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Fighting land insecurity, Berkshire Community Land Trust enters final phase of campaign to secure River Run for Off the Shelf Farm

The small-scale farms that grow the food we love to buy at farmers' markets, and perhaps take for granted, are not guaranteed.

Great Barrington — When Anna Houston and Rob Perazzo started Off the Shelf Farm (purveyors of those tasty egg sandwiches at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market) in 2018, they were scattered all over the county on any little parcel of land they could find to lease. Eggs got washed in their shower or garage. Other local farmers—Molly Comstock of Colfax Farm—had lost their land under similarly precarious “handshake leases.”

When the property on North Plain Road in Housatonic known as River Run Farm went on the market, Anna Houston approached Jane Iredale, one of her market customers, about it. Houston saw how perfect the land was for agriculture and just wanted to see it saved, not necessarily for herself; she just didn’t want it to become another estate. According to Sarah Downie of Berkshire Community Land Trust (BCLT), the land was at risk of development as a solar field or gravel pit.

Via BCLT’s Farmsteads for Farmers program, Jane Iredale agreed to purchase River Run, and BCLT would raise the funds to purchase it from her. The land trust would then lease it to the farmers under a low-cost 98-year lease, keeping it farmland in perpetuity. Taxes are incorporated and paid by the land trust. “We’re not removing land from the tax rolls,” explains Beth Carlson, campaign manager for Farmsteads for Farmers. Farmers own the buildings and can build equity “without the burden of land debt, and that’s particularly important because farmers using rotational grazing and regenerative practices aren’t able to get the product yield per square foot out of a farm that can offset the cost of land at current prices in the Berkshires.”

At River Run, Off the Shelf farm has a consolidated home base to produce their pasture-raised, rotationally-grazed chickens. Photo by Beth Carlson.

The insistence on regenerative soil practices makes BCLT distinct from other farmland projects. Off the Shelf Farm rotates laying hens, meat chickens, lambs, and, this year, also cattle and turkey, trying to mimic the style of grazing that has always existed, says Houston. She and Pelazzo moved onto River Run in May of 2023 and have been raising their animals there, but BCLT still needs to raise $395,000 to purchase the $1.25 million property and close the deal.

It has received two grants of $100,000 from family foundations and $300,000 from Great Barrington’s Community Preservation Act funds. Jane Iredale has put an additional $400,000 of improvements into the property, which will be mortgaged back to her, as Houston and Pelazzo are buying the house.

The initial payment deadline of May 2024 has been extended to December, but the sooner BCLT can raise the funds, the sooner it can keep on buying land to help other farmers facing land insecurity and get more young farmers onto the land doing regenerative farming. Eric Aulicino, on the board of the land trust, notes that they are “constantly in discussions with people who either want to donate their land or sell it close to appraised value.”

Houston says that having a home base and being able to consolidate their operations has been “game changing.” Before, looking to start a family, they wondered if it was feasible to keep doing what they loved. Now, with the help of a generous state grant, they have been able to invest in a barn and some infrastructure and expand what they do. “Simple things like having a bathroom for our staff and a space to process our food,” says Houston, have been amazing.

A wildflower in the grazing field at River Run. Photo by Beth Carlson.

Land is just one part of the equation, though, as Houston and other panelists discussed after a May screening at The Triplex of “Kiss the Ground,” a film about regenerative farming. The small-scale farms that grow the food we love to buy at farmers’ markets, and perhaps take for granted, are not guaranteed. Given the mountainous landscape, Houston points out, “it’s harder to till up a 1,000-acre plot of land like they’re doing in the Midwest, but that is happening here and in the northeast; it’s just on a much smaller scale. There’s a lot of corn and soy that is grown right in this county.”

How to grow consumer demand for the type of food and farming that Houston believes in, and make it profitable, is the hard part. Meat raised with rotational grazing comes at a “much higher price point.”

Will Conklin and his wife Amelia Conklin raise high-quality meat on Sky View Farm in Sheffield, on land first purchased by his great-grandparents. But it wasn’t making a “meaningful amount of income,” and he wasn’t interested in raising the prices. They have since gotten into a “more business-oriented venture” with timber and forest products.

Conklin relates an anecdote about going to hear Wendell Berry, who, when asked by a student how he could become a farmer, told him, “Well, first get a town job.” Conklin also recalls how the “ebbs and flows of the dairy industry as related to policy” directly influenced his grandfather and others to get out of dairy in the 1980s. Even more than consumer decisions, “policies that so drastically affect the way we consume” play a huge role, and who we elect to make them.

Elizabeth Keen, who started Indian Line Farm in 1996 under the same kind of long-term lease deal with BCLT and The Nature Conservancy, pointed to the hurdle of housing costs. “Having a hard time keeping my labor force housed here affects my ability to farm,” she said, adding that we need “any and all creative solutions to keep folks working here and being able to live here.”

Conklin, who also directs Greenagers, testified that “young folks really are interested in doing this type of work. What I’ve seen is, given the opportunity, there are lots of young folks who are quite happy to get outdoors and work with each other.” We need to “make sure we’re offering opportunities for young people to engage in these conversations and with the soil because it really works … and we also just need a ton more of everybody knowing what to eat and buy.”

Houston echoes, “The biggest issue is, where’s the next generation going to go? They want to be doing outdoor work, farming, but they can’t afford to live here, even rent, let alone buy a farm or any sort of acreage. How are we cultivating the future? We’re not.”

“We are the current poster children for this project,” she remarks, “but it’s important to remember this land will go to another farmer, will go to the next generation.”

Donations can be made to Farmsteads for Farmers to complete the purchase of River Run Farm.

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