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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Farmland Match Links New Farmers with Available Land in Westchester

Feb 23, 2014 06:07PM

These are exciting times for local agriculture. People are paying attention to where their food comes from—who grows it and how it is grown—because they care about the long-term health of their families and communities. They know that locally grown food is fresher and more nutritious, and it’s important to them that their food is grown in healthy soil nurtured by a clean environment. So improving access to locally grown food—making wholesome food more affordable while boosting the local economy—just makes sense.

We all eat, and we all have a role to play in supporting area farms. As our appetite for local food continues to grow, it is more important than ever to cultivate opportunities for the farmers who will produce that food. 

That’s just what Westchester Land Trust is doing.

Since its founding in 1988, Westchester Land Trust (WLT) has worked with private landowners, municipalities and policymakers to permanently protect more than 7,500 acres in 28 communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties. The protected area covers some 530 square miles and is home to nearly a million people. It extends from Long Island Sound and the Bronx 45 miles north to the northern boundary of eastern Putnam County.

Four years ago, WLT broadened its mission by launching the Farmland Match Program, an initiative to make arable land available to new farmers. 

A foothold for new farms

As public awareness about food and farming has grown, more young people from non-farm backgrounds are considering careers in agriculture. But they often lack the financial resources to buy land and equipment, not to mention the operating funds to start farming. For many new farmers, simply finding available land is a huge challenge.

Meanwhile, more and more private, public and organizational landowners want to make land available for farming. They want farmers to find them.

To meet these challenges, WLT has developed the Farmland Match Program, which links property holders with farmland seekers. WLT works with both sides to help them consider options and structure successful tenancy arrangements. 

Unlike most established farmers, who may own land as well as rent it from other landowners, a beginning farmer—usually defined as someone with 10 years or fewer of farming experience—may depend completely on leased farmland. Leasing gives a new farmer access to the land without the heavy upfront and ongoing expense of buying it.

Leasing allows new farmers to learn how to run a farm while they put their money toward operating costs and, eventually, buying land. But when a farmer leases land without a clear agreement on tenure, the arrangement is almost always fatal. Secure tenure is crucial to a farmer’s ability to access capital and purchase needed equipment and supplies.

Five years of matchmaking

Heading into the fifth season of the Farmland Match Program, WLT is revisiting existing matches and evaluating ways to better support these partnerships and foster ingenuity and resilience. It is also working with stakeholders in 12 New York counties to aggregate their land-linking efforts in a single online portal that would serve as a farm property clearinghouse for the greater Hudson Valley region.

WLT has critical insight into the Farmland Match because it is one of the landowners participating in the program. Its Bedford Hills headquarters is one of five community gardens located on institutional sites as varied as a county corrections facility and the New York School for the Deaf.  Each site produces a unique selection of organic produce under the guidance of a farmer who also happens to be a salaried Food Bank staffer.  (That farmer is Douglass DeCandia—read about his Food Growing Program, on page 24) All produce raised at these sites is distributed to area emergency food programs and agencies.  

WLT founded the Farmland Match Program on the hunch that Westchester could be an incubator for new farmers. Now the program is feeding WLT’s overall conservation mission, as promoting sustainable agriculture clearly informs broader discussions on local land use.

 Interest in the Farmland Match Program extends well beyond new farmers and owners of agriculturally viable land. WLT’s Vegchester! brand—created in 2013—was developed as a way to promote the values of sustainable agriculture locally and celebrate the growing success of small farms in Westchester County.  Vegchester! Farmers can be found at your favorite area farmers markets, restaurants and shops. 

For more info about the Farmland Match Program, Vegchester! and other initiatives of the Westchester Land Trust, visit westchesterlandtrust.org.