Melissa Law farms with her husband Ben Whalen and their business partners, Abby and Jeff Fisher, on Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, Maine. They grow six acres of vegetables, flowers, and herbs on the land they steward just outside of Portland. They sell their produce through a thriving CSA, restaurant sales, farm pick-up, and on-farm events. Melissa and Ben were founding members of the Southern Maine Young Farmers Coalition, which they helped run for three years.
The four owners of Bumbleroot met in Colorado, where Jeff and Ben started farming together as interns at Cure Organic Farm in Boulder. Jeff and Abby moved from Colorado to Maine in 2013, and Ben and Melissa followed a year later so they could all start Bumbleroot Organic Farm together.
The perils of insecure land access
The four farmers signed a lease agreement with a local landowner in 2014 and got to work plowing the fields and planting cover crops in the fall to prepare the soil. Unfortunately, the landowner backed out of the lease shortly after, leaving them landless before their first growing season had even started. Melissa and Ben were living in a rental house nearby, and in their desperation asked their landlord and neighbors if they could plant in their yards. The landowners said yes and they quickly pieced together a 1.5-acre dispersed backyard operation. Almost immediately, the farmers understood that they needed to buy their own land to avoid another disaster. It is difficult to invest in infrastructure and the soil, and to feel any real sense of security as a farmer with only a short-term lease.
In their search for farmland, it was very important to the two couples that they be located within a 30-mile radius of Portland, Maine to be close to Abby’s off-farm job at a craft brewery and so that they could access the major farmers markets and restaurants in the city. Unfortunately, their stipulation of being close to the urban center meant they had to compete with development and residential pressure pushing outward from the city, which put most of the properties they were interested in out of their financial reach.
Finding affordable farmland
Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) is a statewide organization that protects farmland, supports farmers, and advances the future of farming in Maine. Along with protecting farmland from development and working to support farm viability, MFT is also focused on helping farmers access land. One of their programs is Maine FarmLink, which lists properties available for sale or lease across the state. The goal of this program is to connect farmers seeking land with farm owners who are looking to sell, lease, or work out a viable agreement for both parties so that the land can be put to use for farming.
The farmers monitored the site regularly—eventually finding their “dream farm,” a stunning 89-acre parcel only ten miles from Portland. As to be expected, the property was expensive and out of their price range. The land was a third-generation farm that had been in operation since the late 1800s, and was currently owned by the two remaining sisters. After their father died, the sisters felt it was time to pass the land on to a younger farmer, but couldn’t find any farmers who could afford to purchase it.
Eight months after the farmers first saw the property for sale, MFT decided to purchase the land as part of their Buy/Protect/Sell Program. In this program, MFT buys farmland that is particularly vulnerable to development, places an agricultural conservation easement on the property, and then sells it to farmers at a reduced rate. In the case of this property, MFT made it available through a request for proposal process with a set price that required farmers to submit a business plan, application, and pre-approval for financing. From the date of the request for proposals was announced to planned closing on the property was only two months, meaning the farmers had to act quickly.
The Bumbleroot owners had been taking a winter farm business class through Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (MOFGA), which helped prepare them to seek financing for the property purchase.
They first approached the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) to explore the low-interest credit options available. FSA cannot pre-approve loans, however, and the process would have taken much too long for them to purchase the property. In addition, the two couples purchasing the farm are not related by blood, which meant they were ineligible to access FSA farm ownership financing together.
Read more about FSA loan programs in Young Farmers’ Farm Service Agency Loans Guidebook.
Their financing ultimately came through Coastal Enterprises Incorporated (CEI), a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). CEI is a mission-driven lender, so even though their interest rates are higher initially due to taking on more risk with new and unproven businesses, their goal is to help their clients “graduate” to traditional lenders once they have built a viable foundation for their business. The farmers met with CEI’s agriculture program officer, who helped them with their loan application, and within three weeks they were approved for a mortgage loan that allowed them to make interest-only payments for the first six months.
Free business counseling was also available through CEI’s affiliated Small Business Development Center, and Ben and Melissa continue to take advantage of this assistance as they manage and scale up their farm business.
Check out Young Farmers’ Finding Farmland Calculator, a resource designed to help demystify financial concepts related to land access and can be used to compare property prices, understand the impact of a conservation easement, and prepare to access financing.
A working farm easement makes the property affordable
In every buy/protect/sell farm project, MFT includes a conservation easement, which limits or eliminates the rights to develop or subdivide the property, typically reducing the property value in the process. In the case of this project, the land trust also incorporated the Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) into the easement, which reduced the value even further and permanently protected the property for farmer ownership.
Conservation easements are voluntary, legal agreements between a landowner and a public agency or qualified conservation organization, such as a land trust, that permanently limit uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values—typically by prohibiting future subdivision and development of the land. An agricultural conservation easement is designed to keep productive land available for farming and often includes provisions that allow for building agricultural structures and conducting farming activity. Landowners can either sell or donate the rights associated with these easements in exchange for monetary compensation or tax breaks.
Working farm easements contain additional restrictions, such as the OPAV tool, that strengthen traditional easements. These easements not only protect land from development, but also help ensure that protected land is sold at its agricultural use value to future farmer owners. Working farm easements have been the key to keeping hundreds of protected farms in farmer ownership in Massachusetts and Vermont, and are being implemented by an increasing number of New York land trusts. Read more about this tool in our 2018 report, Farmland for Farmers.
Because the property is located just outside of Maine’s largest city, there was a lot of demand by second home owners or other potential buyers who desired a rural residence close to where they work. By restricting the purchaser pool to only farmers, the land trust was able to reduce the price by over $300,000, or more than half or the total asking price. Only with this additional reduction in value from the OPAV restriction were the farmers able to afford the property. Ben, Melissa, Jeff, and Abby put together a proposal and were selected. They purchased the land together as a partnership in 2016.
