Leasing Stories

In order to help potential next-generation farmers, and non-farming landowners who are interested in leasing their land, The Piedmont Environmental Council has put together “Finding a Place to Grow: How the Next Generation is Gaining Access to Farmland”, which includes eight profiles of successful farmland lease arrangements in Virginia. The profiles focus on the different business arrangements underlying these successful leases, to demonstrate the various options that landowners and beginning farmers have to establish partnerships and prudently share risks, responsibilities and rewards. We hope you find the stories helpful and inspiring!

Download the PDF or read the stories online:

Leasing from Likeminded Landowners

Leasing from Likeminded Landowners

Working vegetable farm finds new hands

In his search for the right piece of farmland, Ben Stowe spent a considerable amount of time “walking the grid.”

He’d look up the soil maps for a prospective plot, taking into consideration that some of them hadn’t been updated in a half-century, and then he’d put his boots on the ground. One property looked nice and flat on its surface — perfect for harvesting a few acres of vegetables — but the map said its soils were “stony alluvial” and could be plagued with rocks.

“So I went out there with a digging fork, paced a grid and hit a lot of rocks. I didn’t think I wanted to farm that,” said Stowe, who can only imagine what the process might look like if he was looking to buy, rather than lease, the land he farms.

“You don’t want to be signing a lease on something that isn’t going to grow well for you,” he said.

Stowe spent months scouring Northern Virginia acreage like this with a landowner who was interested in buying property for a second home and leasing much of it to a small farmer.

It was a unique opportunity, and Stowe was close to settling on a lease with him — until he was lured away by a better offer. A couple that understood firsthand what he would need in a piece of land — because they’d been farming it themselves for the past decade — was looking for a farmer.

The partnership

Michael and Kathryn Bertoni thought the five-acre plot in Nelson County was “about as pretty a spot as you can hope to find” when they bought it in 2003. They’d just finished an eight-month internship at Waterpenny Farm, an ecological growing haven in Rappahannock County that has spawned several likeminded farms in the region, and they were eager to set out on their own.

But, after a decade of selling produce and eggs from their Appalachia Star Farm, the Bertonis, now in their late 30s with two young children, were tired, mostly of all the driving this brand of farming entailed.

“It was just a hectic lifestyle, and we decided to let it go for a little while,” said Michael Bertoni.

He said leasing the property as an entire farm made better economic sense for their family than just renting out the house, which wouldn’t have taken into account the property’s full value.

The Bertonis also wanted the land to remain in sustainable agriculture, so they put it up for lease on the Virginia Farm Link Database that’s run by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

If you want to be near a metro area, in areas where land is relatively unaffordable for people like us, leasing is a great option.

Stowe, who had also just finished an internship at Waterpenny Farm, began perusing the database for landowners who used terms like “good stewardship” in their postings. After working at small farms in Wisconsin, California and Oregon, Stowe said interning at Waterpenny showed him he could have a successful farm business by leasing land.

“If you want to be near a metro area, in areas where land is relatively unaffordable for people like us, leasing is a great option,” he said.

He didn’t realize when he first replied to the Bertonis’ posting that they also were Waterpenny alumni — or that he’d visited their farm as an intern in 2011. Since then, Stowe had met his partner, Heather Coiner, at a music festival. The two had decided to get some land together where he could grow vegetables and she could bake bread. The idea of stepping into a property with practically everything they’d need — and into the former farm’s slots at farmers markets — was more than appealing.

‘They want us to succeed’

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Named for a stream that runs alongside the five-acre property, Stowe and Coiner’s Little Hat Creek Farm is now in its first full year selling produce and “old-time bread” at markets in the Charlottesville area and through an 18-member CSA.

Coiner had worked on a farm before and was baking and selling bread through a CSA in Toronto when she met Stowe.

