Landing on their feet: In the search for land, the struggle is real for local farmers
By Steve Holt
Through the trees, the sheep are just visible off to my left—it’s dinnertime for them—as I follow a dusty dirt path down a short hill. The lush tree cover dissipates into a modestly sized, grass-covered field, which, I’d find out later, is where the rabbits will eventually graze. A fawn darts from the woods and makes it nearly across the field before turning about and disappearing back among the trees. Off in the northwest corner of the field, just in front of a modest dwelling surrounded by flowers and flanking a freshly tilled rectangle of dark soil, long tables are set for dinner. Late-day sunlight falls dreamlike on the field, the soil, and the thick trees beyond.
As guests arrive at the Millis farm and begin to mingle, they help themselves to appetizers, beer, and cocktails as a fiddler and banjo picker serenade them. Between conversations with her guests, Katy Riley can’t stop working; she clears an empty serving plate, throws a log on a small campfire, and reattaches a string of lights that has fallen. The night is hers and her farm’s—she’s calling it Tree House Farms—with neighbors and friends from throughout the region paying upwards of $100 a plate (on which they put shiitake risotto and grilled rabbit) to kickstart the 26-year-old’s dream of farming her own land.
“I wouldn’t say I’m 100% qualified—I don’t think anyone is,” says Riley, who has been mentored in farming for the last three years by Vanguarden Farm’s Chris Yoder. “But I’m at a place I won’t ruin it right off the bat.”
Riley estimates that her startup expenses to purchase the sheep, rabbits, and ducks she will raise, as well as feed, and an emergency veterinary fund, are around $5,000, and this late-September “farm-raiser,” as well as a GoFundMe page she set up, has gotten the Texas transplant most of the way there. She’ll continue to rent a small house on the property for about $1,400 a month, which she works down by chopping wood, repairing fences, and tending sheep for the landowner.
Despite the startup costs, Riley is fortunate: she now controls five acres of pristine Massachusetts land in the heart of some of the most fertile soil anywhere in the Commonwealth and long-held by landowners for whom agricultural preservation was paramount. For many other farmers, searching for and acquiring affordable land locally can be a long, demoralizing slog.
“Access to land has been identified as one of the top challenges for new and beginning farmers nationally,” says Kathy Ruhf, senior program director for Land For Good, which works on farmland access issues throughout New England. “It’s not just an issue for new farmers, it’s a challenge for experienced farmers who want to expand their businesses.”
Just ask Kate Canney or Jennifer Hashley, both experienced farmers who are in the thick of long-term land searches for their farms. Canney and wife Jude Zmolek own Needham-based The Neighborhood Farm, probably best known for using residential backyards and several parcels owned by the Trustees of the Reservation to grow hundreds of varieties of vegetables and fresh flowers. She says the couple, who began farming in 2008, has been looking off and on for permanent land since around that time. That search, thus far unsuccessful, intensified in mid-2014 as The Neighborhood Farm hit its “adolescent stage,” outgrew its dispersed model, and needed permanent land to grow the business.
“We have noticed a real increase in demand for locally grown, all-natural food and flowers,” Canney says. “We have maxed out what were able to do with a multiple parcel approach because we lose so much time in moving … we’re looking to find a more traditional-looking farm so we can keep growing.”
Ironically, the biggest barriers preventing Canney and Zmolek from acquiring land has been towns’ strong and often specific land conservation restrictions. For instance, while the farmers are obviously looking for great land with healthy soil for growing their heirloom produce, the ideal piece of land will also need to house specific infrastructure—a greenhouse, a warm winter storage space, a place to house a cooler. But several potential opportunities have fallen through because the land trusts controlling their use prohibit any construction on the land whatsoever, with a few regulating what kinds of agriculture are and are not allowed.
This doesn’t surprise Ruhf. She says Massachusetts has a particularly strong culture of land preservation through trusts, which has certainly been successful in saving thousands of acres from becoming the next mall or cul-de-sac. Still, interest in preserving land specifically for farming differs from trust to trust, she says, and the lack of understanding among some trusts about farming can “create challenges in terms of the restrictions in the [conservation] easement.”
