Customers and friends help fund a forever farm
Standing on the grassy slopes of the Lewis Waite Farm, surrounded by strutting peacocks, chattering guinea hens, and the expectant faces of floppy-eared pigs, it’s hard to imagine a place less connected to the congestion and teeming humanity that is New York City.
But connected it is.
For the past 17 years, Alan and Nancy Brown have operated Lewis Waite Farmer Network, which gathers locally produced and sourced food and delivers to over 50 CSAs in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and, you guessed it, New York City. CSA refers to a system where customers agree in advance to buy a certain amount of product from a farm, thereby guaranteeing the farmer a predictable revenue flow.
From “not much of a plan” to a bustling business
While the Lewis Waite Farm now covers 447 acres of high and rolling hills, it started off considerably humbler.
Alan recalls, “When I bought the property in 1966, I was teaching at a private school in New York City. I had this idea that I wanted to be a farmer but, to be honest, not much of a plan for how to go about it. “My childhood love of Rodale gardening magazine and vegetable delivery route helped spur my desire. Then I found this great old house from the 1820s with 141 acres tucked up away from everything and everyone, and I took my chance.”
Over the next few decades, Alan spent countless hours fixing up the house and coming to terms with the property. “At first I thought I’d grow crops,” he says, “but the terrain and soil wasn’t suited to it so I started grazing beef and pork.” Slowly, he began adding land as adjacent properties became available and expanding his herd, which he and Nancy initially sold at live auctions. When the ‘farm to table’ movement took root in the early 2000s, they began doing retail cuts of beef and pork.
“Around that time, Thomas Christenfeld and Liz Gordon of The Alleged Farm in Easton asked if we’d like to include some of our cuts in the CSA programs they were supplying in Brooklyn,” says Alan. “They really encouraged me to look into what CSAs could do for us. Before you knew it we had a walk-in freezer and were aggregating products from small farmers and producers in the region for delivery to dozens, and now over 50, CSAs.”
Thanks to a background in computers, Nancy was able to oversee the creation of their website that handles roughly 100 weekly orders ranging from cheeses, cider, bread, and cream to grains, meat, mushrooms, and pasta. Products are collected and sorted at the farm and three times a week (at least) Alan rises well before the sun to deliver it all to loyal and waiting customers downstate.
Creating the ultimate “community-supported agriculture”
Driving nine or more hours a week to and from the city affords Alan plenty of time to think. One thing he’s always thinking about is the future of the farm.
“When you’re a farmer you get fixed to a place and you have a responsibility to it,” he says, “We wanted the farm to remain a farm forever but didn’t really see a way to do it financially.” Then, after another conversation with their friends Tom and Liz, they realized that they could achieve all their goals by working with ASA.
A number of conversations and grant applications later, ASA secured a farmland protection grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to cover 50% of the funds required to purchase the developments rights from the Browns, as well as a NYS Conservation Partnership Program grant to help cover many of the transaction expenses. Despite the Browns donating a portion of their development rights, and ASA contributing from its Forever Farmland Fund, there was still a funding gap. That’s when they turned to the community they served for help.
“In talking with ASA, we realized we had this wonderful relationship with all these people that we supplied food to for years,” recalls Nancy. “We figured that if they really valued what we were doing, they’d want to make sure we could keep doing it. Apparently we were right.”
Through appeals included in the weekly newsletter, they were able to raise the remaining needed funds.
“Honestly, the response was overwhelming,” says Nancy. “It was very affirming that what we do matters and it lifted a weight off our shoulders.” Alan agrees. “Lifechanging, that’s what I call it.”
The Browns also partnered with Equity Trust and ASA to add another level of protection by ensuring the land will remain affordable and accessible to future farmers. “These added provisions to the easement go beyond conserving the land for forever, they help keep the ownership in the hands of farmers and the farmland in active production,” explains Jim Oldham, Executive Director of Equity Trust.
Alan reflects, “You know, I named this farm after two farmers who worked this land before me as a way to honor them. Keeping this land farmland forever? I think that’s the greatest tribute of all.”
Funding for this project was provided by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, Equity Trust, ASA’s Forever Farmland Fund, New York State Conservation Partnership Program (funded by New York State’s Environmental Protection Fund and administered by the Land Trust Alliance in coordination with the state Department of Environmental Conservation), and friends and customers of Nancy and Alan Brown.