Monica Ponce & Russell Honderd

Love is Love Cooperative Farm

Based in Mansfield, Georgia, Monica and Russell worked with The Conservation Fund to access land and establish a cooperative farming venture with other farmers in their region.

Atlanta couple Russell Honderd and Monica Ponce have over 16 years farming experience combined, but they have never been on a single piece of land for more than a few years. Now, in pursuit of land security through lease or purchase, they have partnered with a small group of farmers to establish a cooperative farm.

Getting Started

Monica’s interest in farming began in college, where she volunteered on farms and studied anthropology with a focus on food and cultural diets. Her interests broadened to environmental stewardship and permaculture, and she came to feel that, “growing food is one of the more sustainable things you can do as a human being on this planet.” Before long she went back to school for horticulture and dove into plant, soil, and conservation science. 

While she was at school, Monica worked at the Wylde Center, a non-profit based in Decatur, GA, building gardens and educational spaces in lots around the city in collaboration with local communities. After graduating, Monica started farming in Atlanta, usually working with a friend or partner. Navigating agricultural land access in urban contexts is notoriously challenging—issues such as zoning, high land values, contaminated soils, and difficulty determining land ownership and rights often present obstacles. Monica’s experience was no different. As she and her farming partners looked for land, they bounced from urban lot to urban lot—growing wherever people would give them permission. 

After that experience, Monica sought out opportunities to work on other farms, ultimately managing five operations in eight years. The constant movement between seasonal jobs made it difficult to learn. “Only staying at a farm job for one season, you don’t get to see the mistakes you made or how the changes you’ve made have played out,” Monica explains. “You need more time to see how you’ve changed things.” 

Similar to Monica, Russell was motivated to get into farming as a career because of food. He was living in West Virginia after college and was inspired by farmers who he saw growing their own food and cultivating a self-sufficient lifestyle off the land in an area that was otherwise impoverished. Their ability to enrich the health of the community and the environment through food made an impression that stayed with him.   

He moved to Detroit, Michigan and started working in food access programs and on urban farms. He also attended, and later taught at, the Organic Farming Training Program at Michigan State University, a course for beginning farmers that pairs classroom learning with hands-on experience at the University’s 15-acre organic farm. After living and farming in Detroit for two years, Russell decided it was time to move back to Atlanta to put down roots. “One of the things that draws me to farming is the opportunity to make an impact,” Russell says. “But to make an impact you have to be someplace for a while, and I wanted that place to be back home in Georgia.”

Shortly after he moved back, Russell and Monica met and began discussing their dreams of owning their own business. Despite the fact that, according to Russell, farming “was 75 percent of what [they] talked about” on the first date, the dream was still a long way off. 

Russell spent the next three years working for a popsicle company, turning an old conventional nursery the business had purchased into an organic farm. It was his first time managing a farm operation, much less building a farm from scratch, and there were numerous challenges. Every step along the way deepened his resolve to be a farmer and work for himself, however. Working for other people and managing their land, he realized that “everyone who is not a farmer has a really idyllic view of farming” and usually an unrealistic idea of how easy it is to make money.

In 2018, Monica and Russell took their first farming job together at the remote Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island, Georgia, where they managed the Inn’s one-acre garden and grew produce for the on-site restaurant. Still wanting to create change and farm for the health of a community, Russell felt something was missing and was frustrated that the economics of farming kept young farmers like him from being able to make a living growing food for the people who needed it most. “I got into farming to support communities that don’t have power and food security,” he says, echoing a common motivation for young farmers entering the field.  

Transitioning to ownership

After nearly a decade of working for other people’s farm businesses, Russell and Monica knew that their next job would be owning their own. While this came from a desire to realize their goals, it was also based on a few hard truths. 

It takes three years on a property observing when it warms up, when cold snaps happen, and when the pests come out in order to really dial in production, Russell says. “Both Monica and I decided that we wanted to farm when we were in our mid-twenties. We’ve both put in eight years working at other people’s farms and if it’s going to take three years to really get a farm started, we’re talking about hitting our stride in our early forties.” Although they are both physically fit now, farming is incredibly tough on farmers’ bodies and “the more years you have under your belt, the more likely it is you can’t rely on your body in the same way.”

There are also important mental considerations to weigh. The stress of starting a business in a profession that doesn’t pay much, and in one where a baseline assumption many farmers must make is that they will not be profitable every year, can take a toll. The uncertainty of leasing, where you may be asked to leave at any time, can add immensely to the stress. After years of working on other people’s businesses, Monica and Russell knew they wanted to look for land to own. “I feel like I’ve built so many farms,” says Monica. “I keep telling myself the next irrigation ditch I dig, the next greenhouse I build—it’s the last and I’m staying there forever.”

The need for land security is also an economic decision. As farmers, one of the most expensive, time-consuming, and critical things Russell and Monica do is build soil, yet it’s not something that can travel with them when they leave a property. In addition, there’s little to no way to translate the value that you have built in the soil into financial value since most banks do not consider increases in soil organic matter and related yield increases as collateral or an indicator

Owning land is the most prevalent strategy for the kind of security Russell and Monica are seeking, but as they explain, their desires are more nuanced than just ownership: “When I say ‘my own farm’, I mean a farm that I have a level of control and input in,” Russell explains. One that “I can retain the value that we build over 10-20 years in terms of infrastructure, organic matter, and sweat equity.” 

