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We Built a Farm on Public Land…That Was the First Hurdle

Twenty years ago, when my husband and I were apprentices in the Hudson Valley, the world of small-scale farms could be divided into two general camps. One camp included the old family farms struggling to keep the land both in production and in the family. The other included the new, nonprofit farms working leased land. The latter were usually fledgling operations subsidized by off-farm revenue and governed by a board of directors.

Chapel, Restoration Farm. Photo provided by author.

Dan and I came up through the nonprofit ranks—we are first-generation farmers from Long Island—but as we grew more hopeful of a future in farming, that route began to feel like a dead end. Being employees offered a steady paycheck, but not the freedom to spread our wings. As we got older, we craved the independence that comes from owning your own land. With nothing affordable on Long Island, however, and lacking the confidence to consider land far away, we kept searching for local opportunities that would provide both land and independence. As it happened, we got lucky.

In 2007, Nassau County issued a Request for Proposals for an organic farm at a park near us. We submitted a bid and won. We were thrilled, but also skeptical of the 3-year Use and Occupancy permit being offered (a U&O grants access to land but no protection from being kicked off). We wanted a lease, but the county wouldn’t consider it. Ultimately, we managed to stretch the U&O term from three years to six. Some people advised against it, but we were desperate to farm, and we still believed it was a horse worth betting on. The park—the Old Bethpage Village Restoration—is a 209-acre living history museum featuring 18th and 19th-century buildings; its fields had been cultivated in the not-too-distant past. An organic farm seemed like a natural fit for the site, and we didn’t fear the possibility of a developer edging us out at the end of our term.

Once we signed the contract, many things fell into place. First, we essentially fell off the Nassau County radar; left alone at the far end of a quiet park, we could make beginner mistakes without a skeptical audience. Second, 2007 was a great year to launch a farm. Local food options were limited, but the movement was gaining momentum, and we had no trouble selling CSA shares. Finally, we had the homefield advantage. Family and friends donated labor, money, and time. We rented a cheap apartment from family and kept multiple off-farm jobs. It’s hard to imagine how we would have succeeded without this network of support.

Fifteen years later, the farm is thriving. We cultivate 5-acres and serve a 120-member CSA and farm stand. We’ve incorporated many of the extra-curriculars we once considered the domain of nonprofit farms—educational tours, small-scale events, etc. We’ve cultivated a pipeline of skilled staff and renewed our contract with Nassau County several times. The 2014-2019 years were rough, when Whole Foods and Amazon emerged as competitors, CSA sales slowed, and staying in business meant frequent pivots. But when the pandemic hit, shares started selling themselves, and the farm blossomed into a hub of activity. It’s been a wild ride, and in the midst of it, we managed to pay off our mortgage, raise two kids (now 10 and 12), and save for college and retirement!

I could end here and say ours is a success story, but what comes next? Building a farm on public land has been great for us as individuals, but what about the bigger picture? Who will fill our shoes when we retire? We want Restoration Farm to thrive long past our departure, yet the very independence that drew us to this opportunity means few people can imagine the farm without us. That is an existential problem that must be addressed. It’s time to begin the process of transitioning the farm away from the private project of two individuals to a communal endeavor befitting a public farm.

As I see it, several things must happen to get the farm on long-term footing. First, there must be a pipeline of future farmers. Second, there must be a specialized team in charge of bookkeeping, payroll, CSA administration, communications, etc. Finally, there must be security in the land itself. While Restoration Farm has never been threatened by development, two fault lines have emerged—the departure of the Nassau County officials who supported it, and a rising tide of groups competing for access to, if not ownership of, the land. In recent years, we’ve had to contend with a steady flow of film crews, athletic events, and entertainment companies who also rent park space and whose interests often conflict with our own.

While the U&O provides a thin veneer of protection, the real security comes from Dan and myself holding firm. But again, what happens when we leave? “You’ll never get a lease,” is what one elected official (who happens to be running for New York governor) recently told me. He wasn’t saying it to be unkind, just in observance of political realities. It may be that the farm doesn’t need a lease, but it does need the public to take on the role of defender. For that to happen, the farm needs to come out from under the radar, take a seat at the table, and make an irrefutable case for why it matters. Driving that message home would provide more security than any lease.

So, how does the farm achieve this? More to the point, who are the key players, and where does the money come from for the farm’s development? We welcome your ideas! One possibility is changing the corporate structure from an LLC to a nonprofit. For someone who once considered nonprofit farms a dead end, this approach smacks of irony, but if a board of directors can share the work of “defending” the farm, it’s an option worth considering. Another option is transitioning to an employee-owned cooperative. Perhaps there are other possibilities as well. Without a roadmap to follow, we’ll need all the creative input we can get, but if there’s one group we can count on, it’s our fellow farmers.

So please reach out with your ideas, stories, and insights. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished thus far, but there’s much more to be done.

Learn more: restorationfarm.com/

Caroline Fanning is the co-founder and head grower of Restoration Farm. She can be reached at caroline@restorationfarm.com