Berkshire Community Land Trust Enters Final Phase to Secure River Run for Off the Shelf Farm

Berkshire Community Land Trust Enters Final Phase to Secure River Run for Off the Shelf Farm

Great Barrington — The Berkshire Community Land Trust (BCLT) is in the final stretch of securing River Run Farm for Off the Shelf Farm, a significant milestone in their Farmsteads for Farmers program. This initiative aims to provide long-term, affordable land access to farmers practicing regenerative agriculture.

Anna Houston and Rob Perazzo, founders of Off the Shelf Farm, have been leasing scattered parcels of land since 2018. Their operations were fragmented, with eggs washed in their shower or garage. The precarious nature of these “handshake leases” has also affected other local farmers, like Molly Comstock of Colfax Farm, who lost their land under similar conditions.

When River Run Farm on North Plain Road in Housatonic went up for sale, Houston saw its potential for agriculture and approached Jane Iredale, a customer at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. Houston’s primary concern was to preserve the land for farming rather than see it developed into a solar field or gravel pit.

Through BCLT’s Farmsteads for Farmers program, Iredale agreed to purchase River Run. BCLT would then raise the necessary funds to buy it from her, ensuring the land remains farmland under a low-cost 98-year lease. This arrangement allows farmers to build equity in their buildings without the burden of land debt, a crucial factor given the high cost of land in the Berkshires.

Off the Shelf Farm now has a consolidated base at River Run, where they practice rotational grazing with chickens, lambs, cattle, and turkeys. Houston and Perazzo moved onto the property in May 2023, but BCLT still needs to raise $395,000 to complete the $1.25 million purchase.

The project has already received significant support, including two $100,000 grants from family foundations and $300,000 from Great Barrington’s Community Preservation Act funds. Jane Iredale has also invested $400,000 in property improvements, which will be mortgaged back to her as Houston and Perazzo buy the house.

The initial payment deadline of May 2024 has been extended to December. The sooner BCLT can raise the remaining funds, the sooner they can help other farmers facing land insecurity. Eric Aulicino, a board member of the land trust, mentioned ongoing discussions with people interested in donating or selling their land at appraised value.

Houston describes having a home base as “game-changing.” Before, they questioned the feasibility of continuing their work while starting a family. Now, with a state grant, they have invested in a barn and infrastructure, expanding their operations. Simple amenities like a bathroom for staff and a space to process food have made a significant difference.

Land is just one part of the equation. Houston and other panelists discussed the challenges of small-scale farming after a screening of “Kiss the Ground,” a film about regenerative farming. The film highlights the importance of soil health and its role in combating climate change.

Houston points out that while the mountainous landscape of the Berkshires makes large-scale farming difficult, smaller plots are still being used for corn and soy. The challenge lies in growing consumer demand for sustainably raised food, which comes at a higher price point.

Will Conklin of Sky View Farm in Sheffield has also faced challenges. Despite raising high-quality meat, the farm wasn’t generating significant income. They have since diversified into timber and forest products. Conklin recalls advice from Wendell Berry, who suggested that aspiring farmers first get a town job, highlighting the economic challenges of farming.

Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm, who started under a similar long-term lease with BCLT, pointed to housing costs as a significant hurdle. Keeping labor housed affects her ability to farm, and she advocates for creative solutions to retain workers.

Conklin, who also directs Greenagers, notes that young people are interested in farming but face barriers like high living costs. He emphasizes the need for opportunities for young people to engage with farming and the soil.

Houston echoes this sentiment, questioning where the next generation of farmers will go. They want to farm but can’t afford to live in the area. She stresses the importance of cultivating the future of farming.

“We are the current poster children for this project,” Houston says, “but it’s important to remember this land will go to another farmer, to the next generation.”

Donations to Farmsteads for Farmers will help complete the purchase of River Run Farm, ensuring affordable access to farmland for future generations.

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