A dynamic new farming project called Esopus Agricultural Center, developed by Northeast Farm Access, LLC, and funded by 12 individual impact investors, closed in August 2016 on its first 214-acre parcel, just off Ulster Avenue in Ulster. The plan for the historic former Chambers Farm immediately drew praise from local officials.
Four experienced farmer-lessees, each attracted by the stability of 30-year leases, were on the land by September 2016. As of 2018 growing season, two of those have expanded, and two new farms have replaced the other former lessees.
Tyler Dennis’s Alewife Farm is thriving on its 48 acres at Esopus, up from 31 in 2017, already reaping the benefits of ambitious cover-cropping efforts and also harvesting an impressive crop of peas (above) in May from transplants grown in his high tunnels.
“Though we’re growing mostly the same vegetable crops as in 2017,” says Tyler, “we are doing more of everything, especially carrots.” He’s planning for 8 acres of fall carrots (up from 4 last year), for example.
Creek Iversen at Seed Song Farm continues to engage the local community and connect them to the Esopus land in various ways, from his annual seedling sales to summer camp sessions for children and more.
Allora Farm and Flowers’ Amanda Kingsley, new in 2018, is subleasing from Seed Song this year, and plans to lease 8 acres starting next, for heritage herbs and more to sell to local stores and restaurants.
Ever-Growing Family Farm will lease 4 acres in 2018 for a first planting of several varieties of rice on wetlands adjacent to the Resource Protection Area.
The Chambers Farm acquisition was the third such NEFA effort in the Hudson Valley in as many years, joining Copake (founded 2014, 192 acres) and Chester (2015, 270 acres). All NEFA centers adhere to organic-management practices.
NEFA’s innovative model identifies and acquires prime farmland, using funds from impact investments—commitments intended to generate a measurable social and/or environmental benefit along with a financial return. In collaboration with Scenic Hudson Land Trust Inc., the largest environmental group focused on the Hudson River Valley, easements providing perpetual conservation are developed on each NEFA property, so that it can transition to a forever farm.
“As someone born and raised on a farm, I understand how important local farms are to our county’s economy,” said Ulster County Executive Mike Hein at the time of the Chambers closing. “It’s exciting to see new investment and creative new farm business models taking root here, and I’m thrilled to welcome Northeast Farm Access to Ulster County.
“To ensure local farming continues to thrive, we need projects like the Esopus Agricultural Center,” Hein added. “Through NEFA’s efforts, experienced farmers can grow or expand sustainable farm businesses, which in turn will contribute to our communities by adding jobs, providing access to healthy food, and protecting our County’s natural and scenic resources.”
The Chambers Farm is uniquely situated between a diversity of natural habitats and intensive human development. The large, flat expanse of organically certified prime Unadilla, Scio, Raynham and Tioga soils, plus tracts of woodland, are set in a peri-urban environment; neighbors include a senior housing complex, shopping center, golf course, single-family homes—even the Thruway. Just as surprising are the adjacent natural habitats, including the Esopus Creek, mature forest, wetlands, agricultural margins, and Bear Cat Kill.
“Besides its obvious potential to create tons of fresh, clean, local food, and allow our farmers to grow their businesses,” said Bob Bernstein, NEFA founder and managing director, “we’re most excited about the potential for becoming a hub of the community in other ways—as an experiential farm-park on the edge of the city. NEFA is committed to enhancing both the natural and social ecology of the area around each of its centers.”
Native-plant insectary strips abuzz with pollinators (part of NEFA’s larger Northeast Agroecology Program); a nonprofit educational center alive with farm-based learning opportunities, and more are planned, Bernstein added. (Above photo, farmers and friends sowing buckwheat in one reclaimed field, spring 2018.)
“We at the Kingston Land Trust are very excited to learn of the purchase of the Chambers Farm,” said Kevin McEvoy, Vice Chair of Kingston Land Trust Inc. “The farmlands in the Esopus Creek plain surrounding Kingston have a long and productive history, which was key to the early economic development of the area. Bringing agriculture back to this site, which is in close proximity to urbanized areas, is consistent with the strategic goals of our organization and promises to be a key component to sustainable economic activity going forward.”
OUR INVESTMENT STRUCTURE
NEFA is a mission-oriented, community-based development and management company. We bring together social, financial, and environmental or “natural” capital, using community-based approaches that create farmland and farmhouse security, equity and legacy. Our model of “forever farms” strives to break the cycle of farm loss during inter-generational and other transitions to develop a community-focused approach to owning and leasing farm assets. The project will be owned by a multi-member limited-liability coalition of investors, including impact investors, foundations, farmers, and other stakeholders.
NEFA purchases farmland, infrastructure, and farmer housing, and leases those properties to experienced farmers on a long-term basis. Everyone builds equity and works together to create equitable relationships. NEFA’s Centers partner with non-profit organizations, such as local conservation land trusts, to place layers of integrated easements on the properties to ensure they remain in agriculture permanently.
THE 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, specializing in LLC matters and impact-investor relations.
- 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.
- Kahlil Lozoraitis—Ombudsman and development director.