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Promoting Land Access and Security
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Dirt Capital Partners invests in farmland in partnership with farmers throughout the Northeast United States, promoting sustainable farmers’ land access and security. They recognize that farming is risky. For farmers who are building the quality of their soil every year, insecure land tenure critically inhibits multi-year business planning. Many talented farmers with profitable operations do not qualify for a conventional loan and/or do not have enough capital saved to make a large down payment. The primary alternative is leased land, which is often short-term, insecure and requires permission from landowners to erect basic farm infrastructure. Dirt Capital fills these gaps by facilitating farmland transitions, crafting long-term leases that allow businesses to expand securely, and providing defined pathways to ownership.
DIRT CAPITAL’S COMMON
LAND PARTNERSHIP SCENARIOS
DIRT CAPITAL’S APPROACH
Upon receiving an application from a qualified farmer, we work closely with the applicant to review operating history and create multi-year business plans and budgets. We then discuss what lease terms best fits a farmer’s personal goals and financial capabilities. We provide support, as needed, on the land search, due diligence, legal work and negotiating terms.
We also work closely with existing resources – University Extension programs, farm viability programs, land trusts, experienced farmer-mentors, etc. – to support our due diligence and ensure the farmer’s business plans are realistic and achievable, and to provide ongoing support and assistance to the farmer.
FARMER-INVESTOR LEGAL AGREEMENTS
All leases between farmers and Dirt Capital are binding contractual arrangements that provide the farmer with land security, autonomy and an option to purchase. Each agreement is tailored to the specific farm operation and parcel of land. Additional investment for on-farm infrastructure is considered case-by-case.
While each is customized, the following summarizes a standard farmer-investor lease:
FARMER PARTNER CRITERIA
These are general guidelines. Farmers are encouraged to contact us even if they may not meet one of the guidelines, as every project is evaluated on its individual merits.
DIRT CAPITAL: WHO WE ARE
Jacob Israelow, Managing Director, founded Dirt Capital Partners in 2013 as a platform to channel private investment in support of farmland access, conservation and long-term land security for sustainable farmers. The company’s innovative approach has been featured at the New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference, the US Sustainable Investment Forum, the Slow Money National Gathering, and various other gatherings of farmers, investors and food system advocates. Jacob has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MA from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a BA from Williams College. He lives in Chatham, NY with his wife and children on a former dairy farm.
Benneth Phelps, Director of Farmer Services, joined Dirt Capital Partners in 2016 as the Director of Farmer Services to further develop and refine the company’s approach to investing in land in partnership with farmers, and the company’s organizational culture and infrastructure. Previously, Benneth was Loan and Business Assistance Manager at The Carrot Project, where she spent five years evaluating loan applications and working with farm and food enterprises to plan for business growth. Prior to this she farmed vegetables and small fruit in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts, working on organic farms with 4-80 acres in production.
Jim and Anne Phillips
Case Study: Triple 3 Livestock, Marathon, NY
Organic dairy farmers Jim and Anne Phillips were doing everything right. Graduates of Cornell University’s Agricultural College, they had reached an impressive place in their farming careers – running an organic dairy farm in New York; practicing rotational grazing on nutrient-rich pasture for their 100% grass-fed herd of over 300 cows; producing premium certified organic milk and selling to the market at a good price.
Yet their only path to business growth and security – purchasing land of their own – seemed blocked at every turn. They were entering their fifth year of searching, and they felt no closer to land ownership than when they launched Triple 3 Livestock in 2007. No farm was within financial reach, particularly those with the 300-plus certified organic acres they needed for their operation.
They even widened their search to other regions of the country.
“Lenders want 25 to 30 percent down,” said Jim. “That’s a big chunk of change when it comes to buying a farm. You’d have to sell part of your income makers - your cows - to make that down payment. But then you’re strapped for cash flow.”
Debt load had foiled their plans once before. More than two decades earlier, they owned a conventional farm in Ohio, pushed their cows to produce, and still lost the farm. “We were always behind trying to play catch up,” said Anne. “There was no stability.”