Searching for land

In 2019, Russell and Monica began to work with The Conservation Fund (TCF) through a  program called Working Farms Fund. The goal of the program is to preserve farmland that is at risk of being developed by suburban expansion around Atlanta while also facilitating a transition of land from older farmers to young and beginning farmers. The Conservation Fund purchases the land from retiring farmers and provides a 10-year lease with an option to purchase after five years. In addition to connecting young farmers with land, TCF places agricultural conservation easements on the land, allowing it to be farmed in perpetuity and protecting it against development.

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. An agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary deed restriction designed to keep productive land available for farming. Landowners can either sell or donate the rights associated with a conservation easement in exchange for monetary compensation or tax breaks. 

This is a huge benefit for farmers in places like Atlanta where land prices are steadily rising. Being within an hour of the city was a stipulation for Russell and Monica because it is where they grew up and both have friends and family. It was quickly apparent that it would be incredibly difficult to find any amount of land more than an acre that they could afford and still have sufficient money to put the infrastructure on the land that they would need, however. “I remember looking at prices four years ago and it was $300,000 just for something that’s workable—a couple of flat acres and a house,” Russell points out. Now, farm properties they’ve seen are over a million dollars. 

In the case of the Working Farms Fund program, the easement might mean that instead of a staggering $1.5 million upfront cost for a farm property on the outskirts of Atlanta and an additional $1 million over the life of the loan, the price may be reduced to $750,000 for the property, or $1 million total over the entire loan period. While this is still extremely high to mortgage compared to a farming income, the lease-to-own component of the TCF program may help.

For young farmers, this kind of program is incredibly helpful because it enables them to have access to land ownership opportunities without inheriting land from family or connecting with retiring farmers by themselves. In particular, the lease-to-own structure is good because it allows the incoming farmers to capitalize on the things that will increase productivity, giving them five years to build up revenue, cash flow, and assets so they have the financial records to show to a potential lender. The lease period also means the farmers have an opportunity to try out the property before committing to a mortgage. “What this relationship with TCF has allowed us is to be able to work on a piece of land in a low-risk manor, similar to if we were leasing land, but it gives us the benefit of being able to build a business with the knowledge that we’ll be able to purchase that land in the future” says Russell. “It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities.”

A major perk of the job on Cumberland Island was that it came with a salary and a 40-hour week, elusive and highly-desirable factors for farmers, that allowed the pair to save up enough money to live for a year without an income as they transitioned to establishing their own farm. They both describe this as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that they were incredibly lucky to find. Without it, “even this amazing opportunity from TCF would have felt like a real struggle to manage the transition,” they said.

Cooperative land ownership – and 2021 land access update!

Despite their savings from the Greyfield Inn job, the costs of purchasing a farm can be immense and the prospect of going it alone was daunting. At the same time that Russell and Monica were talking with TCF, another group of farmers were having similar conversations with the organization. The farmers eventually connected and began talking about cooperative land ownership.

Joe Reynolds, Judith Winfrey, and Demetrius Milling of Love is Love Farm have been farming on leased land for over 10 years. With help from the Georgia Cooperative Development Center, the five partners collaborated on business plans and financial documents to create a worker-owned cooperative where they can open ownership to future employees and eventually transition ownership when they are ready to retire themselves.

In January 2021, TCF purchased a 70-acre parcel in Mansfield, Georgia, 45 minutes outside of Atlanta. TCF is leasing the land to Love is Love Cooperative, the new entity that Monica and Russell created with Joe, Judith, and Demetrius. After five years, TCF will have lowered the cost of the property by placing a conservation easement on the land and the Cooperative will have the option to purchase the farm.

To help the farmers make the transition to the new property and grow their business, the cooperative sold preferred shares, a common fundraising method for cooperatives. Investors must be from Georgia and can support the farm up to $10,000 as unaccredited investors. They will receive farm credit for the first few years and then have the option of a cash dividend. If you live in GA and are interested in becoming a preferred shareholder, you can find more information here.

Shortly after securing this land access opportunity, Monica and Russell moved to the property in the spring of 2021 after TCF helped make some necessary infrastructure improvements by drilling a well and renovating the home. The land has been fallow for more than a decade, and the pair have been busy prepping four acres, planting crops, buying equipment, and building a wash and pack station. The other owners of the cooperative have been working with Monica and Russell a few days a week as they are transitioning off of the land they currently lease and will be fully focused on the new property starting in 2022. As part of this transition, Monica and Russell grew some crops on the new land to contribute to the existing Love is Love Farm CSA and the whole team worked together to put on a fall plant sale on the Mansfield property.

The group’s farm purchase was the first for the new Working Farms Fund program, but the Fund has more farm purchases in the works. Russell and Monica say that working with TCF has been a great experience. “It’s gone from something that feels more like a daydream, something we were serious about and grasping at a way to get there, to this.”

Photo credit: Tyleen Snowden @blu_phyre

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