They signed a two-year lease on the property, which also includes the house they live in and most of the equipment they need to run a small farm. Along with a greenhouse, market tent and bins for picking produce, the farm already featured several perennial berry bushes and asparagus that “really helped us in our first year,” Stowe said from a shaded picnic bench near the house, a carton of perfectly ripe blackberries leftover from a recent market sitting on the table.

“Our situation is unique, because it was a working vegetable farm already,” he said. “They’ve done what we’re doing, so they want us to succeed. We’re lucky in that way.”

Even though they were working with likeminded landowners, Stowe and Coiner went to great lengths to craft their first lease agreement for the property.

They had learned from Waterpenny the importance of a solid lease, and Stowe had taken some notes while looking for the right property with other landowners. Sample leases they’d found online helped them consider factors they might not have otherwise, like maintenance costs.

Our situation is unique, because it was a working vegetable farm already. They’ve done what we’re doing, so they want us to succeed. We’re lucky in that way.

Their lease originally said the farmers would fix or maintain anything that cost less than $100 and call the owners, who now live in Crozet, if it cost more. But they soon realized that the cost of “maintaining” unfarmed portions of land with regular mowing was adding up fast.

“We sort of left that out, so we had to negotiate that with them after the fact,” said Coiner, who ended up striking a compromise with the owners to split lawn care costs.

Making additions

Stowe and Coiner said it was important to craft a lease that left their options open for additions in the future, like animals, while still describing the type of farming they planned to do in the present.

“I feel like the onus is kind of on the farmer to try to imagine all the things that they might want to do on the land,” said Coiner.

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If they hadn’t put it in their lease, for example, it would have been difficult for the Bertonis to imagine the wood-fired oven that now fills a portion of the pole barn next to the house.

Stowe and Coiner built the oven with a base of recycled glass bottles from nearby wineries, using sawdust from a local woodshop to form the seven inches of clay. After beginning construction in the winter, Coiner began using the oven this summer to bake up to 32 of her naturally leavened loaves at a time.

But, before they broke ground on the massive project, the farmers made sure the landowners approved — and that the oven was addressed in their lease.

“We were planning to invest in this major construction project that was going to alter one of the structures,” Coiner said. “How do they feel about that? And, if we decide to leave the property, do they compensate us for its value or do we have to pay for it to be removed?”

After discussing these questions, the Bertonis agreed in the lease to purchase any value-adding modifications to the property, like the oven, should Coiner and Stowe move elsewhere.

The Bertonis liked the idea of the oven, not to mention the loaves it produces, but “I think they were still surprised at how big it was,” Stowe said with a chuckle. “I think Michael’s comment was, ‘That is massive.’”

While there are sure to me more surprises, as Stowe and Coiner continue to build their farm business on the land they lease from the Bertonis, the solid groundwork that they have all built and the common language that they speak as farmers will be invaluable.


This story is part of  “Finding a Place to Grow“, a publication produced by The Piedmont Environmental Council. The stories were written by Whitney Pipkin, a freelance journalist from Alexandria, VA who covers food, farms, and the environment. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others, and she writes at thinkabouteat.com. Photos were taken by Jami McDowell.
 

The publication was made possible by a grant from The Beirne Carter Foundation.

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The Model for So Many Others

The Model for So Many Others

A long-term lease that creates ownership

 

Eric Plaksin and Rachel Bynum are standing near a row of peak summer tomatoes in a field that, after 15 years of farming, feels very much like their own, when the landowner pulls up in his golf cart with his dog Hannah perched in the backseat.

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“They aren’t disparaging me are they?” Cliff Miller asks with a grin.

He knows enough about the farming couple — with which he has a 40-yearlong lease agreement — to answer his own question. But, in his early 70s and as sharp as ever, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to jibe them.

Miller goes on to offer up his perspective on the lease, and why more people should consider partnerships like the one he’s forged here.

“A 40-year lease throws us both on the same trail. We both want the best thing to happen,” he said. “More people should do that, but they’ve gotta trust each other.”