“We believe in it,” says Melissa of the OPAV tool, “but we can’t just turn around and sell the farm to anyone who will pay for it. It has to be a farmer who makes 50 percent of their income from farming or we are allowed to pass it on to our children.” A common misconception about OPAV provisions is that landowners are locked into a specific sale price for the land. In fact, when they are ready to sell the property, the farmers can still ask what they want for the land, and the price can include improvements that have been made to the property. MFT has a right of first refusal, which means if the farmers can’t find a buyer the land trust could purchase the property. The farmers were able to reserve a portion of the farm as a building envelope where construction is allowed, including room to build a second residence.
Bumbleroot’s experience working with Maine Farmland Trust to purchase their land was very positive, and it was just the beginning of what has become an important relationship for the growth of their farm business. Because conservation easements are perpetual legal agreements and land trusts have a responsibility to steward the easements, MFT comes out to visit the farm once per year to ensure the farmers are abiding by the terms of the easement. Bumbleroot has also participated in MFT’s farm viability courses—Farming For Wholesale 101 and 201—and has worked closely with MFT’s Policy and Research Director on advocacy work.
Maine’s robust farm technical assistance provider network was a big help to the farmers as they worked through this purchase process as well. Besides working with MFT and CEI, they secured free legal counseling through the Conservation Law Foundation’s Legal Food Hub, which provided a lawyer that helped them set up a second LLC to hold the farm. One challenge that Ben and Melissa have run into since accessing the land was when they wanted to get a loan to build their house—since they don’t independently own the farm, they struggled to secure financing from banks unfamiliar with partnership structures such as theirs.
See the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine for more organizations working to help farmers in the state.
Advocating for climate policy
Land, agriculture, and the climate crisis are closely intertwined. Land that is properly stewarded plays a critical role in climate change mitigation and resilience, yet accelerating trends of farmland loss and development are occurring disproportionately on soils rated highest for productivity, versatility, and resiliency. Farmers are on the frontlines of the impacts of the climate crisis. At the same time, they are taking critical action to mitigate its effects by providing local food and fiber, stewarding biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and reducing carbon emissions.
Both Ben and Melissa have been active advocates for climate legislation that incentivizes and rewards farming practices that mitigate climate change, sequester carbon, and build soil health and biodiversity. Ben has testified at the Maine State House in support of L.D. 797, “An Act To Limit Greenhouse Gas Pollution and Effectively Use Maine’s Natural Resources,” as well as in D.C. in front of members of the House Agriculture Committee on the role organic farming has to play in the future of local, regional and national food systems. At the Congressional hearing, he spoke to the importance of soil health as the foundation of healthy food and healthy communities, regenerative practices and their potential to mitigate climate change, and how Bumbleroot has benefitted from many federal programs funded through the Farm Bill. You can read his 2019 letter to the editor here and watch his federal testimony here.
In 2019, Melissa was named to the Maine Climate Council, where she will serve a three-year term as the agriculture representative. The Council was established to advise the Governor and Legislature on ways to mitigate, prepare for, and adapt to the consequences and effects of climate change. The Maine Climate Council and its working groups spent fourteen months creating a Climate Action Plan for the state of Maine, which was presented to Governor Janet Mills and her new legislature on December 1, 2020.
This four-year plan outlines a bold path forward for the state to achieve the Governor’s stated goals of carbon neutrality by 2045 and critical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years. The Climate Action Plans presents strategies focused on electrifying Maine’s transportation, energy, and building sectors, protecting Maine’s environment and the industries they support like farming, forests, fishing and aquaculture, and building community resilience with a focus on equity, so that Maine’s most vulnerable populations don’t bear the burden of the climate crisis, as is too often the case.
Melissa participated in the National Young Farmers Coalition’s 2018 Lobby Day in Washington, D.C. to advocate for programs that support young farmers and ask that sustainable practices be included in the 2018 Farm Bill. This event brought together over a hundred young farmers and ranchers from around the country as part of the annual National Leadership Convergence. Read more about the 2018 Convergence here and watch a video of lobby day. She also participated in a fly-in for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) in spring of 2019 to advocate for appropriations funding once the Farm Bill was passed.
Melissa and Ben were honored to host their Congresswoman, Chellie Pingree, at their farm as she announced her Five Point Plan outlining how agriculture can mitigate climate change. Read more about her plan on Civil Eats.
As for all young farmers, this year has been one of change and adaptation for Bumbleroot. In January 2020, Ben and Melissa welcomed their first child, Mackenzie. Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the farmers found themselves completely changing their business model in response. As Melissa explains, “We expanded our CSA by 30 percent, made the difficult decision not to go to farmers markets and instead created an online platform for pre-ordering seedlings, produce, and other local products for curbside pick-up at our farm.” They have been sad to see many of their restaurant partners go out of business.
“We also experienced climate impacts firsthand this season in the form of a months’ long drought in our area,” Melissa says. The farmers were fortunate to have ample well water and irrigation systems in place, but the drought impacted their business along with many other farms in Maine and the Northeast. “Sadly, we view this as just the beginning and consider climate change to be the biggest challenge our business will face in the decades to come.”
In spite of the adversity of the pandemic, drought, and navigating childcare challenges with a newborn, Melissa reports that Bumbleroot had a safe and successful sixth season, and are beginning to prepare for year seven. The farmers are grateful to the organizations and customers who helped them get their business off the ground, and are hoping to continue to grow food and flowers for their community for many years to come.
Photo credit: Matthew Whalen