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New Farm, Old Farmland

by Michael Chameides

Chicken in front of chicken coop at Sparrowbush Farm.

Columbia County, NY has a vibrant farm history – the farmland at Sparrowbush Farm in Hudson, NY has been farmed since 1853. Generations of farmers have grown crops and fruit on the farm’s rich, fertile soil. While Sparrowbush Farm is continuing the farming legacy, the farmer, Ashley Loehr, isn’t part of the Palatine and Tinklepaugh families that farmed the land for over a hundred years. Her fifty-one acre farm, Sparrowbush Farm, is located on the land as part of a five-year lease agreement that Loehr has with the landowner.

Loehr is a participant in the Columbia Land Conservancy’s (CLC) Farmer Landowner Match Program. The Program connects landowners looking to have their land farmed with farmers seeking land. It also provides support by showing landowners and farmers how to navigate farmer landowner arrangements, including leases, insurance, and the Agricultural Property Tax Assessments.

“The economics of farming has changed and farmland is disappearing,” says Marissa Codey, CLC’s Conservation and Agricultural Programs Manager. “The Farmer Landowner Match Program helps farmers adapt to the new conditions and provides land access options that enable local working farms to become economically viable.” Since the program began in early 2009, CLC has had 21 successful matches, farming on 1,060 acres of land.

Feed sign in greenhouse at Sparrowbush Farm.

Loehr began farming at age thirteen. Living in Andover, NH, she spent her summers working at a local farm. When she graduated high school, she worked at the farm full-time for a year. Then she joined friends in Columbia County and started a farm in Germantown. She took a break from the project to get more formal training and spent a semester at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. After a few years of growing her business, Loehr realized that she wanted a larger property with more land security – her Germantown land was farmed through an informal rental agreement. Given how many acres she needed and the cost of real estate, Loehr decided that leasing was the best option. That way, she could focus her efforts on building the business.

Now, at age twenty-six, Loehr is starting the first growing season of Sparrowbush Farm. After searching for land for over a year, she found a good match and is leasing 98 acres that is mostly comprised of USDA designated prime soils, prime where drained soils, and statewide important soils. While acknowledging the stress of running a farm business, she is glad that she has the opportunity. “I feel most stimulated and alive when I’m challenged to make decisions.” And there are many decisions the farmer of a new farm has to make.

Farmer Ashley Loehr (left) speaks with Columbia Land Conservancy’s Marissa Codey (right)

“It takes a lot of time to learn the nuances of new land,” says Loehr. “That’s why it’s really important to have a long-term land agreement.” Given the unique drainage, sun, and soil conditions of any given property, it takes a season or two to adjust to a new location. As Loehr calibrates what works best on her farm, she is producing a wide array of products. She has chickens, pigs, and twenty different crops. She will also soon add lambs to her farm. Next year, she will review which crops worked best and reduce the number to ten.

Loehr is developing a winter CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, where members pre-purchase a share in the harvest. Loehr will combine her harvest with food items purchased from other local producers to create an omnivore’s package of fresh bread, milk, meat, eggs, cheese, dry beans, and winter storage produce. CSA members will pick up the food twice a month from November through May.

“I want to work year-round and less feverishly,” explain Loehr. Farmers typically work grueling hours during the growing season and then have stretches of downtime during the winter. By putting off the distribution of some of the harvest until winter, she will create a more consistent work schedule.

The specifics of the winter CSA were based on feedback from Loehr’s prior CSA members. She developed relationships with her customers and solicited comments and suggestions. People expressed excitement for obtaining a diverse array of local food in the winter.

In addition to the winter CSA, Sparrowbush Farm has egg shares available for pickup at three vegetable CSA’s: Lineage Farms, Great Song Farm (a successful Farmer Landowner Match), and Shoving Leopard. Sparrowbush Farm also sells products at the Hudson Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.

In the interest of promoting more discussion and training on successful farm leases, Sparrowbush Farm is hosting Columbia Land Conservancy’s Down To Earth farm leasing workshop on October 14 from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. “I’m excited that the Columbia Land Conservancy is working to create infrastructure for local farms,” says Loehr.

The Farmer Landowner Match Program is part of the Columbia Land Conservancy’s mission to ensure that farming remains a central aspect of the local economy and landscape. CLC holds conservation easements on 21,980 acres which permanently protects the natural characteristics of the land, including soil resources. Approximately 1/3 of this land is working farmland. CLC is currently working with the Columbia County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board to craft a plan to support and promote local agriculture. For more information on CLC’s Working Farms program, contact Marissa Codey at 518.392.5252, ext. 211 or marissa@clctrust.org, or visit http://clctrust.org/working-farms/. To learn more about Sparrowbush Farms, visit www.sparrowbushfarm.com

Michael Chameides is Outreach Associate at Columbia Land Conservancy. He can be reached at michael@clctrust.org.

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