Creating Community and Finding Land in Rural Western New York

Emma Smalley grew up in a rural area, but she wasn’t born into a farming family. After moving to the city as an adult, she became interested in food and nutrition, and felt called back to her rural roots. Hungry for experience, she answered a Craigslist ad from an older farmer who was looking for help with his goat farm.   

Emma quickly fell in love with farming, and with goats especially. Sadly, an accident claimed the life of the farmer she was helping, and she kept some of his goats in tribute to her mentor and friend. She moved the goats to another parcel she could lease short-term while she figured out next steps. Out in Western New York, farmers can be challenged by distance to markets, and Emma was repeatedly pushed further away from her ideal markets in the Buffalo region.  

“Right around the city, developers have more money than me,” Emma says. “Anytime a big farm would go up for sale, it would just immediately be chopped up into subdivision pieces. That was my experience for several years.”  

Emma’s needs for a property were specific – she needed enough acreage to support a sizable goat herd with grazing, and she needed a house that could comfortably fit her family. She kept finding five to ten-acre parcels, or houses that lacked important features, like indoor plumbing. Finding affordable housing is a pervasive challenge for farmers seeking land.  

Emma attended a workshop series called Putting Down Roots in the Fall of 2018, which was hosted by American Farmland Trust in partnership with CCE Erie, Farm Credit East and the National Young Farmers Coalition. In 2019, Emma created a profile on the Farmland for a New Generation New York website, at the recommendation of Regional Navigator, Kathleen McCormick, of Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie County. She looked at many farms, and came close to getting one, but the exiting farmer couldn’t meet her at the appraised value, feeling that the farm was worth more after pouring his life into the land.   

Land is often the most valuable asset a farmer has, and it’s a challenge within farm transitions to enable a retiring farmer to sell their farm for a price that reflects their life’s work and supports them into the future, while also being affordable for a next generation farmer. These needs can be competing, but tools such as conservation easements can play an important role to help alleviate those financial burdens.   

For Emma, having off-farm income made a huge difference, and is how many young and beginning farmers get started. “The cost was a big factor, and the real truth is that without my off-farm job I would not be here,” Emma says. While creating a profile on the Farmland for a New Generation New York website ultimately led her to find her forever farm, it was more than a matchmaking tool for Emma. Through the program she put together a business plan, which enabled her to act quickly to apply for USDA financing.   

“The process of writing things down is so clarifying,” Emma says. “I think a lot of farmers don’t want to take the time, but when you write it down it really brings it to goal status and not just dream status.” Emma took her love of goats and tapped into the unmet demand for goat to serve communities seeking halal meat for religious and cultural occasions.   

Emma also received support along the way, from AFT staff and Regional Navigators. “It was like everybody was on your team – all of these strangers came together to help me get this farm, and it meant a lot to me,” Emma says. “It was a group effort, and I was really grateful to have that team behind me.”   

While the search process was long and challenging, Emma is glad to have found her ‘ideal farm’ and is excited for what the future holds. Emma’s herd has now grown to around 70 adult goats and kids, many with names and distinctive personalities that Emma knows well. Since arriving on the farm in April of 2021, Emma has been hard at work getting her goats set up in the way she always imagined, living their best life enjoying the 60 acres of pasture and browse from trees and shrubs that Emma is making available in her grazing plan.   

Reflecting on her different tenure situations of leasing and ownership, Emma has found more benefits in owning her land, and not having separate housing 30 minutes from the farm or worrying about the lease falling through. While owning her farm provides flexibility and security, she is also on the hook for anything that could possibly go wrong.   

Emma is confident that purchasing a farm was the better tenure option for her, but the decision came with compromise. She hoped to find a farm closer to Buffalo, to be closer to markets and for her husband and teenage children who enjoyed urban living and its accessibility. Her children still spend most of their time in the city, but her son has enjoyed learning to drive the tractor, and she has hope that someone will be farming it in the future, perhaps her own children, or another first-generation farmer like herself.   

Connection and community are important to Emma – but it can be difficult to find when moving to a new place, especially a rural area like Allegany County. Fortunately, Emma connected with a neighbor down the road who used to be a farmer. “He’s sort of adopted me as his project,” Emma laughs. “Sometimes you just need someone to tell you when your hay looks good.” He’s also helped repair machinery that has broken down, saving Emma from calling a mechanic out to the farm. “Once you find your land, you’ve got to find your people,” Emma says. “Talk to other farmers, take in all their knowledge. Just because they might do something differently doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them.”   

Emma is also continuing to build community with other local farmers through a new Western New York chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and by encouraging other farmers to list their available farmland through the Farmland for a New Generation New York website.   

“Your neighbors might not be farmers and you might have to work a little harder to find each other,” Emma says, “but somebody out there knows where there is land that you could farm.”  

Published November 2022

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