This past weekend I had the privilege of touring the beautiful Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, VT. Perched in the heart of the green mountains, this certified organic 10-acre medicinal herb farm focuses on cultivating the highest quality herbs for wholesale and retail markets around the country. Jeff Carpenter and Melanie Slick-Carpenter and a 5-person crew run the farm. While managing a profitable operation, they place strong emphasis on conservation of endangered medicinals, such as Ginseng and Goldenseal, and land stewardship as well.
During the tour, we walked several of the farm’s fields, starting at the ones closest to the farm house. The fields were packed with innovation! We saw oat/clover cover crops in action, learned about solar water pumping, explored woodland cultivation of goldenseal, met the pigs who till the farm fields, and examined Jeff’s antique chain digger that he’s retrofitted with a vehicle differential to make it PTO-driven. (Jeff credits the R.J. Fournier biannual farm equipment auction as his source of many similar equipment ideas…) By the end of the tour, we had a thorough introduction to methods that have improved soil health, increased efficiency of operations, and maintained the bottom line of stewarding biodiversity that makes this farm flourish.
What really sparked my interest was a field bordering the Echinacea planting (Echinacea is shown above). This field looked not much different from the rest we just toured— with well-kept row after row of various species of medicinals climbing up and down the gently undulating terrain with sod-based middles. But then Jeff remarked, “We lease this land from our neighbors.” As an Extension educator always intrigued by alternative models of land access for beginning farmers, my ears really perked up. Here was a case where the farmer was obviously successful in a situation of non-ownership tenure. Jeff and Melanie have developed a working lease arrangement with their neighbor. The agreement is simple and verbal: Zack Woods Farm brushhogs field borders to maintain open fields, helps thin the woodlands for sustainable forest management, and checks up on the property’s vacant dwellings. Fifty acres is available to Zack Woods for field and agroforestry use in return! As a token of gratitude for the landowner’s cooperation, the Carpenters send them a bottle of Balvenie every year…
The tour got better from there. We drove a couple of miles to another field that the farm leases. This area had a different feel– it was more secluded, more rolling, and open portions were more intermixed with young trees and curving thickets of woods. A stream rushed down the hill nearby. As the van arrived, the warm fall sun poked out from the clouds, and this was after about 5 days of straight rain! Maybe it is always warm and sunny at this incredibly beautiful spot. Here Jeff showed us more species under cultivation. “Ashwaganda is an analogue. It has the same medicinal properties as Ginseng, which grows in the wild but is currently endangered from overharvesting,” he explained. By cultivating the alternatives, Zack Woods Farm contributes to the preservation of valuable species native to our meadows and woodlands.
Jeff found the secluded acreage by stumbling across it one winter while hunting. The Carpenters approached the landowners and introduced themselves, their farm business, and their stewardship ethic. The two parties ended up signing a 20-year lease with the landowner for the 47 acres of land. The landowners had the farmers sign a “Hold Harmless Clause” in the lease, meaning that if the farmers injured themselves in any way on the property, the landowners would not be held liable. Again, Zack Woods Farm performs basic maintenance of fields and forest, and there is no cash rent. Jeff pointed out that prior to him approaching both landowners from whom he leases, they did not know about the Department of Taxes Use Value Appraisal Program. The farm lease helped the landowners enroll in the program, and now they are enjoying a significant tax benefit by having the farmers use and take care of their land. Furthermore, the landowners properties are now certified organic without them having to pay a cent!
Zack Woods farm is a brilliant example of how farmers can own very little land, yet still farm profitably and sustainably. In expanding the farm onto leased land, Jeff, Melanie, and farm crew are improving lands that would have otherwise gone unmanaged. Maintaining good relationships with the landowners is undoubtedly important in making non-ownership tenure situations work. The 20-year lease, considered long-term by many standards, is also an advantage. It enables the farm to make key investments in soil fertility, and allows for sound long-term planning for operations.
If you are a farmer looking to emulate the “Zack Woods” example, please don’t hesitate to contact the Land Access Program at UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture or the UVM Extension New Farmer Project. We are currently scaling up our efforts to link farmers with landowners or available farmland tenure opportunities. We also have many educational materials available for farmers and landowners developing tenure arrangements. Please send your land access inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or give me a call at (802) 656-9142. Together we can broaden the scope and improve the quality of land opportunities for new, expanding, and relocating farmers throughout Vermont. And stay tuned to this blog for more articles on ways to find farmland!