Affordable farmland program takes root in Garden State

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by Alison Mitchell, co-executive director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

As organic growers and educators, Newark residents Akirah and Mancoba Hlatshwako are on a mission to provide healthy foods for their community, teach others how to grow their own food, and create green jobs. But when they looked for land to start their own farm and educational nonprofit, they learned how difficult it can be to find affordable farmland in New Jersey.

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Fortunately for the Hlatshwakos and other aspiring farmer entrepreneurs, a program providing affordable agricultural land is growing in the Garden State.

In 2019, the nonprofit Foodshed Alliance launched the Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE) program to provide low-cost, long-term land leases to growers who otherwise couldn’t afford to start their own farm businesses. The Alliance is now leasing out land on a 66-acre farm in Andover Township and a five-acre farm in Stewartsville.

The SAgE program expanded this month when New Jersey Conservation Foundation leased a 19-acre preserved farm in Sergeantsville, Hunterdon County, to the Foodshed Alliance. The partnership with the Foodshed Alliance advances NJ Conservation Foundation’s goals to support sustainable, climate-friendly agriculture and to increase equitable access to preserved lands.

The Hlatshwakos became the first farmers chosen to sublet part of this property for their nonprofit farm, Ubuntu Permaculture Mission Inc.

“We’re super excited,” said Akirah, whose husband grew up learning indigenous farming practices from his father in the African nation of Swaziland, now known as Eswatini.  “This is just the perfect fit for us. It’s definitely very accessible and affordable.”

The Hlatshwakos plan to grow “everything” on the six acres they’re leasing: vegetables, fruits, nuts and livestock. They believe it’s a human birthright to learn how to grow food, have access to land to do so, and to be responsible stewards of the Earth.

“Our vision is to be the leading pioneers in permaculture education in the world and we want to build a permaculture demonstration site in New Jersey,” said Akirah. “Permaculture emphasizes care of the earth, care of people and mutual benefit. We plan to embody these permaculture principles in our lives and the work we plan to do through Ubuntu Permaculture Mission Inc.”

Ubuntu Permaculture Mission plans to use climate-friendly techniques that boost the ability of soil to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

The Hlatshwakos learned about permaculture through indigenous farming practices in Africa, and they’re also certified in permaculture education through Permaculture Visions International. Through a program called Grow NYC, they apprenticed at the People’s Garden in Newark and began teaching permaculture to city residents.

When the couple wanted to expand their outreach and secure land to start their own farm, Mancoba learned about the SAgE program.

“This is a land access program to get farmers producing,” explained Eric Derby, SAgE program director for the Foodshed Alliance.

Farmers starting out in the Garden State face a conundrum. On one hand, New Jersey has preserved 33% of its farmland, securing the protection of thousands of fertile acres. Yet the state has some of the nation’s most expensive farmland, putting land ownership out of reach for many would-be farm entrepreneurs.

Leasing farmland is an alternative, but traditional leases have drawbacks. Most leases are for one year, and sometimes based on nothing more than a handshake. Farmers with informal, short-term lease arrangements are often hesitant to invest in infrastructure like wells, equipment and fencing – or in crops that don’t immediately produce income, like orchards.

The SAgE program offers farmland at below-market rates of about $1,000 a year for a five-acre plot. Equally important, it offers 10-year leases as an incentive for farmers to invest in their enterprises.

In exchange for low-cost, long-term leases, the Foodshed Alliance requires SAgE farmers to use sustainable, non-chemical growing methods to improve the soil’s health and help mitigate climate change.

“Farming is really hard,” Derby said. “One of the things I am most proud of is making sure land is available to farmers, and that we’re keeping the land as pure as possible without chemically farming it. To me, it’s a really good match with conservancies’ missions to protect lands and habitat.”

The Foodshed Alliance is now in the process of interviewing other farmers to rent sections of the farm in Sergeantsville. Derby noted that SAgE is not a beginner farmer program; applicants must have prior experience farming and a viable business plan.

Derby doesn’t think it will be hard to find two or three additional farmers to share the Sergeantsville farm, and become part of the vibrant local agricultural community. In fact, he’s already anticipating a need to expand the SAgE program once again.

The Foodshed Alliance is now reaching out to other New Jersey nonprofit land trusts that may have preserved farmland to lease to farmers – especially those from historically underserved populations – who are struggling to find affordable land.

“We need more land,” Derby said. “We want to make sure everyone has access who needs access.”

For more about the SAgE program, visit the Foodshed Alliance website at https://foodshedalliance.org/sage. To view a video on how the SAgE program works and learn more about organic and regenerative farming, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLuJhS219QU&ab_channel=FoodshedAlliance.

To learn more about Ubuntu Permaculture Mission Inc., go to their Facebook and Instagram pages at ubuntupermaculturemission.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including productive farmland – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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