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There's a crop of new farmers springing up in the U.S. They're looking to farm organically and maybe drive their produce into an urban farmers market on the weekend. But there's a big obstacle in their way: the high price of land within range of many cities. Emma Jacobs of member station WHYY reports on one program around Philadelphia that's trying to help.
EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Marilyn Anthony is the yenta of the farmers of southeastern Pennsylvania. Anthony works for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, helping new growers find land.
MARILYN ANTHONY: When we started this program, we did sort of jokingly refer to it as eFarmony.
JACOBS: She's trying to make matches between these two groups: landowners outside Philadelphia with people who want to farm. And in this case, the match would take the form of a lease.
ANTHONY: No matter who we spoke with, whether it was aspiring farmers or landowners, the notion of leasing land, however, seemed uncomfortable.
JACOBS: Leasing is common for big fields of corn or soybeans, but a little veggie farmer wants to be closer to town and set down roots. Still, leasing is the most affordable solution for wannabe farmers like Wendy Tyson and Ben Pickarski. Right now, they grow produce on their standard suburban lot.
BEN PICKARSKI: You know, house with trimmed lawn, house with trimmed lawn, house with trimmed lawn, house with great trellises and vegetables all over the place.
JACOBS: They want to make the transition to farming full time, and for that, they're going to need more space. And buying is out.
WENDY TYSON: In our area, just finding it would be difficult enough. And then you're probably looking at - I don't even know. I mean, the price is just outrageously high.
PICKARSKI: Yeah. If anybody's selling a big enough piece of property to be used for farming, the only thing they have in their mind is, you know, where are you going to put the road and how many houses are you going to put on it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So given the time...
JACOBS: So here they are on a farm 50 minutes outside Philadelphia to see a lease in action. It's a speed-dating event for farmers and landowners and a tour of a successful farm on rented land. The farmers are Chris and TJ Costa.
TJ COSTA: One thing for everybody involved here, it is a little chilly, you know, brisk, and that is definitely part of farming. Sometimes we hear like, oh, yeah, the weather is part of it. But, no, the weather is really part of it.
JACOBS: TJ Costa says they did their own search for space two years ago to expand what was, at that point, a giant organic vegetable garden.
COSTA: Originally, we drafted a letter that we were going to drop in mailboxes. So there's a number of big open fields that, you know, driving around just didn't look well utilized. And, hey, let's drop a, you know, note in, say, here's who we are. Here's what we're looking for. Would you be interested?
JACOBS: The phone never rang. Eventually, they would meet their partners in this farm through the sustainable agriculture program. They formed a CSA, where their customers buy a share of the produce and visit every week to pick it up and just to get a little taste of farm life.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What kind of chickens are these? I forget.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hey, little girl. You want to come and say hi, huh?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)
JACOBS: The new farmers say leasing this land has let them grow their farm and that loyal community.
COSTA: You know, sort of no matter what happens and no matter what the weather is, and for us, that's a really huge avenue for support and encouragement and excitement. And so it does really make the hard work worth it.
JACOBS: Other farmers out here are still looking. Got some space you're not using? Give them a call. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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With the price of suburban farmland sky high, matchmakers are setting up landowners who want to lease their land to small farmers seeking to expand their growing areas and be close to urban areas where their customers live.
Eleanor Morris Illoway samples greens from farmland that she leased to organic farmers.
Emma Lee / WHYY
Many farmers want their farms to be located close to a city - especially organic farmers who'd like to sell their produce at big urban farmers markets. But the price of land within range of a big city is sky high and only getting higher.
Most small farmers buy their land, but some are now looking to lease in suburban or exurban areas. And to do that, they're using something straight out of Fiddler On The Roof: A matchmaker.
Marilyn Anthony is one such matchmaker. "When we started this program," she says, "we did sort of jokingly refer to it as 'eFarmony.'"
Anthony is with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. She's trying to match owners of underutilized land outside Philadelphia and people who want to farm. In this case, the match would take the form of a lease.
While leasing is common among big factory farms of corn or soybeans, Anthony says many small farmers are cool to the idea. And she says the landowners aren't too crazy about it either.
"No matter who we spoke with, whether it was aspiring farmers or landowners, the notion of leasing land ... seemed uncomfortable," she says.
Many organic farmers put in years of labor improving the soil they farm, and no one wants to see all that labor go to waste if their landlord decides not to renew the lease.
But even among farmers who do decide the risks of leasing are worth it, setting up that kind of arrangement can be difficult on their own.
T.J. Costa, an aspiring farmer, says he and his partner did their own search for space two years ago to expand what was, at that point, a giant organic vegetable garden.
"Originally we drafted a letter that we were going to drop in mailboxes," he says. "There's a number of big open fields that, just driving around, didn't look well utilized. ... Let's drop a note in – here's who we are, here's what we're looking for – would you be interested?"
The phone never rang.
That's where Anthony comes in. Her job is to convince skeptical landowners that organic farming would be a good way to utilize their land, and to convince skeptical organic farmers that leasing is the most affordable way to expand their business.
She hosts events where landowners and aspiring farmers can meet each other - kind of like speed dating, but for agriculture.
Anthony's program is based in southeastern Pennsylvania, but she says there are other programs similar to hers in Ohio and in New York's Hudson Valley.
Eventually, Costa found some land to lease through the sustainable agriculture program. He was able to create a farm-share program that allows city dwellers to purchase a percentage of his farm's produce and stop by each week to pick it up.
"No matter what happens and what the weather is," Costa says, "that's a really huge avenue for support and encouragement and excitement. And so it really does make the hard work worth it."
Other farmers out here are still looking. Got some space you're not using? Give them a call.