Still, they wanted to try again in New York. And this time, they were determined to do it right: minimal debt, maximum animal and soil health. Yet as their investment in their New York operation grew with each passing year, so too did their frustration. They were milking in a small barn with a tie stall set-up. Jim spent three to four hours milking the herd – a task he did twice each day. They also had to limit their herd to remain within the confines of the pasture immediately adjacent to their milking barn. Any investment in soil productivity, pasture health, and operational efficiencies were temporary on this leased farm.
“You have a lot fewer choices you can make about the facilities and the land base,” said Jim.
Then finally, in 2012, they found the perfect farm: 303 acres of mostly pasture in the hamlet of Marathon, NY that could be certified organic right away; an farmhouse that would suit them and their 3 children; older dairy buildings that could be used for storage and winter housing of their animals; and it was only 15 miles from their leased farm. Inching ever closer to their dream, they would have to wait another two tense years before it became reality. Negotiations stalled, and then the sellers took it off the market.
Around that time the couple met Jacob Israelow, managing director of Dirt Capital, at the NOFA-NY conference in 2013. The timing was fortuitous, for both Jacob and the Phillips. Jacob spent the next year learning all about Triple 3 Livestock, evaluating how Jim and Anne manage their farm, run their business, and plan for growth. He was impressed.
Rotational grazing is “optimal farming for the health of the animals and the soil,” said Jacob. “Milk from grass-fed dairy cows is increasingly what consumers want. So it’s also a good business.”
Jim and Anne are longtime members of the Organic Valley Co-op, taking advantage of the co-op’s long-term stable pay price, and a recently introduced bonus for 100% grassfed milk. Through Organic Valley, “they are paid a price that is consistently higher and also less volatile than commodity milk,” said Jacob. “It’s a stable business model, so it’s a smart investment.”
After concluding Triple 3 Livestock was a sound investment, Jacob joined the Phillips in their search for land. After evaluating properties in other areas of New York, neighboring Vermont, and even in the Midwest, nothing was quite right, or as good as the Marathon farm.
So in 2014, Jim reached out to the seller of the Marathon farm and made an off-market offer. After many more months of haggling, the price came down to what Jacob and the Phillips considered reasonable. In February 2015, after the seller agreed to leave money in escrow to repair a broken septic and furnace, Dirt Capital closed on the farm in partnership with Jim and Anne.
At closing, Jim and Anne signed a 9-year lease with an option to purchase the farm from Dirt Capital after 5 years, and again at the end of the lease term. A fixed purchase option based on the original purchase price allows them to capture any additional value they create through improvements to the land and buildings. They’re already talking with their contact at Farm Credit East – from whom they borrow for working capital – to prepare to exercise the purchase option at the first opportunity using Farm Credit financing.
Lease payments in year one are reduced, allowing Jim and Anne to put their savings and cash flow into improving the property. Major items in the works include: updating the house; setting up pasture fencing and laneways for their cows; and most importantly, constructing a new milking parlor. The new parlor, which Dirt Capital helped to fund, will enable Jim to milk 40 cows at a time and up to 200 in under 2 hours. This is a huge efficiency benefit to their mid-sized operation.
Today Jim and Anne own and manage 300 cows that are 100% grass-fed, which includes their milking herd plus heifers, calves and young stock. They also raise sheep, goats and beef cows for meat, which they sell to their friends and neighbors.
“We are investing our money into the farm even though we don’t own it,” said Jim. “In turn it’s making it worth more, putting equity into it. So when we buy it from Dirt Capital it’s already appreciated.”
Added Anne: “We had the business plan, we had the numbers. Dirt Capital is looking for families to stay on the farm, and for organic production. We fit the bill.”
Dirt Capital invests in farmland in partnership with experienced, profitable, sustainable farmers throughout the Northeast United States: enabling land access and security for successful farmers while keeping farmland in productive and environmentally responsible use.
Posted: to Industry News on Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Updated: Mon, Nov 19, 2018