Renting Land to Farm at WVF

Farm Rental Arrangements

From our first season in 1979 through 2005 we grew twenty or more acres of vegetables, selling them almost exclusively at 12 to 15 producer-only farmers markets per week in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Beginning in 2006, we began to reduce the acreage that we ourselves farmed, and the number of markets we attended.

Although we had long envisioned others using our farm to produce high value crops, it was Ali Moussalli who caused us to take the first step in that direction by choosing to farm on his own here in 2006. In that year, Ali met Lisa Steinbrueck, who had come to work with us for the season, and is now his wife and farming partner. In 2007 Zach Lester and Georgia O’Neal, with their son Eoin and farm manager Katherine Stewart moved their existing vegetable operation to our farm.

All three farms were fortunate that organizers of the markets we had attended were willing to admit these two independent farmers, via the annual application process, into their markets to occupy the spaces we were vacating. In particular, we are grateful for the understanding of the producers at the producer-run Takoma Park Farmers Market, of Ann Yonkers and Bernie Prince of FRESHFARM Markets, and of Howard Herman at the Falls Church Farmers Market.

We have devised a two-part rental formula. For use of land and farming infrastructure, we charge a flat fee per acre. We also charge a percentage of gross sales. We have staggered both charges slightly to encourage farmers to rent more acres per year or to stay for a second or third year or more.

All farms here are strictly independent. All produce is grown, stored, and sold only by the farm that produced it. Each farm applies to markets on its own, hires its own workers, obtains its own insurance, does its own payroll, taxes, etc.

We are pleased that after three seasons here, both couples were able to qualify for USDA FSA (Farm Services Administration) mortgage loans for their own farmland. Ali and Lisa now own Frog Bottom Farm near Lynchburg, VA. Zach and Georgia, of Tree and Leaf Farm, have purchased a farm near Culpepper, VA. They and Katherine will farm there in 2010.
We have observed that each of our three independent operations here was able to produce more vegetables and to generate more dollars per acre than we had been able to during our larger acreage/many markets days.

Our neighbor in Wheatland, John Mazza, with his wife and another couple, farmed on one acre here in 2009 selling at the new Saturday Georgetown Farmers Market.

Here are other observations on the past four years.

All farmers are committed to using ecological growing practices only, that is, methods approved under organic standards, or with zero toxicity rating, or using food-grade materials only. Patches not carried over into the spring are planted in cover crops.

Our farmland of gentle slopes is divided into nearly 30 contoured patches, of many sizes and shapes carefully measured to the hundredth of an acre, separated by grass waterways and road ways. They range from one-tenth of an acre to two acres. In January each farm chooses its patches for the year. Farms have often kept the same patches, but sometimes not. So far we have not yet fully used all of the available acreage of good soils. The 25-year-old blueberry patch is divided for pruning, mulching, and picking according to percentage of acres rented.

All of the acreage except the blueberry ground has been limed regularly for 30 years and has a pH near neutral. Farms are responsible of mowing the perimeters of their patches, some of which include adjacent sod, unsuitable for tilling.

We are lucky to have several existing rental houses on the farm that can now be rented to farmers.

Land, equipment, farm buildings, greenhouse, irrigation, and deer fence continue to be fully used. We added two walk-in coolers in 2009. These production assets are in place for the renter to generate income, and to provide rental income for us as owners.

We coordinate equipment and irrigation use, usually on a daily basis.

We share maintenance responsibilities in all categories jointly used (buildings, equipment, non-field mowing) apportioned roughly to the acres used.

We, Chip and Susan, pay all bills for shared resources — electricity, equipment and green house fuel, repairs and maintenance of jointly used equipment and jointly used supplies. We then bill renters, based on acreage used or other agreed upon logical division, for all but our share.

Even though our inventory of many durable supplies was large (from having farmed 20 acres), we found it easier for each farm to use only its own flats, cell packs, hoses,
T-posts, irrigation supplies, hoops, row cover, sand bags, baskets, crates, tarps, poles, scales, knives, clippers, etc. Creating separate storage areas for each farm has been useful.

Each farm owns its own off-road and on-road vehicles. Renters own additional equipment for their own use only.

Another new element in the past four years is shared use of the worker kitchen and barn by workers from the different farms.

We ourselves will continue to farm at a reduced rate in 2010. John Mazza plans to return for a second season, farming part time, again on one acre. David Giusti, who worked on our farm during the summers of 2005 and 2006, and for the full season in 2009, will farm here independently in 2010 on three or four acres. We have room for another farm.

We are also lucky to have the company of neighboring market farms, beyond those farming on our 60 acres. Potomac Vegetable Farms, Moutoux Orchard (fruit, grain, vegetables, meat and, eggs), Greenstone Fields (flowers, berries, mushrooms, and vegetables), and acreage owned by Howard Herman and his wife Leslie, where Howard maintains beehives, are all reachable by farm lanes. A few miles away, at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, is Mountain View Farm, with vegetables, sheep, and chickens.

We are learning whether renting our farm in this way is satisfying, both practically and financially, both to those renting and to us as owners. We are interested in knowing how market organizers view applications from farmers in such lease arrangements. We also hope to hear from other farmers who have made similar arrangements.

October 2009

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