Leasing provides affordable Pa. land for new farmers
November 28, 2012By Emma Jacobs
This is not your typical landlord-tenant relationship. The lease to a four-acre patch of land in Downington represents the meeting place of one family's legacy and the another's ambition to farm.
It could become an increasingly common scenario. Lots of younger people are looking to start farms in the Delaware Valley region, but most available farmland costs a lot more than they can afford to pay.
"It was a great place to grow up," said Laura Morris Sienna, part custodian a very large property in Chester County that was once a dairy farm.
"The pigs would get out right before you were supposed to go to a party or something," she recalled. A low moment, perhaps, but one that still makes her laugh.
Honoring a trust
Now, she says, the parcel could become home to a herd of small, organic farms, according to a vision laid out by her farmer-turned-conservationist mother in her will.
It set up the Lundale Farm trust to lease land for organic farming to people such as Chris and TJ Costa, who discovered two years ago that they could not afford to buy the land to expand their growing vegetable operation.
"Originally we drafted a letter that we were going to drop in mailboxes," explained TJ Costa.
"Here's who we are, here's what we're looking for -- would you be interested?"
After a first letter drop to property owners in their area, the phone never rang. Through the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's farm-lease connection program, however, they got an introduction to the folks at Lundale.
This sort of matchmaking has become a growing part of PASA's operations, says Marilyn Anthony, the association's eastern regional director. She notes that the price of land poses a wider problem in the community she works with.
Within driving distance of urban markets, land prices are set against the price developers will pay.
An 'e-Farmony' success story
Outside that radius, where cheap land is still available, "it's difficult to make economic sense of that," she says.
Jokingly, her organization calls her initiatives to introduce property-owners with vacant land to those looking to lease "eFarmony."
So far, the Costas' vegetable beds and plastic-wrapped greenhouses are the furthest along. The Costas just concluded their second growing season. For them, the sisters at Lundale are important partners.
For her part, Laura Sienna says she feels guided by her parents' passion.
"Nobody expected them to become these amazing people that they did and part of the reason was [that] they came here to live," she says. "Their lives were informed by this land, and we all have found that very inspirational."
She still has the task ahead of finding charges to fill the rest of the 446 acres. If you're looking to start a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, you can find out more about the Farm Lease Connection program on the PAFA website.