Bynum and Plaksin were in their early 30s when they first signed the lease to farm 27 of the 850 acres that Miller’s family owns in Rappahannock County. In the 15 years since, Waterpenny Farm has flourished as an example of what ecological growers can accomplish with the support of a long-term lease.

The farmers will be at least 70 by the time the contract is up, and their two children will be almost 40.

“We feel ownership for this land,” Bynum said. “We care about it and we know it. We feel like we’re going to be here for our careers.”

When it comes to long-term leases, the kind that support growers who are benefiting the landscape and the community, “that ownership feeling is kind of what you’re going for,” Bynum adds.

But the deal that reinforces their thriving business here was several years in the making.

We feel ownership for this land. We care about it and we know it. We feel like we’re going to be here for our careers.

The early years

After meeting Bynum at college in Minnesota, Plaksin went on to Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Loudoun County, where he cut his farming teeth during four years in the fields. Bynum worked in environmental education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm while also doing seasonal work at the vegetable farm.

But they were ready to start their own operation. “We drew a big circle around DC” and started looking for land to buy. But, a few trips with a realtor showed that most of what they could afford didn’t include a place to live, let alone the infrastructure and community they’d need to make a farming business work.

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“As we looked at what we could have afforded to buy, it was like a bad house or no house in the middle of a field,” Bynum said of their search for land within a drive of DC’s markets.

Around the same time, Miller had begun his own search for an organic vegetable grower. He had rented land to conventional farmers in the past but, after enrolling several hundred acres in conservation programs, had a change of heart about the best use for the land his family had owned for generations.

“When the previous managers left, there was a lot of bad stuff like Johnson grass growing in here,” Miller said during a drive across his land in the fall. “My solution was to get an organic vegetable farm to come in and pull the Johnson grass out by hand, rather than put a bunch of Roundup on the soil.”

Miller reached out to Wheatland for farmer recommendations, and “Eric and Rachel were as good a fit as there is.”

The pair didn’t jump on the opportunity at first, because it came up too close to the spring planting season.

“We wanted to plant cover crops. Nobody’s going to successfully bust sod in the spring and have a good farm going,” said Bynum, who now grows produce on just 8 of the acres they manage.

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When he asked again later in the year, they were ready. In 1999, the farmers moved into a small white house that had years ago housed migrant orchard workers, and they began planting.

The farmers paid their rent in sweat equity those first two years, chipping away at projects on the old house and the landscape. They paid to rent farming equipment from Miller as needed.

“It allowed us to try it out and see if it was going to work for us,” Plaksin said.

Waterpenny Farm — named for an ecologically sensitive bug seen in streams on the property — had in that first year landed a coveted spot at the Takoma Park Farmers Market in DC. The market is their biggest source of income to this day, along with the Arlington Farmers Market and a 100-member CSA program.

After deciding the land was the right fit, the couple expressed interest in a long-term lease, something that would basically allow them to stay on the land “until we die.” Miller wanted that, too, but he also wanted the next generation of his family to have choices.

“My history of short-term leases with good farmers indicated that that doesn’t work for me anyway,” he said. “So if you can get a 40-year lease, that’s like owning it.”

Plaksin and Bynum agreed that such a long-term lease would be the best fit for them as well, but it still took about three years to craft the 50-page agreement. Bynum said that was partly because there were few, if any, examples of such arrangements that they could use as templates.

The freedom of leasing

Also complicating the lease was language surrounding the home that the couple built and owns — on land they do not. The lease states that, should Plaksin and Bynum decide to leave with 90 days’ notice, Miller Properties has to buy back for the appraised value the two houses and barn that the couple owns.

The arrangement helps the farmers build equity without owning the land or having to worry about their investments on the property being lost.

“We went into leasing because we couldn’t afford to buy, but we think there are some advantages to being part of something bigger,” Plaksin said.

Waterpenny’s lease includes a land use agreement that neither party use chemicals that would harm the environment. Since Miller owns all the property surrounding their farm — far more acreage than the couple could afford to buy as a buffer — they don’t have to worry about how their neighbors’ actions might affect an ecological farm.

