Matchmaker, matchmaker, find me a farm

Above: A Flickr slideshow of photos from Catskills FarmLink landowners and farmers. The first photo is of Michelle Premura, a landowner who has listed 13 acres between Delhi and Stamford on the FarmLink website. Click on individual photos to see the captions.

After graduating from West Point Academy and serving in the army for five years, Julie Zavage pursued a degree in organic agriculture from Colorado State University. Two internships and an apprenticeship later, the 30-year-old is ready to start her own vegetable farm. But Zavage doesn't own land, nor does she have the money to buy it. Leasing land is her only option.

So she turned to Catskills FarmLink, a new local website aimed at connecting would-be farmers with landowners, for help.

“I'm typical of many farmers of my generation,” she said. “We have the desire and ability to do the work and do it sustainably, but we don't have the money to buy the land we need.”

Launched in October of 2011 by Delhi native Sonia Janiszewski, the website is run as a not-for-profit collaboration of eight agricultural organizations. It provides, among other services, an online listing service that makes it easy for land-seekers who lack capital to connect with land-owners who want their acreage put to productive agricultural use.

Much like an online dating service, the site makes “matches” between farmers and landowners, and helps them communicate with one another.

“We don't broker any deals. Lease agreements are drawn up by the land-owner and farmer, tailored to their specific needs,” said Janiszewski. “That said, thoughtful preparation during this process is crucial, and providing support for this is a big part of what we do.”

Lease pricing varies, but typically there's a creative component. Farmers may pay in sweat equity by constructing a fence or repairing a barn. Landowners may opt for shares in a CSA. Rent may be postponed until the farmer is earning a living wage. And in many cases, the fact that the lease helps landowners meet the terms of an agricultural assessment, thereby lowering taxes, is sufficient to garner a deal.

Agreements with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which posts hundreds of acres of city-owned watershed land on the site, are more formal. Minimum bids for the city's property, begin at $25, project proposals are required, and farmers must comply with mandated farming practices.

Landowners choose lease agreements for a variety of reasons. Cathy and Dennis McKenna see it as a way to keep their 250-acre sheep farm in Stamford.

“We're getting older, and farming is such a physical job,” said Cathy McKenna. “And subdividing isn't right for us, because this land has been in our family since 1967, and we want it to remain as it is.”

McKenna said that in their search for a farmer, they're looking more for compatibility than farming experience.

“We used to be your typical Westchester weekenders, and we're self-taught farmers ourselves, so we can really relate to the learning curve,” she said.

Joe Facchini, a credit derivates broker from Manhattan who recently bought two farmsteads in Delaware County, thinks a lease with a farmer will add value to his new property.

“I'm watching inflation. I'm watching the stock market. Obviously, this land is a great opportunity for a beginning farmer, but it's also a way to protect the future for my children. I like that the land can produce value through agricultural channels,” he said. “It seems like a win-win for everybody.”

Currently, Catskills FarmLink has 19 land listings in three of the six counties it represents. Parcels range from approximately two acres to well over 200 acres. Janiszewski said both full-time Catskills residents and second homeowners participate. Land-seekers are less evident on the site, possibly because the site's design allows seekers to contact landowners directly.

One common challenge in a lease situation is housing. Not every farmer is willing or financially able to live off-site, and not every landowner has housing to offer.

Heidi Gogins said that housing has been a hurdle in her search for a young couple to make cheese or raise sheep on the 167-acre property in Bovina that she shares with her husband, Michael.

“We have a cottage, but it's rented. We'd have to build something new, and decide who and how we'd pay for it,” she said.

Zoning laws and local ordinances are another factor. A mobile home might seem like an inexpensive first step, but in some areas, these are prohibited.

In 2009, the Columbia Land Conservancy in Chatham, NY launched a similar farmer-landowner matching program. Of its 19 matches, 18 are still intact.

Marissa Codey, the conservation and agricultural programs manager at the Columbia Land Conservancy, said that dissuading romanticism is key to forging a successful partnership.

“We ask: As a farmer, will you be okay with a land-owner looking at your books? As a land-owner, will you be okay when smelly goats take up residence on your porch? If there's a CSA on your property, are you okay with all that traffic in your driveway? Only relentless speculation and a deep understanding of what the other person expects will result in success,” she said.

For Cheyenne Miller and her partner, Sean Zigmund, owners of a 3-acre farm in Livingston Manor, the risk is worth the reward. The couple is seeking to lease 10 more acres to expand their permaculture farm.

“Partnerships aren't just convenient. They forge community," said Miller. "They're a living of example of what it is to need each other.”

Catskills FarmLink didn't exist when Madalyn Warren moved to Roxbury to farm seven years ago. So she used word-of-mouth to lease nearby land, expanding her farming operation to 15 acres. For farmers like herself, she said, FarmLink is a sorely-needed service.

“It's cool that the Catskills will have this resource. It's needed,” said Warren. “It's become a cliché that there are no small farmers. There are a lot of us and we're here. Sure, we may have to farm somebody else's land. But at the end of the day, we aren't the ones paying property taxes."