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Copake Ag Center A Big Opportunity For Small Farmers

Jenny Elliott of Tiny Hearts Farm on the “new” 1951 tractor.

By Nichole Dupont

Pop open any regional real estate guide, and you will notice a cornucopia of old Victorians, rambling farmhouses and beautiful New England vistas. But the real estate that Monet would deem as priceless, in fact, comes with a hefty tag that for decades has threatened to push small farmers right out of the market and out of business. Yet, this region is fast-becoming a farm hub where growers, eaters, markets and restaurants collide and no one wants to see that human ecosystem break because of pricey land. Enter Northeast Farm Access (NEFA), a farm consulting organization (based in Keene, NH) — comprised of veteran community developers, loan underwriters, attorneys and farmers — that connects investors with farmers and farmers with land (and resources) from Maine to New York.

Project map of the Copake Ag Center.

“Our goal is to find farmland for farmers and to decrease the loss of good farmland,” says Laura Hartz, NEFA’s Director of Operations. “Usually we approach some kind of farm that is in transition and facing a critical decision, and see if we can work with the seller to make sure it stays on as a farm.”

NEFA’s latest project is the Copake Agricultural Center, a 197-acre amalgamation of land that crosses the town’s center. The organization and its investors closed on the land in December of last year, and despite the still-frozen ground, the Center became a hot ticket for those looking to farm in the area.

“We had about a dozen farmer applicants almost immediately,” Hartz says. “It’s a huge opportunity, when you think about what the lease — a long lease —includes: affordable housing, proximity to market, good soil and access to water. We’ve got some pretty excited farmers.”

Enthusiasm is great, but securing a long-term lease at the Copake Ag Center requires a lot more than a desire to sow some seeds and wear flannel year-round. Hartz says that when NEFA staffers were sifting through the applications, certain requirements — some flexible, some firm — were a must. For starters, farmers had to fit the USDA definition of a beginning farmer; one who hadn’t farmed for more than 10 years consecutively and who was willing to substantially contribute day-to-day labor on the farm. Definitely not a problem for Luke Franco and Jenny Elliott, owner/operators of Tiny Hearts Farm, a cut flower (and dried and hanging) business that had its base at a one-acre plot in Westchester. They jumped at the opportunity to join the Copake Ag Center. But don’t let their fresh faces fool you; Franco and Elliott are savvy growers with a veteran’s vision.

Tiny Hearts Farm stand at Cold Spring market (first market of 2014).

“Jenny trained for four years as a veggie grower, but we looked at who was doing what and we found it; our niche. Cut flowers,” Franco says. “The response was just amazing. We were surprised. You can’t live on bread alone and flowers feed a whole other part of our existence. If you look at the whole farm-to-table movement, the flower industry is super behind the curve. You still get wholesale, imported blooms that are loaded with fumigants and fertilizers and the scent has been bred right out of them. Sitting there in a vase next to your local, organic greens and grass-fed local beef.”

Since moving to the new plot in Copake (with room, lots of room, to grow), Tiny Hearts Farm may soon just be a name, as Franco and Elliott — both music majors before they were called to the soil — have a business plan that includes acres of dahlias and peonies, weddings galore and more farmers markets. Just recently, the duo made their first major farm purchase: a 1951 Farmall Super C tractor.

Max of MX Morningstar Farm prepping seedlings.

“We’re tripling production this year and we’ve got a lot more land to farm. That tractor is a beast,” Franco says, laughing. “It’s definitely a seat-of-my-pants learning curve. The other farmers have been very helpful with the tractor.”

Those other farmers include MX Morningstar, a 62-acre vegetable outfit and Sparrow Arc, also a vegetable producer originally from Portland, Maine. The farmers, despite being independent growers, end up spending a lot of time together sharing equipment, storage facilities and advice, and this is exactly what NEFA wants, especially in a region where big developers froth at the mouth when they catch wind of a possible farm for sale.

“We’ve had the support of so many different conservation groups to help us secure easements on the [Copake] property. They are critical partners in all ways,” Hartz says. “This is multilayered; it benefits everything from the local food system to species diversity. I don’t see it as a trend. People want to farm. They are choosing to farm.”

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Posted by Nichole on 05/25/14 at 11:12 PM • Permalink