Conversely, Plaksin said, “It’s in our interest to take care of the soil, not just to try to use it up and go somewhere else.”

We went into leasing because we couldn’t afford to buy, but we think there are some advantages to being part of something bigger.

Not having to pay a mortgage on the land and having good markets meant that Plaksin and Bynum could invest in their farming business early on — and turn a profit in their first year. That profit has grown a little bit each of the years since, allowing the farmers to invest in retirement funds and college funds for their children.

They also invest in other farmers.

Waterpenny hires about six interns a year and, besides paying them good wages, offers up an educational opportunity that has inspired many of them to branch out on their own. (The interns almost always ask how they landed that enviable 40-year lease.)

Ben Stowe started his own Little Hat Creek Farm last year after interning at Waterpenny and said the experience showed him he could make money, pay workers well and “have a good life” as a farmer.

“I used to feel like we were choosing to make less money than we could make doing other things,” Plaksin said, noting that many people stick with farming for the lifestyle. “But we’re doing well enough that I don’t know what else I would do to make better money.”

 


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This story is part of  “Finding a Place to Grow“, a publication produced by The Piedmont Environmental Council. The stories were written by Whitney Pipkin, a freelance journalist from Alexandria, VA who covers food, farms, and the environment. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others, and she writes at thinkabouteat.com. Photos were taken by Jami McDowell.

The publication was made possible by a grant from The Beirne Carter Foundation.

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A Communal Approach

A Communal Approach

Local farm becomes a launch pad for entrepreneurs

In the five years since Jason “JP” Pall and Sally Walker began growing produce on a hilly, windswept plot not far from Virginia Tech, they’ve watched several of the parcels surrounding them change hands. A few have been transformed from pastures — the undulating terrain here is good for little more than grazing cattle — into new homes.

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In fact, developer Patrick Bixler owns the 48-acre property that’s home to Pall and Walker’s farm, Glade Road Growing, located within Blacksburg town limits. Bixler had intended for houses to be built on his land — until he met the pair of young farmers and decided to give something else a shot.

What’s growing on the parcel now, though it does include some new construction, is more than the landowner could have imagined.

The parcel that had been leased to one farmer for grazing cattle is now home to more than a half-dozen farm-related and other businesses, many of them offshoots from Pall and Walker’s thriving vegetable- and poultry-growing operation. There’s a tenant who raises pigs and another who keeps goats, a pair of cooks that cater, a woodworker who builds tables, a mechanic and a solar panel business.

“I don’t take credit for dreaming it up, but it makes a lot of sense when you see it,” Bixler said of the way the likeminded tenants have layered multiple uses on the landscape.  “If you just say, ‘I’ve got 48 acres. I’m looking for somebody to run cattle.’ That’s about as boring as it gets.”

Pall and Walker, both 31, are reluctant to call what they’ve helped create here a “business incubator,” but that’s basically what it is. Their experience has attracted others interested in starting their own ventures, many of them food-based, and a unique support system here is helping many of them get off the ground.

“We encourage our employees to do their own thing for a side income while they’re here. They’ve all done it,” JP said. “We’re just giving them some income while they get themselves up and running.”

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“Our landowner didn’t say, ‘I want a small business incubator,’” Sally said. “It kind of fell into that through the networking and the people that we attract.”

At one end of the expansive pole barn that houses most of the businesses, a former employee is buzzing through sustainably harvested wood, turning it into artisanal furniture that he now sells full-time. By mid-morning, several others are coming and going, perhaps putting in a few hours at the mechanic shop or picking vegetables.

A brick oven that can bake up to 30 loaves of bread at a time — and enough pizzas to feed a sizable farm tour — recently took shape at the barn’s other end. Garum, a baker/pizza business runs the brick oven on the farm, and it’s often used by Fare Palate, a hot plate stand that sells at the local farmers market. Its owners will also share a commercial kitchen that’s currently under construction in a side room with the other tenants.

