Farmer Lee Hennessy in front of barn

A First-Generation Farmer Finds Happiness in a Herd

Love at First Goat

At first, Lee Hennessy didn’t tell anyone the real reason for leaving a successful career in Hollywood to return home to upstate New York. “I kept it a total secret from everyone,” Lee says. When his dad asked why Lee was looking at farm properties, Lee said he was interested in fixing up an old house.

The truth is, Lee was searching for a farm.

During a trip to Provence, France, for his wine marketing business, Lee decided to visit a farmstead creamery. “It was there that I got kissed by my first goat,” Lee laughs. “I didn’t feel judged at the farm, I felt comfortable in my own skin.”

A lightbulb went on, and Lee began questioning his path. “I bought into the idea that you work your way up the career ladder and it makes you happy” Lee says. “But that didn’t happen. I decided I want to be happy now.”  

Lee moved across the country back to his hometown and started working at a 1,000 head goat dairy. After getting the hang of goat husbandry, Lee worked as a cheese-monger in Albany to learn about artisanal cheesemaking. Hungry for knowledge, Lee attended every free workshop he could. “Whether it was a red clover hay day or a soil health workshop, you can bet I was there,” Lee grins.

Now for the Hard Part – Finding and Financing Farmland

Three years after moving back to New York, Lee was ready to find a farm.

“Access to farmland is so difficult,” Lee says. “I needed a functional goat dairy, which is pretty hard to find.” Searching traditional means of finding properties, like classifieds and Craigslist, led Lee in circles.

A self-described millennial who hates using the phone, Lee still called any leads he was given to talk to farmers selling land, but nothing worked out.

Finally, an online search led Lee to the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HVFN), a website and network coordinated by American Farmland Trust to connect beginning farmers with landowners looking for someone to farm their land. “Farmlink gave me optimism that there were more options out there,” Lee says.

Lee browsed the farms listed on the site and signed up for a beginning farmer bus tour, hosted by Agricultural Stewardship Association, a partner in the network. During the tour Lee met Tim Biello, who works for American Farmland Trust. Tim helped Lee fill out a free profile for the website and offered advice throughout the process. Lee decided on a property they had previously considered on the website, owned by a couple who was ready to retire from goat farming, but wanted to see their land stay in agriculture.

But even then, it was more of a beginning than an end.  Lee still needed to find a way to buy the farm.

“I picked up the phone – at this point I was desperate,” Lee says. “I had terrible credit, I burned through my savings, what could I do?” Lee called a farm-minded equity group, Dirt Capital, which helped them finance the purchase of the farm. Lee also received a suite of business development services and micro-grant funding from HVFN partners including American Farmland Trust, the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corp., Grow NYC’s FARMroots program and Agricultural Stewardship Association.

“If I hadn’t gotten off work and gone on that bus ride, I probably wouldn’t be here on this farm today,” Lee says. “The fact that there’s an actual live person to talk to is one of the most valuable parts of it. New York and counties like Washington will continue to draw new farmers because of the Farmlink resource. American Farmland Trust was an important part of this whole transition.”

Learning to Ask for Help

Lee recalls the day he borrowed a truck to travel hours from home to pick up some equipment for their new farm. Lee hadn’t told anyone about the trip – he was totally on his own. On the way back, Lee drove beneath a bridge that proved too short for the load, damaging the truck and some of the new equipment.  

When the police responded to the accident, all Lee could think about was the very pregnant goat he had waiting at home. “I just knew she was in labor right then,” Lee says. “I was so worried. I had no idea how I was going to get home to help her.”

Sensing the urgency of the situation, the officer drove Lee back to the farm where he sprinted to the barn to find the doe with a brand new healthy baby.

Lee summoned the courage to tell his dad about the accident, and the big trip he had taken on his own.  

But his reply wasn’t what Lee expected. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?” he asked. “You can always call me.”

Go Get Your Boots Dirty

Today, Lee runs Moxie Ridge Farm with a menagerie of Alpine and Nigerian Dwarf goats, heritage chickens and geese, pigs and a pair draft horses, selling direct to consumer and frequenting the Saratoga Farmers Market and the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. Lee now gladly accepts help on the farm from his dad and interns, and he love volunteers.

To other beginning farmers, Lee provides a healthy dose of encouragement: “Go get your boots dirty, literally and metaphorically.” Lee says. “Go talk to people and tell them what you want to learn, and you’ll learn. I thought farmers were born. I didn’t realize you could become a farmer until I did it.”

Published in January 2019

This story originally appeared on The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network is a partnership of 15 organizations working to ensure the availability of farmland in the Hudson Valley for the farmers of today and tomorrow. Coordinated by American Farmland Trust, the network offers a Hudson Valley Farmland Finder website, training and networking events, and one-on-one assistance for farmers and landowners. The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network has received primary funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Additional funding has also been provided by the Environmental Protection Fund and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as well as the members of American Farmland Trust.