Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

A New Crop of Farmers

Essex Farmland photo Greg Miller

On the western shores of Lake Champlain, an hour’s drive from the Canadian border, is an isolated corner of New York State with a population of less than 50,000: Essex County. The likelihood that such a place would support a thriving and prosperous sustainable farming community might seem unfounded, but not every rural place has agricultural pioneers like Mark and Kristin Kimball and dedicated families like the Klippers.

The Kimballs began Essex Farm in 2003 as a sustainable, diversified farm and now offers a year-round, full diet, membership to 230 lucky individuals. Essex Farm produces grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken, eggs, 50 kinds of vegetables, milk, grains and flour, fruits, herbs, maple syrup and soap—an effort powered by 15 solar panels, nine draft horses, three tractors and 10 full-time farmers.

The Kimballs’ sustainable small-scale operation has attracted many new farmers interested in learning from their success. Mark and Kristin have trained and mentored more than 50 farmers who have started more than 10 new farms. In 2012, Essex Farm Institute was formalized, with OSI acting as its fiscal sponsor through the Citizen Action Program.

New farmers face significant challenges. One is finding affordable farmland on which to grow a business; many new farmers lack the credit history necessary to secure financing. Farmers who lease land need assurance that they can work the land long enough to warrant capital investments in fencing, barns, tractors and greenhouses.

Fortunately for the Champlain Valley, the Klipper family had a vision to address this concern as well as protect open space and forestland. OSI launched the Champlain Valley land conservation program in December 2012 with a $1.2 million gift from the Klipper Fund matched by $500,000 from OSI. “Fortunately for the Champlain Valley, the Klipper family had a vision to address this concern as well as protect open space and forestlands.

“There is a whole crop of farmers who are choosing to work the land, who embrace a back-to-the-land ethic and are changing the way we think about food. Whether it’s economically driven or a phenomenon all to itself, the Champlain Valley is a perfect place to be doing this.” said Nat Klipper, who established the Klipper Family Fund in 2012 with a $1.2 million gift matched with $500,000 from OSI.

The Champlain Valley land conservation program builds on OSI’s decades of experience in structuring land transactions, with several twists. Through an innovative lease-to-own model, a farmer leases land from OSI for five years—time enough to launch a business and establish a credit history that will help qualify him or her for borrowing. When OSI sells the land to the farmer, the proceeds return to the program.

For farmers able to acquire land independently, OSI can purchase the development rights through a conservation easement, protecting the land in perpetuity and providing vital capital for reinvestment in the farm business.

Essex Farm Institute has been an essential partner in the Champlain Valley program. The Kimballs have created a farming community almost out of thin air, and many of the “graduates” choose to stay in the area. “Farmers come to train with us from all over the country because of our highly diversified draft horse–based model. Many of them have stayed in the region because the Open Space Institute and the Klippers have made permanent land tenure possible,” said Kristin Kimball.

One such Essex Farm connection, Racey Bingham and Nathan Henderson began a five-year lease from OSI in 2012 with the option to buy. Offering maple syrup, grass-fed beef, and pastured chicken, Reber Rock Farm focuses on filling in the gaps in the foodscape of Essex County and has found success in two years.

Another farmer in OSI’s lease-to-own program, Ashlee Kleinhammer, is running a small dairy with a cheese plant, cheese cave and retail store called North Country Creamery at Clover Mead Farm. In an unusual transaction, the former owner taught Kleinhammer how to make his signature cheeses.

It’s these kinds of success stories that drew OSI to Essex County in the first place.










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