In the early afternoon, several of the workers gather around one of the handcrafted kitchen tables for a farm-to-table-style lunch that rivals that of any restaurant. The meal features a duck-egg frittata, as brilliant in color as the sun-ripened tomatoes, with homemade mayo and pickles on leftover, oven-fired bread.

“It turns out that everyone who works here is a fabulous cook,” JP said.

The decision to lease

After they both graduated from Virginia Tech, JP worked for a year at the university running its onsite farm, which provided a couple of acres of produce to the school dining hall. Sally continued with graduate school, and the couple began looking for land “to start our own farm.”

With some cash saved up from renovating and selling a house, Pall and Walker began looking for farm properties they could purchase within 45 minutes of Blacksburg, where they wanted to sell produce directly to customers.

“But all the land that we could have afforded didn’t look like it would be very good to farm,” Sally said.

“Then we were stuck with two choices,” JP said. “We could buy an acre of land way out on the top of a mountain, or we could put that money into our farm infrastructure.”

He now supports the agricultural uses of his family-owned land so much that he’s putting it into a conservation easement to prevent future development.

Pall and Walker soon met Bixler and began the process of leasing land from him. Bixler said the idea of leasing to the young entrepreneurs appealed to his sensitivities, if not his bottom line at first.

“They really convinced me that they were dedicated to doing it right. They weren’t just biding their time before they moved on to the next adventure,” said Bixler. He now supports the agricultural uses of his family-owned land so much that he’s putting it into a conservation easement to prevent future development.

And, last year, after a neighbor Sally and JP had gotten to know acquired “this flat piece of land close to the farm,” Sally said, they entered into a lease with her to farm those three acres as well.

Elisabeth Swindell lives on the adjacent property that her mother, Danielle Wattel, owns, and already had a habit of bringing her three children by the farm to volunteer or pick vegetables.

“I don’t think we would have done it with just anyone,” Swindell said of the lease. “We know them, we like them and we know they have a good work ethic, so we jumped on it.”

Though leasing land inside town limits is more expensive, it also comes with some perks.

JP takes advantage of what he calls “wasted resources” like wood chips, leaf mulch and other compostable materials that the town hauls away from peoples’ lawns. The town delivers the materials for free to the farm, where Pall and Walker put them to use as soil-building compost in their vegetable beds and in between the rows in their burgeoning orchard.

“Before we got started, we knew the leaves and wood chips were available in town but not outside of town. That’s one of the trade-offs between owning land outside of town and leasing land here,” JP said.

The farm’s location also keeps them close to customers, who, as of this season, can buy produce directly from a farm stand on Friday afternoons. Glade Road Growing also has more than 100 members in its CSA and sells at the Blacksburg Farmers Market twice a week.

“We’re in town, so we tell our customers that they can come see our farm if they want to,” Sally said. “You can’t do that if your farm is 45 minutes away.”

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Creating Synergy

The various businesses based at the farm have such symbiotic relationships that the lines between them sometimes blur. Pall and Walker serve as a sort of anchor tenant for the facility and the land, though they farm vegetables with organic methods on fewer than seven of the total 48 acres.

Each tenant works out his or her own rent with the landowner, often starting out with a reduced rate and building up to what is affordable as the business grows. Pall and Walker had a similar arrangement during their first two years on the property, exchanging manual labor (planting trees and repairing old barns) as rent while getting their farm business off the ground.

“But as the farm business grew, we had less time for maintenance and more money for rent, so it switched over to a money rent,” Sally said.

The couple now pays a flat $750 a month to Bixler, though the number of acres they’re cultivating or using for animals at any given time fluctuates.

Each tenant works out his or her own rent with the landowner, often starting out with a reduced rate and building up to what is affordable as the business grows.

Pall and Walker don’t sublease to any of the other tenants, but they do coordinate with all of them, especially when it comes to rotating animals through the property’s pastures. Their chickens, turkeys and ducks now rotate through the pastures following the cows that are part of the original tenant’s cow-calf operation.

