Jul 1, 2018
When it comes to preserving historical properties, shouldn’t we apply the same logic as respecting our elders to our venerable farmlands as well?
When it comes to preserving historical properties, shouldn’t we apply the same logic as respecting our elders to our venerable farmlands as well? The 175-acre Laughing Earth Farm in Cropseyville, New York, has been actively farmed for 200 years, and as of December 2017, has been protected by a land conservation easement to be designated as farmland forever. The easement came about as a result of HVADC and its partner The Agricultural Stewardship Association (ASA) working with the current farmers to preserve their land for future agricultural use.
Laughing Earth Farm dates back to early America 1700s, owned by the Morrison family, and is found on the New York State register of historic places. The farm is also home to the Morrison family cemetery, recently renovated by the Brunswick Historical Society.
Young farmers Annie and Zack Metzger of Illinois are now farming the property as Laughing Earth Farm, so-named for a well-loved line in a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem about how “earth laughs in flowers.” Neither Annie nor Zack began their careers in farming—however soon into their initial careers, they both felt called to it. Zack began working on farms during the summer months of his teaching job, and Annie soon followed by leaving her Chicago-based job doing rare plant research that she described as “not a good fit.” Zack attributed his zeal for farming to the book “Animal and Vegetable Miracle—A Year of Food Life,” by Barbara Kingsolver. “Then when I met Annie, we got married and ran away to work on a farm.”
The couple settled in Annie’s family’s county; Rensselear County, on the property that would become Laughing Earth Farm. Zack served as the farm manager for the retiring farming couple, until he and Annie were able to buy it, one year later. HVADC was able to connect the young couple with the legal technical assistance through its Incubator Without Walls (IWW) program. HVADC has helped more than 200 agri-related businesses with a variety of business development and technical assistance services through IWW over the span of the program’s existence. HVADC also connected the couple with ASA.
ASA offers landowners the ability to preserve their land for future agriculture or forestry uses through several options, including a property easement, based on the goals of the landowner, the characteristics of the land, location and funding ability. Methods could include the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR), private bargain sale, donated easement or an outright donation of land.
“We are focusing on the soil of the farm,” said Annie, who explained that protecting the history of the farm’s heritage and its soil was important to the couple, as they work to improve the quality of the soil for the future, as well as preserve its centuries-old farm history in similar livestock and vegetable production. Laughing Earth does “pastured” poultry, flowers, pork and vegetable farm shares, with all of the poultry certified organic by NOFA-NY, pastured for as much of their lives as possible, and eating a certified organic ration. “We generally get them as day-old chicks, and keep them indoors in a ‘brooder’ until they have enough feathers and are old enough to withstand the temperatures and weather of the outdoors. Then they spend the rest of their lives getting rotated to fresh pasture, where they dine on bugs, grass, and clover.” Unlike many other livestock farms, Laughing Earth has its own New York inspected poultry processing facility on the farm. “It was a lot of work, but Zack is really good,” Annie said. Customers can order fresh chicken to pick up on farm or we sell it frozen year-round. “Usually we do 100-150 turkeys per season for the weekend before Thanksgiving—I feel that is something not a lot of people offer.” Laughing Earth also has 50 pigs available in the fall or at farm markets.
The ASA is a community-supported land trust dedicated to protecting Washington and Rensselear farmlands from encroaching development, with a goal to protect 24,000 acres by the end of 2020. To buy the farm and establish their ASA easement, Zack and Annie worked with ASA Executive Director Teri Ptacek and ASA Project Manager Chris Krahling, as well as Scenic Hudson and Equity Trust. The couple closed on the transaction at the end of 2015, and had the conservation easement in place about a year later.
“This partnership project was a land-access, great success for a young farming couple,” said Ptacek. “It was a wonderful partnership project,” who explained that Equity Trust provided the funding for the right to purchase, Scenic Hudson provided a 25% matching grant for which ASA applied and facilitated, and holds the land easement. Ptacek added that Farm Credit provided the loan to Zack and Annie so they could purchase the land before the actual funding came through, so they provided a bridge loan.
“HVADC was instrumental in providing technical assistance which helped guide the process from taking it from the owners that were retiring to the young couple who wanted to purchase it. HVADC was an incredibly important part of this; they facilitated dialogue and consensus, and provided legal representation that Zack and Annie needed,” said Ptacek.
“Acquiring land to farm is one of the biggest challenges beginning farmers face. HVADC appreciates being part of the team that helped Zack and Annie finalize a deal that secures land for them and future generations to farm,” said Mary Ann Johnson, Deputy Director of HVADC.
Ptacek explained the Metzgers placed a preemptive Right to Purchase—a tool that offers an additional layer in the form of another deed restriction—on the property, on top of the easement. She explained that the easement covers the land from being developed, however it still can be sold to anyone with the deed restriction. The additional preemptive Right to Purchase means that the land is earmarked for ag use only, and cannot be turned into an estate. The farmer must sell the property to either another eligible family member or another farmer, and if they do not, ASA has the right as the holders of the deed restriction to purchase it at its agricultural value and then sell it to a farmer as an ag-property. Ptacek emphasized the importance of the additional restriction. “It keeps the land in farming, for farmers because it makes sure that it will always be sold to a farmer at the agricultural value… It is a great way to keep protected land from becoming an estate. This is timely because legislation passed that allows [New York State Department of] Agriculture and Markets to use this tool along with an agricultural conservation easement. It is a way to protect the investment the state has made.”
For more information please visit them on our Hudson Valley Bounty list at Laughing Earth Farm.
For more information about ASA, please see https://www.agstewardship.org/
Photo Source: Laughing Earth Farm Facebook;
Logo Source: Agricultural Stewardship Association