- ELIZABETH GABRIEL
How One NYS Farmer Found Land by Writing Letters and Making Cold Calls
An interview with Erica Frenay, Co-owner Shelterbelt Farm
BY ELIZABETH GABRIEL
We know well that finding land is one of the biggest challenges for new farmers, and even more so for young farmers or farmers of color. Unless you’re getting into farming later in life, after having a six-figure career for a few decades – which is not the case for most new farmers – purchasing land listed publicly on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is nearly impossible. While levels vary throughout the country, nationally, agricultural land prices today are the highest they have been in nearly a decade, experiencing a 7% increase just in the last year. The highest prices are found on land that’s within a reasonable distance to an urban market – where any new farmer wants to be – with all of New England having some of the most expensive land in the country. Farmers have had to get creative about how to buy land or secure long-term land tenure. This issue and upcoming TNF issues will highlight different land access models, from lease arrangements to Incubator Farm programs and crowdsourcing campaigns to community land trusts and cooperative land arrangements. This story of how Shelterbelt Farm got their land is unique and combines intergenerational relationships, neighbor relationships and the beginnings of grappling with white privilege and access.
TNF: Tell us a little about you, please.
ERICA: Erica runs Shelterbelt Farm with her husband Craig and children Rowan and Phoenix in Brooktondale, NY. They direct-market grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured eggs, tree fruits, veggie starts, and value-added products, and they host overnight guests in a glamping tent. They started Shelterbelt in 2010 after searching for land for almost 3 years.
TNF: Why were you seeking land?
ERICA: We used to have an old farmhouse on 2-acres. While living there, I would dabble in farming – we had some pigs, and grew mushrooms, veggies and fruit – and eventually, we realized we wanted to grow more and feed our community. We really liked the idea of a multi-family farm, which we experienced when we lived and learned at the Bullock Brothers Farm in Orcas Island back in the 90’s. That was before we had kids, but watching the resident children run wild on cooperatively managed land was a joy, and that vision stayed with me. We wanted to have a multi-family farm with at least 2 families but ideally 5 or 6. When we started looking for land, we were looking with four other multigenerational families; 2 were similar to us – young with no kids yet – and 2 of the couple were parents of those couples, including Craig’s parents.
TNF: How did you begin your search for land?
ERICA: I don’t really remember the beginning actually. I know we intentionally didn’t use a realtor. We looked on MLS but everything there was too expensive and was selling too fast for us, often at more than the asking price. We were really trying to rely on word of mouth. We knew we wanted something between 50 and 200 acres because we wanted to raise grass-finished livestock, but also knew we didn’t have to (and couldn’t afford to) own it all. There was a lot of heartbreak over these years of searching. We would find a place, get excited, make a purchase offer, and then it would fall through. The market wasn’t quite as hot as today, but it was a tough market for buyers then too. Also, mineral rights was a big issue then because fracking was still a possibility in the region, so that added to the complexity.
Eventually, the other three couples branched off on their own and found their own properties, leaving us and Craig’s parents. We decided to write a letter that included an excerpt of our Holistic Goal (our values, who we are as people and a vision for the farm we wanted to create) and send it to the owners of any properties we were interested in. We drove around identifying properties that met our goals and also that looked unloved or unmanaged, found out who owned those properties by looking at the County Tax office database, made a spreadsheet of who we wrote to, and tracked responses. We sent letters to about 30 landowners and were very specific that we would follow up with a call in a week or two.
During those phone calls we mostly had really nice responses – only one rude person, who we heard is just rude in general, and while we heard mostly “no’s”, all you need is one “yes”.
After three years, we were really starting to think this wouldn’t work out. Maybe we needed to change our parameters and give up on some of our ideals. For the property we ended up buying, it turned out that we were contacting the wrong person. The person listed as the owner was not actually the owner anymore, but the ex-husband of the current owner. Luckily, a house went up for sale next door to this property, and by visiting that house, we ended up learning more information about this land and who the correct owner was. When we contacted her, she was on the verge of subdividing the land into 5 lots, but we were able to work with her and our lawyers to sell us the whole 24 acres. We were really fortunate and privileged to have such a good relationship with Craig’s parents, who would eventually build a house on the land and so were willing to help purchase it with us.
