Larry and Betti Steel were living in Manhattan when they came across an ad for a farm property in Red Hook. Once they saw it, they fell in love. And Betti fell hardest. She had been selling seeds since she was a young girl and was always drawn to the farm life. They rented it for the summer and continued to come up on weekends for years to follow. In July of 2001, they decided to sell their home in the city to move to the farm – just two months before the Twin Towers fell. “Talk about timing,” Larry says, shaking his head.
“Betti and I walked the property and talked about how great it would be to be stewards of the land,” Larry says. “We wanted to turn it into a farm.”
Betti learned about the farmland linking services offered by Columbia Land Conservancy and interviewed a dozen farmers matched through CLC’s service. They finally found Anthony Mecca, a young and ambitious farmer who had been searching for land for three years while he worked on a variety of farms.
“We had a feeling right away that he was really serious – that it was what he wanted to do – and that he was committed,” Larry says. During his search, Anthony talked to nearly 60 landowners up and down the East Coast and visited over 30 farms, so he had a pretty good idea of what he wanted. “I’ve looked at literally every other possibility,” Anthony laughs. The farm felt like a good fit for him and what he was looking to do with his biodynamic approach to farming. It also had some infrastructure, and a place for him to live on the farm, which he named Great Song Farm.
What really sealed the deal though, was Larry and Betti’s flexibility with their lease arrangement with Anthony.
“We wanted to make it affordable. We wanted to make it happen,” Larry says.
They didn’t ask Anthony to pay anything upfront, allowing him to first gain capital from his farming enterprises. With guidance from Columbia Land Conservancy, they sat down and worked out a five year lease. “Anthony is very thorough,” Larry says. “We complement each other in that way.”
The first thing Anthony invested into the farm were two greenhouses to help extend his season. He began growing vegetables right away, and added beef cattle to provide manure for fertilizing his crops. Anthony planned to sell his produce directly to customers with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, which he had years of experience with from his previous farm positions. Larry and Betti had an established community of friends and neighbors from living here for 15 years, so they began with their circle to find members for Great Song Farm’s CSA.
Once things got rolling, Larry started to get cold feet.
“You’re giving people access to your home,” he says, looking up at the white farmhouse. “It tested my whole perspective on privacy and land ownership.”
But it didn’t take long for Larry to warm up to the idea. “Little by little, it created a very profound personal connection for me,” he says.
“Instead of having a nuclear family of four or five, you now have a hundred people that you care about.”
Larry and Betti keep the community connected with dinners at the farm and family events like their annual outdoor puppet festival.
Three years after the farming relationship between the Steels and Anthony was solidified, the Columbia Land Conservancy joined forces with the Dutchess Land Conservancy to formally provide matching services in both Columbia and Dutchess counties under a joint collaborative program, and the following year American Farmland Trust launched the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network, which now provides a more comprehensive network for farmlink services throughout the Hudson Valley.
It’s now Anthony’s eighth year farming with Larry and Betti and they’re preparing to sign a new long-term lease. A 99-year lease, to be precise. In 2016, working closely with Dutchess Land Conservancy Larry and Betti sold their development rights and protected the farm with a conservation easement, ensuring that Anthony can keep farming, and that other farmers will be able to grow food on this land for many years to come.
Published in July 2018
The Hudson Valley Farmlink Network (HVFN) 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.