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Addressing Land Insecurity for Small Farms

The following piece, written by Hannah Van Sickle for The Berkshire Edge, points to the land and housing insecurity facing many of the owners of small farms growing the prized fresh produce for local markets. The article describes how citizens working through community land trusts can create a solution to the land insecurity and thereby help achieve greater food sovereignty and climate resiliency for their region. The article is shared here with permission.

 

GREAT BARRINGTON — For all intents and purposes, Molly Comstock is a nomadic farmer, which, in the absence of a herd of animals that benefit from moving through various tracts of land, is an unsustainable model — one she has spent the past decade navigating out of necessity.

Molly Comstock of Colfax Farms

“We are being pushed out of our own community,” said local farmer Molly Comstock, pointing to her contemporaries in the farming industry, workers in the service industry, young people, and individuals of a lower-income status. “We’re not able to participate in our community because there isn’t anywhere for us to live.”

“It’s not something a vegetable farmer would choose,” she told The Edge, citing the issue of land insecurity faced by many Berkshire farmers as top of mind these days. When her Colfax Farm lost its lease in 2021, the Harry Conklin Fund for Farmsteads — an initiative of the Berkshire Community Land Trust (BCLT) in partnership with Berkshire Agricultural Ventures and Berkshire Grown — was formed in response. The fund, fueled by community donations, seeks to acquire land to lease to a local farmer, where they can both live and grow food. This Friday, just in time for the official summer growing season, the next event in the Harry Conklin Fund for Farmsteads Concert Series will take place at the Apple Tree Inn in Lenox. The series is one of the essential steps necessary to find a new home for Comstock and Colfax Farm.

“I’ve been trying to find a piece of land that’s secure,” Comstock said, pointing to the hardest thing about having to relocate: “You can’t take with you all the sweat equity you’ve put into the soil,” she explained, speaking from experience (she’s moved her farm operation three times in the past 10 years). While this near-constant relocation allows for a lot of learning, it’s exhausting. Not to mention impractical.

Comstock proudly counts herself among the growing group of farmers tasked with shaping a resilient local food system in a time of climate change — which is no small feat. But the sky-high cost of land across the region continues to soar, effectively eclipsing the very cogs essential to the wheel that is the local food web.

“I was able to finish out my [2021] season, [but] currently I do not have anywhere that I’m farming,” said Comstock, who devotes much of her time to collaborating with the Berkshire Community Land Trust to find affordable, arable land. In order to pay her bills, she works part time with Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm in South Egremont.

“For my spirit and my general mental health, I need to be farming, I need to be outside,” she explained of a not-so-coincidental part-time gig. Keen and her husband Al Thorpe acquired their 17 acres of fertile farmland via partnership with BCLT and the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, who collaborated with the Berkshire Highlands Program, part of The Nature Conservancy. The goal was to maintain a working organic farm, protect the adjacent sensitive wetlands, and provide small-scale farmers with affordable access to land.

The BCLT acquired the title to the land, which they’ve leased to Keen and Thorpe for a 99-year term; the farmers own their home, barn and outbuildings, and stand to gain equity via improvements to all, including the soil. The BCLT retains an option to purchase the buildings and improvements back, and to resell them at their replacement cost to another farmer, thereby ensuring the land is farmed in perpetuity.

“The Indian Line land ownership by the Berkshire Land Trust is one of the best ways to keep farming in the Berkshires long term,” said Glenn Bergman, interim director of Berkshire Agricultural Ventures. This model for whole-farm preservation not only keeps small-scale farming viable, but also addresses the critical connections between ecology, economy, and community. With any luck, Comstock (and by extension Colfax Farm) will be the first leaseholder when the BCLT secures its first parcel, which is already in the works.

A site has been identified, and in order to move forward, funds must be raised to purchase the land and make necessary improvements, including essential infrastructure and housing. Which, for those who are unfamiliar, denotes the essential differentiator between a land trust and a community land trust. While the former preserves land from being developed (and, by extension, inhabited), the latter facilitates home ownership and equity building — essential pieces to creating and sustaining a lasting and more vibrant community.

“We are being pushed out of our own community,” Comstock said, pointing to her contemporaries in the farming industry, workers in the service industry, young people, and individuals of a lower-income status. “We’re not able to participate in our community because there isn’t anywhere for us to live,” she said.

“Supporting our farming community attracts young people to [the area],” Comstock said. She cited how recent supply-chain disruptions revealed the fact that our community has the capacity to grow enough food to support itself “if we really turned our minds and spirits and energies and resources to[ward] protecting not just the land but the people. These are real people working really hard, and this is just one morning in their week,” she said of the many hands and long hours that make farmers markets happen each season. “[We can no longer look at it as] a weekend event or part of a holiday [away],” Comstock said, imploring a needed change in perspective.

“[Agriculture] is a very, very big part of our community,” she said, and something that both locals and tourists love about the Berkshires. “In order for [farmers] to be there and to make your egg sandwich, sell you a bunch of Swiss chard or a bouquet of flowers, they need somewhere affordable to live  — and they need access to land. Or that [market] won’t be there,” Comstock said.

She knows of a few young farmers, many with handshake lease agreements for the land they farm, on what she calls the precipice. “We’re on this razor-thin edge of whether [or not] we will keep going.”

There is no quick or easy solution. In the meantime, Comstock suggests the community contribute by investing in the Community Land Trust. Considering the myriad farmers, growers, butchers, makers and food purveyors that make the Berkshires the tourist destination that it is, it’s a logical next step.

“It’s not just a model for protecting our farmland, but for creating community.”

NOTE: While the summer concert series is free, donations are appreciated. You can support the Berkshire Community Land Trust and Comstock through tax-deductible donations and GoFundMe contributions.

The full concert series lineup:

  • May 27, 8 p.m., Billy Keane and Chris Merenda at Apple Tree Inn
  • June 26, 6:30 p.m., The Lucky 5 at Prairie Whale
  • July 16, 1–4 p.m., Family Friendly Fundraiser at The Acorn Toy Shop
  • August 26, Time on Fire and The Revival Revival, at The Egremont Barn
  • September 23, 7 p.m. The BTUs at Dewey Hall
  • October 16, 2–5 p.m. Lukas Schwartz & Friends at The Schumacher Center Cider Pressing

Wishing all well,
Staff of Schumacher Center

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