayer opposition, and Herzog ended up leasing some of the land to the Rosette Salad Company, which raises “spring mix” salad greens in several states for distribution to supermarkets.
This past August, NEFA, closed on its purchase of the Chambers Farm from Herzog. The deal was financed by a consortium of 12 locally based investors who Bernstein said are more interested in preserving “natural capital” than in making a killing on their investments. The Scenic Hudson Land Trust helped with the planning, drawing up conservation easements that put legal constraints on development of the land in perpetuity.
The Rosette Salad Company is now one of four local farming operations about to sign renewable 30-year leases on sections of the property — in its case, for about 25 acres. The others are Elizabeth Ryan of Stone Ridge Orchard and Breezy Hill Farm, who will grow vegetables and perennials on about 25 acres; Tyler Dennis, whose Alewife Farm will lease about 22 acres to grow vegetables for greenmarkets in New York City; and Creek Iversen’s Seed Song Farm, leasing about 90 acres for a sod farm, a pick-your-own operation and a not-for-profit education center and community gardens that Bernstein characterizes as an “agro-park.” (Seed Song Farm is having a “farmwarming” of its own from 1-4 on Saturday at its 160 Esopus Avenue site.)
The site’s proximity to urban food deserts is part of what makes it appealing to NEFA’s socially conscious “impact investors,” according to Bernstein. “We want to promote broader affordable access to fresh organic food,” he says. “It couldn’t be more local.”
Parts of the property will be also set aside for “agro-ecology” functions such as beekeeping to preserve the land’s environmental health and species diversity, or kept wooded or planted with perennials to prevent erosion of floodplain soils.
The Esopus Agricultural Center site is only the first phase in what Bernstein and his team envision as a multi-site operation within a 15-to- 20-mile radius. According to NEFA’s Kahlil Lozoraitis, the Rondout Valley is a likely area for a second site.
“We’re looking for one or two more non-contiguous parcels at a similar scale,” says Bernstein, meaning about 200 acres each of prime tillable land, suitable for organic certification in the near term. “We’re focused on not subdividing.”
For now, the former Chambers Farm is the anchor location for the Esopus Agricultural Center, LLC. While it’s “fully subscribed,” other interested local farmers will soon be invited to undergo a vetting process for leases on the prospective sites.
“We’re looking for experienced growers who are relocating or expanding their operations,” explains Bernstein. “This is not an incubator. It’s a place where they can hatch out.” Lessees must be willing to commit to organic management practices.
Many of the key players in this innovative project will be on hand to talk with the public at Saturday’s open house. To find out more about the Esopus Agricultural Center and NEFA, visit http://nefarmaccess.com.