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 historic former Chambers Farm will become the anchor location of the Esopus Agricultural Center, LLC, envisioned to include multiple area properties. The project immediately drew praise from local officials.
Four experienced farmer-lessees (detailed below), each attracted by the stability of 30-year leases, were on the land by September 2016.
The Esopus center is the third NEFA effort in the Hudson Valley in as many years, joining Copake (founded 2014, 192 acres, four farmer-lessees) and Chester (2015, 270 acres, five lessees). 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. “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 Center’s first parcel 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.”
The Esopus Agricultural Center’s playing field will continue to welcome public use; some two miles of bike and walking farm paths in and around the center will also invite engagement. 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.
“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.”
For all NEFA’s farmer-lessees, secure long-term tenure on prime land that’s strategically situated near key markets is a game-changer.
“We at Breezy Hill Orchard and Stone Ridge Orchard are thrilled to part of this innovative and historic farm project,” said Elizabeth Ryan, a longtime leader in Hudson Valley agriculture. “To be farming on one of the oldest farms in Ulster County in one of the oldest urban centers in New York is simply amazing. Access to these wonderful soils is a dream come true, and will allow us to further our commitment to organic farming. NEFA is a remarkable group and they should be commended for their commitment to supporting and expanding farming as a way of life in the Hudson Valley.”
The first farmer-lessees at the new center:
Stone Ridge Orchard: Elizabeth Ryan’s team will grow about 25 acres of vegetables and perennials (such as asparagus, rhubarb, and berries) to complement their current array of orchard products from her highly regarded Stone Ridge Orchard and Breezy Hill Farm.
Rosette Salad Company: This division of M&R Salads, a specialist in spring-mix salad greens that sells to markets and supermarket chains, will lease about 25 acres.
Seed Song Farm: Creek Iversen and co-workers, leasing about 90 acres, will grow 40 kinds of vegetables, including for a pick-your-own operation. Along with other community groups, their proposed non-profit Seed Song Farm Center will conduct extensive on-farm education and events.
Alewife Farm: Tyler Dennis and co-workers will lease about 22 acres for a diversified vegetable operation, which sells through greenmarkets in NYC.
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 Esopus Center 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.