Pall and Walker also coordinated with the state cost-share program to get funding to fence the cattle out of the property’s streams, helping add important infrastructure to the property while simultaneously ensuring the property was more environmentally friendly.

As part of their lease, Bixler pays for any permanent infrastructure that stays with the property — from additions inside the pole barn to the 150 apple trees that were recently planted for Pall and Walker’s farm — and welcomes new tenants whose rent helps him earn a good return on those investments.

That works well for Pall and Walker, too.

“This investment is what we wanted,” JP said of new infrastructure that’s filled the main barn. “We want to sell from the farm as much as possible. That’s a major advantage of being this close to town.”

Listening to JP talk about all that is going on at the farm you have to think that perhaps the greatest investment isn’t the infrastructure but the creative energy that JP and Sally have brought to the farm. When you start thinking about all of the good farm land and creative people we have in the region you just have to get excited thinking about all the posibilities.


Whitney Pipkin

This story is part of  “Finding a Place to Grow“, a publication produced by The Piedmont Environmental Council. The stories were written by Whitney Pipkin, a freelance journalist from Alexandria, VA who covers food, farms, and the environment. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others, and she writes at thinkabouteat.com. Photos were taken by Jami McDowell.

The publication was made possible by a grant from The Beirne Carter Foundation.

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Earning a Herd, Opening a Store

Earning a Herd, Opening a Store

Working as a chef, Mike Peterson used to drive by the green, cattle-flecked acres of Mount Vernon Farm near Sperryville on his way to the Inn at Little Washington. And when he signed up for a six-month internship at the farm — to learn more about the sustainable farming methods behind the beef — he never thought he’d end up staying. 

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Photo courtesy of Molly M. Peterson

“He had every intention of going back to the kitchen. He was there 11 months, and then the manager left, and he stayed,” said Mike’s wife, Molly Peterson, who was soon roped into the family business of farming as well. 

The Petersons took over management of the grass-based cattle farm in 2010 and, three years later, began the process of buying the business from its owner, Cliff Miller. And in the fall of 2013, the Petersons formed and began operating the livestock business as Heritage Hollow Farms.

They still lease the land from Miller and one other landowner in Rappahannock County. “I wish more farmers that want to retire or landowners with land just sitting there would give young farmers the opportunity, because that’s the biggest hurdle for farmers is finding land they can afford. Securing access to start up capital has proven to be a necessity, too. Scalability requires upfront capital to make the whole operation tick,” Molly said.

Along with their lease with Miller to farm 250 of his acres, the Petersons inherited a lease Miller had with nearby landowner Dick McNear for 380 acres of his pastures. The lease between McNear and Miller was originally written in pencil on lined notebook paper — two pages, front and back, explained Molly.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t cover a lot of ground. It became the template for the Petersons’ lease agreement with both parties, and both leases cover a lot more than the land.

I wish more farmers that want to retire or landowners with land just sitting there would give young farmers the opportunity, because that’s the biggest hurdle for farmers is finding land they can afford.

Earning a herd

Though having access to more than 600 acres of grass for their cows was a boon for the beginning farmers, they also needed help getting started with a herd.

As part of the leases, the Petersons manage 95 breeding cows owned by McNear and 60 owned by Miller. In exchange for their daily management labor, mineral supplementation and hay feeding for those cows, Heritage Hollow has the option of buying the calves those cows produce at a discounted rate.

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Photo by Molly M. Peterson

“It’s a way for us to get into it without having to make the investment into cows, without having to buy any land,” Mike said.

As the new calves that Mike and Molly manage are weaned, the Petersons can buy the calves (them) from Miller and McNear for 25 percent of their appraised value. From here on the Petersons own the calves, which they will either sell at the livestock market or continue to graze and finish on grass- to be sold later directly to customers as Heritage Hollow grass-fed beef.

As you can imagine their leases cover a lot of territory, but there are still some gray areas when it comes to managing animals and land owned by someone else.

