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Sometimes No Strings Are the Best Strings

8/6/2013 12:17:00 PM

Tags: Brookfield Farm, Biodynamic Conservation Trust, Pioneer Valley, Brooke Werley, Vermont

farm apprenticesWhen working with alternative economic models, it is imperative to adopt alternative and innovative ways to do business. At Brookfield Farm in South Amherst, MA, no agreement at all has proved to be the best agreement for managing the 30-odd-year-old biodynamic farm.

In 1986, The Biodynamic Farmland Conservation Trust (BFCT) was established by Claire and Dave Fortier, who then donated the 47 acre parcel to the trust. The trust is now managed by a board who review the farm’s budget annually.

“We have absolutely no written agreement,” says Dan Kaplan who has managed the farm since 1994. “We’ve tried several times, but it always comes down to adversarial disagreements that you’ll never have to think about when you’re actually running the farm. We stopped (trying to make a legal agreement) 10 years ago, and I’ve never felt insecure.”

The trust owns the land outright and has no income source, explains Dan. The trust acts as a holding company for the farm. He submits a budget to the board every year for approval, and runs the farm without any oversight for the rest of the year.

When he arrived at the farm nearly 20 years ago, he said he didn’t make any demands. He proved himself first, and after a few years, they liked what they saw. He liked what he saw too, and has grown what was the 3rd CSA program in the country to a thriving farm share program in high demand. “I don’t know if we had gone a different direction if we would have made it here,” he suggests about the lack of legal documentation.

When questioned whether he’s ever worried about the risk, he replies, “There’s always some kind of risk. If you don’t like risk you’re never going to be a successful farmer.”

Early on at Brookfield, Dan used some innovative fundraising ideas to finance some farm infrastructure. He would target an item or improvement on the farm wishlist (like a new tractor), and borrow capital from community members. The lender would agree on a low rate, between zero and three percent. Then, the farm would sign a promissory note and make monthly payments to repay the amount. Dan estimates that 10 percent of the farm’s current infrastructure came from that community borrowing model.

As the farm grew, the price tags on infrastructure also grew. The farm began to borrow from banks and cooperate with lending groups like Equity Trust to make up another 70 percent of their infrastructure. Now, Brookfield Farm borrows from itself for improvements.

When Dan Kaplan thinks about what has made BFCT and Brookfield Farm such a successful long-term partnership, he does not hesitate to say that it is the trust’s sole interest in the farm. “(BFCT) has no other projects. There’s no growth agenda, they’re not trying to amass capital. Their sole purpose is to make sure the farm exists.”

Brooke Werley is a farmer and writer living in Northern Vermont. Her blog is ThisGrowingUp.Wordpress.com. She also is part of the non-profit Agrarian Trust, that is working to provide solutions to land access for next generation farmers. This profile was first published as an Agrarian Trust Farm Profile.



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