Situated on more than 270 acres of Orange County’s famously productive black dirt, the Chester Agricultural Center is conserving prime farmland while putting it to its best use: growing clean, local food using organic management practices. NEFA is proud to have facilitated the formation of the Center in fall 2014, in partnership with the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Orange County Land Trust and others, with its mission of farms, food and fairness.
The Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, a private family foundation in Mountainville, NY, has since taken the lead role in the ongoing operations of this important project on the unusual prime muck or black-dirt soil of the area.
The Center is working to address regional farmer and farmworker issues, and re-develop with local stakeholders a thriving community. Area farmers, leaders and others have already stepped forward in support.
The Center promotes greater awareness among farmers, workers, social investors and the community of the challenges and opportunities in the current farm-labor economy. Good labor practices are placed front and center as the Center promotes sustainable agricultural practices. Remaining mindful of the often-tenuous financial viability of small- and mid-scale family farms, the Center puts forth values and practices for farmer lessees that are intended to engender greater fairness and equity for farmworkers.
POTENTIAL FOR WIDER IMPACT
The Center is uniquely situated on prime muck soil or “black dirt,” formed when the region’s first farmers drained glacial lakes with a system of ditches in the 1860’s. By supporting organic research and demonstrating the viability of organic practices on such land, there is the opportunity to make a tremendous environmental impact not only on the Chester Agricultural Center, but also on the entire black-dirt region.
Although its structure makes this soil unsuitable for construction, which alleviates development pressure, black-dirt soil creates specific conservation and environmental-management issues for agriculture. Wetlands, ditches and other water-management infrastructure need to be properly maintained to protect crops from floods and droughts, and the high weed pressure on these organic soils must be controlled for viable yields. Currently, most black-dirt farmers rely heavily on herbicides; very few utilize organic practices.
CHESTER NEIGHBORS AND PARTNERS
- Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Inc., a private family foundation in Mountainville, NY.
- Orange County Land Trust, whose mission is to “preserve the fields, forests, wetlands, ridge lines, and river corridors in and around Orange County, New York.”
- Blooming Hill Farm, a neighboring organic vegetable farm, also on black dirt.
- Local and regional officials.
Dirty Boots Farm: Shayna Lewis and partner Matt Hunger farm about 6 acres of vegetables. They built a neighborhood CSA in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and are selling at a local farmer’s market.
Rise & Root Farm: Rise & Root Farm is a 3-acre vegetable farm scaling up to 25 acres over the next few years. It is run cooperatively by an all-star team of six veteran urban farmers and community activists: Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, Karen Washington, D. Rooney, Michaela Hayes, and Maggie Cheney.
Sun Sprout Farm: Simon Ziegler and Madeleine Banulski plan to start a 20-acre organic vegetable farm in 2016; greenhouses are up, equipment on site and cover crops in the ground. They will supply a variety of markets including CSA, farmers’ markets, wholesale and seed production.
Verdant Common Growers: Travis Jones grew up working on Blooming Hill Farm, the first organic farm on Chester black dirt. Along with his partner, Valita Durkin, and brothers Austin and Skyler, his new Verdant operation grew 15 acres of mixed vegetables in 2015 and worked to transition another 20-30 toward organic certification.
NEFA INVESTMENT STRUCTURE
NEFA brings together social, financial, and environmental capital to develop a community-focused approach to owning and leasing farm assets. Each NEFA center is held in an LLC by a coalition of financial investors, including impact investors, foundations, farmers, and other stakeholders. Each LLC purchases farmland, infrastructure, and farmer housing, and leases those properties to experienced farmers on a long-term basis. Each center partners with non-profit organizations, such as local land trusts, to place conservation easements on the properties and ensure they remain in agriculture permanently.
NEFA PROJECT TEAM
- Bob Bernstein—Founder and Managing Director of Northeast Farm Access, LLC, experienced facilitator and convener dedicated to community-based development and conserving working farms.
- Amanda Fuller—Chief Financial Officer, with a commercial real-estate finance background, brings traditional long-term leasing tools and strategy to new farmland-investment concepts.
- Jacob Meyer—Legal Counsel for Northeast Farm Access, LLC.
- Karen Fitzgerald—Landscape Architect with 25 years of experience in farm design and planning.
- Jon Jaffe—Vice President of Farm Credit East, farm financial advisor.
(Photo credit: Robert Rodriguez Jr. for aerial photography.)