There’s another infrastructure requirement that hampers farmers’ land searches but often goes unrecognized: housing. Some of the state’s most fertile soil happens to be located within the expensive real estate markets of the Boston suburbs, creating a conundrum when farmers can work, but can’t afford to live, in these communities. Canney and Zmolek live in a Dover apartment that is frequently rented affordably to farmers. Other farmers have to get more creative when it comes to shelter. “A friend of mine was living in her greenhouse for the first season,” Riley, of Tree House Farms, recalls.
For Jennifer Hashley, one-half of the husband-wife farming duo that is Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds, the absence of housing on tracts of available land has been particularly frustrating. To raise livestock, living on-site is non-negotiable, especially during harsh winters like last year’s when animals need pretty regular wellness checks. Last summer when they begin looking for new land on which to farm and live, offers for potential farmland in the area started to trickle in throughout the region. Most of these did not include housing, or even a place to build a home on-site, she says, not to mention a lack of winter housing for the animals.
For Hashley, the land search is coming “down to the wire.” She says they’ve looked at as many as 70 potential pieces of land in the region, including four in-depth proposals from landowners, but have not been able to secure a deal. She says they looked at land in Groton, but being roughly 20 miles from Concord, where they are now, Hashley says it’s just too far from their customer base. The business saw a drop in sales and revenue just from relocating their self-serve farm stand earlier this year, Hashley says, illustrating in a frightening way how even small changes can have big impacts on customer habits.
In a similar spot as Pete and Jen, Canney and Zmolek—who estimate that without land of their own, The Neighborhood Farm may only have a couple years left—have looked at land as far away as central Maine, but are still holding out hope that they can remain in the community where they’ve farmed the past seven seasons. “We’re growing for the people right here,” Canney says.
Several nonprofit groups, including Land for Good and New Entry Sustainable Farming Project—which Hashley directs—are working on keeping farms like The Neighborhood Farms and Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds in the communities they serve, as well as connecting new farmers with available land. Hashley and Ruhf are also part of the Land Access Policy Project, which convened in January 2015 to identify policy and innovation needs for improving land access and transfer. Funded by the John Merck Fund, Massachusetts’ working group has already recommended policy changes such as creating a farmland restoration program, educating municipal land trusts on policies to encourage agricultural preservation, and increasing funding in implementing the Agricultural Preservation Act.
What’s more, landowners will play an equal role to policymakers if we are to free up more available Massachusetts land for agriculture. Canney advocates for more general education around agricultural land preservation, because of the “number of landowners out there who simply don’t know that people might want to use their land.” Hashley—who credits the Conservation Law Foundation’s Legal Services Food Hub for providing her pro-bono assistance in the land search—estimates that the number of “rabbit trails” she and her husband have gone down in their thus far unsuccessful land search might be reduced if landowners had a clearer idea of how to value their land, and what they want out of it.
Which brings us full circle to Tree House Farms in Millis. With a dream and a few years’ worth of dirt under her fingernails, Katy Riley has found herself working for a woman with a unique interest in carrying on her late husband’s passion for agricultural land preservation. According to his 2012 Boston Globe obituary, Peter Temple acquired a rickety farmhouse on a few acres in 1954, and didn’t stop buying land until he controlled 85 acres along the serene Bogastow Brook. According to Temple’s son, Peter, the farmer “became pretty well known on the Town Meeting floor for fighting for open space,” and was driven by “an attachment to the land and a love of working the land, and the satisfaction that comes from that.”
Riley says that while she never met Temple, she’s getting to know him through the neighbors he impacted—and the land for which he cared.
"There are traces around the farm where you can really see how much he believed in growing really good food and doing it well,” Riley says. “My plan is to take Peter’s original mission and combine it with my own.”
Steve Holt covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for several local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram: @thebostonwriter.