Another complication of our land search is that we knew we needed access to more land than we could afford, so we wanted to buy a smaller piece of land adjacent to a much larger property that we could lease. So we also wrote to the owners of a 200-acre property next door to the land we were working on buying, asking about leasing their land for grazing. It took several years to build that relationship, primarily by exchanging letters and then an occasional in-person visit (since the landowners don’t live nearby). About 6 years ago, we started leasing 17 of those adjoining acres. We started with a 1-year lease, then a 3-year, and now we have a 15-year lease.
TNF: What was it about this land, in particular, that was appealing?
ERICA: It was on the way to where we used to live and we always admired the lovely view of the valley it has, since it’s up on a hill. We also knew it was a project and that was attractive – I didn’t quite know how much of a project though! From a design and farm perspective, there was no infrastructure and so, while there were wild flora and fauna – it was a blank slate as far as infrastructure. It was also near dear friends and family, in an area where we had already put down deep roots, which was really important.
TNF: How was it to start your farm with no infrastructure?
ERICA: For us, it’s what we wanted. Since Craig is a builder, he had a vision for the home he wanted for our family. Just like I had a vision for the farm, he had a specific vision for a home, for energy efficiency, aesthetics, and function, and wanted to build it. But it’s not something I would recommend for everyone; it really depends on your skills, resources and goals. I feel really aware of how much privilege is involved in our story. It’s expensive and time-consuming to buy land with no buildings. For us it worked because we were purchasing the land with Craig’s parents and Craig is a builder. We couldn’t have developed all we have if we needed to hire a builder for it. Yes, it takes longer to do it this way, but we also had the decision-making power to choose where everything goes. If you buy something with water, outbuildings, a house, fencing, etc., you can often get started much sooner than we did, but you also are working with the design (or lack of) that is there.
While a handful of kind landowners offered to give us low-cost access to their fields, those scenarios didn’t meet our needs. Particularly since we raise livestock, we didn’t want to have to drive to our farm every time we needed to check on things. None of their properties had fencing, shelter, or water systems in place, and we preferred not to have to invest in all that infrastructure on leased land. I know many people feel similarly but it’s a huge privilege to be able to build it all as you want it to be.
For years, we’ve reflected on all we have been able to have and do for our family and this farm and grappled with how to give back, do more for our community and right the wrongs of colonization that have benefited us. We are very much at the beginning of this exploration but are working on some collaborations that we feel excited about, that would lead to a very different future for this land. Some of what we’re exploring is giving some land to a non-profit or working with a neighbor who wants to start an incubator farm for Black women, but that’s all we can really say about it for now!
TNF: It took a few years to acquire the land. Do you think there was a way to expedite that journey knowing what you know now?
ERICA: I don’t think so, and looking back, it was probably good that it took that long (even though I was so impatient and would never have said that at the time!) It forced us to continually hone our ideals, our hopes and our vision. Every time a purchase offer didn’t work out, we had to reexamine our ideals and think even more deeply about where we were willing to give a little. Even once we bought the land, we didn’t do anything directly on it for a full year because we spent time there, to learn and observe. Like so many good designers – permaculturists and the like – would tell you, the first step to a good design process is observation.
TNF: Do you recommend your approach of letter writing to acquire land?
ERICA: Yes, I think so, but it’s really best used if you have a pre-existing relationship with a place like we did. When we first started looking, we had lived just around the corner for years and knew farmers, neighbors and the community. Craig already ran a small business here. If you come from far away and don’t know the people or place and culture, writing letters could potentially feel invasive or disrespectful to the recipients. But when you live in a place first, are active in community organizations and schools, and know people, your letters and inquiry are likely to be much more well-received by a landowner. And it’s more likely to work out well for you too because you’re not going to end up buying a piece of land in an area where you later discover you don’t feel at home at all and don’t find a sense of community.
More info: shelterbeltfarm.com/