Bridging the Gap to Bring a New Generation to the Land

Tom Hutson stands in field with dairy cows.

Tom Hutson is a lifelong steward of land, whose rich bottom-land soils filter drinking water for millions of residents in New York City. Tom was in New York City to accept a Steward of the Land award from American Farmland Trust in 2006, when he made a point of pulling a plastic bag from his pocket filled with rich soil collected from his farm and affectionately describing its contents to the crowd. Seventeen years later, Tom remains an innovator in stewardship – of the soil itself – and in thinking about its future.

“I began listening to some of the speakers, and it enlightened me,” Tom said. “I thought, ‘There are people who really do want to farm and deserve a chance – it made sense to me to use the farm to help young people get started.”

Decades ago, Tom had permanently protected his farm with a conservation easement, a voluntary program that farmers can utilize to keep their land in agriculture. In Tom’s case, it also contributed to clean drinking water from his watershed for millions of people living downstate in New York City. It can also help future generations to afford the land, as it’s no longer able to be subdivided for development, reducing its market value. Even so, land is expensive, and it’s hard for a young farmer or couple to finance a property with hundreds of acres, along with the start-up costs of a new farm business.

In 2023, Tom decided to sell his farm to American Farmland Trust in exchange for cash and a charitable gift annuity that will provide him with income for the rest of his life as he transitions out of farming. AFT is leasing the land to new and neighboring farmers, and exploring options with a cooperative farming entity, which could purchase the farm and steward it long-term with affordable rates to new farmers.

Partnering with West Branch Commons

West Branch Commons Group Photo provided by Sea Matias

West Branch Commons group photo, provided by Sea Matías.

The story of West Branch Commons is a story about the future of farming. There is growing interest among young people to start farming, including BIPOC, women, queer and trans folks, and other identities that have faced added barriers to land access on top of the broader affordability issues for purchasing land. At the same time, New York is losing farmland at an alarming rate of 51 acres every single day to development and uses that threaten farming.

American Farmland Trust saw an opportunity to try a different approach to farmland access. Despite not having heirs to pass the farm on to, Tom was interested in making land available to a new generation of farmers, and conversations began around what an alternative model of land ownership could look like. Collaborating with partners at Catskills Agrarian Alliance, the concept of the West Branch Commons was born. AFT has since purchased the land, giving Tom the financial security he needs to step back from farming, and buying time for an incoming generation of farmers to take full ownership of the farm.

Francis Yu, Catskill Agrarian Alliance

Francis Yu, Co-Executive Director of Catskills Agrarian Alliance and Farmer. Photo provided by Sea Matías.

Francis Yu, Co-Executive Director of the Catskills Agrarian Alliance, has partnered closely with American Farmland Trust and Farmland for a New Generation New York (FNG-NY) staff on shaping the idea of the West Branch Commons, a community land trust that centers equitable land access for historically underserved producers and communities, specifically QTBIPOC farmers. Catskills Agrarian Alliance is also a Regional Navigator organization with the FNG-NY program!

During the process, the incoming farmers received technical support and guidance from FNG-NY, working closely with program specialist Tim Biello. Tim has helped advise the farmers’ business and production plans, and earlier in the process, he visited the property to help identify the area best suited for vegetable production on the former dairy farm. On the legal side, FNG-NY Regional Navigator Pace University Food and Farm Business Law Clinic worked closely with Catskills Agrarian Alliance to develop the board and structure of the commons to manage the land in the future.

The farmers of the West Branch Commons are currently leasing the land from AFT while raising funds to purchase the property for permanent, secure access for the farmers within the commons. Structured as a 501(c)3 Community Land Trust, the West Branch Commons currently supports four farmers and their enterprises, and Francis envisions six to eight enterprises being supported on the land in the future, through intentional growth and relationship building.

“If Tom had gone to the private market with this property, we wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” Francis says. “The land would have been lost to us, like much of the land is lost to folks like us.”

This model aims to remove the speculative value of land. “We’re trying to do away with how we can reap a profit from the land and move to how can we honor the land for the reciprocity that it gives us,” Francis says. They often ask, “How can we bring [reciprocity] back to the land itself and to the soil, and how can we make it accessible to communities that don’t have access to land?”

The West Branch Commons story shines a light on the opportunities we can uncover when we think beyond the conventional way of doing things. It’s easy for a farmer to sell their land to a developer, or to the highest bidder. It’s much more difficult to wade through the process of creating a beneficial arrangement for a new farmer, or group of farmers, with fewer capital resources, while taking care of the retiring farmer who devoted much of their lifetime to the land. In the case of WBC, it has gone even further, as Tom shares his knowledge with the next generation, and they share a sense of community with the land.

Of course, Tom doesn’t plan to go very far in retirement. He remains at the farm raising his beef herd and serving as a mentor to the new farmer generation. “My brother said to me, ‘I know you want to die with your boots on.’ That’s probably how I intend to do it,” he says. “But luckily, I met these young people that want to farm, and I’m very enthusiastic. You have to respect and encourage that. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Follow along and join the growing community of support for West Branch Commons! You can join their newsletter or donate here.

Tom Hutson with Sea Matias at River Haven Farm in 2023

Tom Hutson, right, with Sea Matías, left, at River Haven Farm in Delaware County. Photo by Shawn Linehan for AFT.

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