ATLANTA – Joe Reynolds and Judith Winfrey, the couple who founded Love Is Love Farm near downtown Atlanta 13 years ago, belong to a generation of landless American farmers who grow food on leased fields.
They don’t have a family business to inherit. They work on about two acres and grow enough food to sell to a handful of restaurants and about 200 customers who pay for subscriptions to seasonal produce. It’s not a business model that throws out enough income to buy your own farm.
The Working Farms Fund aims to change that. The two are the first to benefit from an ambitious new program of buying large tracts of farmland and leasing them to farmers so that they can save enough to buy it – with the guarantee that local institutions like universities and hospitals will buy as much as food the farmers want to sell them.
The program is part of a new, national agricultural initiative by the Conservation Fund, a non-profit organization that balances environmental protection and economic development. Since its inception in 1985, the fund has protected more than eight million acres.
The new program aims to bridge the gap between small, urban farms and large, highly industrialized farms – with the medium-sized regional agriculture often referred to as middle farming that once fed most of the country but began to grow in the 1950s dilapidated and 60s.
In its wake, urban farms and a greater appreciation for locally and organically grown food sprang up in almost every part of the country.
“What we haven’t figured out yet is how to scale this model after realizing that we need a robust, strong food system around urban centers,” said Mindy Goldstein, who heads the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University who manages the legal infrastructure for the project. “Instead of having a few acres of farms feeding the neighborhood, we need to think about how those farms can feed cities like Atlanta or Chicago.”
In its first attempt, the Working Farms Fund is buying 20 to 500 acres of land within a 100 mile radius of the Atlanta metropolitan area and restricting it to agricultural use through a maintenance easement. It will lease the land to farmers who have worked with the fund to develop business plans that include saving money to buy their farm in full within 10 years.
An agricultural easement brings some unique benefits to farmers. Because real estate can drop as much as 60 percent in value when it is taken off the commercial market and used for agriculture, it becomes all the more affordable.
The goal is to buy at least 12,000 acres of farmland near Atlanta over the next 20 years, help start 150 farming businesses, and support four or five regional clusters of farms over the next 20 years, said Stacy Funderburke , a regional advisor to the Conservation Fund, who has developed the project program for a decade.
Agricultural trusts that help young farmers buy land are not a new concept, but the Working Farms Fund took the idea further. Farmers become part of a network designed to help them create a financially sound business that includes contracts with institutional customers.
In Atlanta, Emory University and its hospital system agreed to sign food purchasing agreements with farmers who can then use those contracts to obtain loans to help improve the farm. In return, the Farms are helping Emory move closer to its goal of using locally and sustainably grown food for 75 percent of meals at the university and 25 percent in the hospital system.
“Whatever they grow, we’ll buy,” said Dave Furhman, senior director of Campus Life at Emory, which serves more than 6,000 meals a day.
The Working Farms Fund uses grants from foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as grants from the Conservation Fund, which provided $ 2 million for the project. The money from the lease and the eventual sale of a farm will flow back into the program for the purchase of more land.
Attracting smallholders and first generation farmers who were unable to own land in the past is a priority. Global Growers, an Atlanta refugee and immigrant collective, is the second group to lease a farm under the program, and the Georgia Korean American Farmers Association is right behind it.
Ranchers Will and Charlsy Godowns are close to acquiring 300 acres. Another farm, Pride Road, is run by the Muhaimin family who moved to Atlanta after losing their farm to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“That only works for farmers and farm groups who want to own their own land,” said Funderburke. “It is not designed to provide farmers with a convenient lease for long periods of time.”
The fund’s next destination is Chicago, which has a high concentration of young and minority farmers in Illinois and millions of acres of farmland within 100 miles. Much of this land was either used for the chemical-intensive cultivation of crops such as maize or the infrastructure required for the cultivation and processing of fruit and vegetables is lacking.
“All of the ingredients here are so ripe for this type of vehicle,” said Emy Brawley, regional director of the Great Lakes Conservation Fund. “We have a ton of farmers and a ton of land, but it needs to be turned back into land that can support food production.”
The owners of Love Is Love Farm will continue working on some of the four acres they rented in Atlanta through the end of this year, but will keep their attentions on their new land. They rent about 70 acres in the tiny town of Mansfield, about 50 miles from town.
A packing shed and the seasonal polyethylene structures called tall tunnels need to be built, and the farmers recently dug a well in the middle of a field. They planted their first harvest last month – sweet potatoes, which will end up in Emory’s kitchens this fall.
Your new country has also opened the door to other opportunities. Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Reynolds, both over 40, have teamed up with three other younger farmers to turn Love Is Love into a worker-owned cooperative. The idea is to create something that can be passed on.
“Joe and I are the oldest here,” said Ms. Winfrey. “Because we have land that is forever under conservation and we have a technical structure that can go on forever, we can get out when we are ready and know that someone new is coming in and keeping it going.”