Because the landowners still own the cows, they are in charge of supplying water to them, which is mostly handled by existing watering troughs and piping. The Petersons maintain that infrastructure.

The same goes for the fencing. If a tree falls on it, the Petersons patch it, “but we’re not responsible for a complete overhaul or replacement,” Molly said.

They have access to the landowners’ tractors and trucks to care for the property and the cows, but they rent that same equipment when using it for the other animals they own outright.

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Photo by Molly M. Peterson

Deciding who takes care of what with the cows they manage can be a little trickier. Something that’s come up is what to do when the herd has a lower fertility rate, which means fewer calves for the Petersons.

“There is a lot of gray area that we still figure out as we go. There are things we never thought of at the time we wrote the leases that have come up,” Mike said. But overall, “there’s a mutual understanding. We both have a mutual vested interest in it, so it’s to all of our benefit that the (cows) be cared for.”

Investing in the Land

Mike first got to know McNear at a Holistic Management Training conference in Rappahannock County — one that changed the way McNear raises cattle and cares for his land after some 50 years in the business.

The holistic training focuses on “mob grazing” management that uses electric fences to continually move cattle through the fields, fertilizing the soils as they eat the grass and giving each field time to recover between feedings.

McNear admits that he was the “biggest skeptic” about the grazing techniques taught at the conference, at first. But, after the first year of grazing with the new methods, “he was so thrilled by how his pastures were looking,” Molly said.

McNear knew that he wanted to work with farmers who would graze the cattle with an eye toward soil fertility, and that’s just what the Petersons had in mind. They took over his lease with Miller three years ago, and it expires in 2017.

Long-term leases with young farmers allow them to leave the options open for their children, should they want to farm the property themselves or alter agreements, while ensuring that the land is productive in the meantime.

Both McNear and Miller are in the process of transitioning the land their families own to the next generation. Long-term leases with young farmers allow them to leave the options open for their children, should they want to farm the property themselves or alter agreements, while ensuring that the land is productive in the meantime.

Miller is a decade into his 40-year lease agreement with a pair of vegetable farmers on a portion of the land his family owns, and he’d like to see a similar arrangement happen with the Petersons once their initial 5-year lease expires.

“Hopefully, (Mike) will find that this is the way he wants to spend the rest of his life, and we’ll enter into a long-term lease,” Miller said.

Heritage Hollow Farm Store- Growing the Business

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Photo courtesy of Molly M. Peterson

In their first year as Heritage Hollow Farms, the couple is still looking to grow their own herd and considering leasing additional lands in the area. Along with harvesting up to 100 of the cattle they acquire each year, the Petersons own and raise 100 pigs and 60 to 80 lambs on the land leased from Miller.

Miller’s farm had already spent nearly a dozen years establishing local buyers’ clubs through which his grass-fed beef was sold directly to customers in the Washington metro area.

The Petersons tweaked their delivery routes a bit after transitioning those customers to Heritage Hollow, but direct retail sales are still the bread-and-butter of their beef business. The Peterson’s were able to open a new farm store, up the street from Heritage Hollow, at the Sperryville Schoolhouse— an investment they could afford because they weren’t burdened with the costs of buying land and infrastructure. They sell a growing percentage of their meat products through the store, and have cut back on the number of places they deliver in the DC area.

Sometimes they have to explain to customers who stop by the store that the meat comes from their farm from across the street— and not suppliers.

“We have a little bit of confusion where we have to tell people that we are the farmers,” Molly said. “That’s why we’ve got a painting on the wall that says, ‘We are your farmers.’”


Whitney Pipkin

This story is part of  “Finding a Place to Grow“, a publication produced by The Piedmont Environmental Council. The stories were written by Whitney Pipkin, a freelance journalist from Alexandria, VA who covers food, farms, and the environment. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others, and she writes at thinkabouteat.com

The publication was made possible by a grant from The Beirne Carter Foundation.

Read more stories >>