Who's Minding the Farm?

Americans' pastoral fantasy is endangered by those who love it most--and want a piece of it. Here's how one working farm was saved from being turned into weekend houses.

By: Stephen Fenichell

   It was late spring in the Adirondacks. Tom Duffus was on Route 22, driving along the western shore of Lake Champlain, dairy country. Passing through the hamlet of Whallonsburg on the outskirts of Essex, New York, he was startled to see a For Sale sign in the yard at Dan and Judith Christian's place. It was a big farm, one of the largest in the area--1,200 acres of pastures, mead- ows, and woods on the rugged banks of the scenic Boquet River--and Duffus was not at all pleased by the prospect of its being sold. As director of land protection for the Adirondack Land Trust, he takes more than a casual interest in the scenery.

   To the eye of a hungry developer, the Christian farm would carve up nicely into 90 to 100 homesites. And its position, commanding a splendid outlook over Coon Mountain, with the ramparts of the Adirondack high peaks in the hazy distance, would be particularly appealing to city people in search of a little rural tranquility --among a hundred or so other city people in search of the same thing.

   Duffus made his way to the car ferry in Essex and crossed to the Vermont side of the lake. As he drove north on Route 7 toward Shelburne, a suburb of Burlington, he passed through a land-use planner's worst nightmare--a congested strip of roadside attractions, interspersed with custom-built private homes, in every other farm's former fields. A decade ago this had all looked like the New York side of the lake around the Christian farm. In the Adirondacks they call it "Vermontiza- tion," and it's just what Tom Duffus is paid to prevent.

   Judith Christian had always loved the Adirondacks. During her first marriage she and her former husband built a vacation home in a more exclusive sort of Adirondack retreat--Highland Forests. Judith went up often and one of the people she came to know there was Dan Christian, who was caretaker of the place. In 1982 she and Dan got married and settled in the area on a small farm that Dan owned. He continued caretaking at Highland Forests; on their own Dan and Judith did some farming and raised some sheep.

   Then, in 1985, the 1,200-acre farm on the Boquet River was put up for sale and Dan and Judith bought it. Until late in `88 they were happy on their farm, but there were unforseen problems. One beautiful old barn was destroyed by fire, and by the late `80s, the going price for milk had sunk below $12 per hundredweight of high-butterfat content.

   But the last straw was the taxes. As farmers they had the option of enrolling in a state agricultural tax-relief program that would have granted them some tax cuts in return for compliance with a complex set of land-use regulations. When they received a horrendous tax bill for 1988 they decided to sell.

   The combination of forces bearing on them wasn't unique to the Adirondacks region, or even to the rural Northeast. Adverse local conditions coupled with national policy--mainly the federal regulations that set a standard price for milk--have contributed to the demise of small dairy farms all over the country. A potent additional factor has been the steep rise in the value of any land that a housing developer finds attractive.

   Just as Tom Duffus and his colleagues at the Adirondack Land Trust were wondering what they could do about the Christian farm to save it from the free market, a governor's commission was proposing that the state buy land and grant conservation easements in the Adirondacks to forestall "an era of unbridled land speculation and unwarranted development." It was an encouraging sign, except that the $2 billion bond proposal that might have helped to pay for such action was defeated.

   Thus it was left to private organizations to do more to protect the region's landscapes. And not just the wilderness, but the part of nature that human hands had touched and cultivated. Tom Duffus's Adirondack Land Trust had been founded in 1984 to preserve the social and aesthetic character of the "working landscape" as well. In 1988 the trust merged with the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, a local chapter of the International Nature Conservancy, which seeks to preserve, among other things, the habitats of endangered species. The merger produced a joint partnership for preservation, with Tim Barnett, as its executive director, working closely with Duffus.

   Until the Christian farm went up for sale, the Adirondack Land Trust had spent most of its time and resources trying to persuade prosperous landowners to obtain conservation easements on their properties. These easements permit landowners to make a charitable contribution, which offsets income and lowers the value of an estate, allowing the owners to save on their taxes. The agree- ments are binding not only on the signatories but on all future owners, to keep the land undeveloped in perpetuity.

   Tim Barnett now remembers that he and Tom Duffus weren't sure how to talk to the Christians about the situation. "Tom and I thought that what you did to save farms was to secure conservation easements on their property," he says. It was Amy Smith, hired by the trust to direct the newly created Champlain Valley Farm and Forest Project, who pointed out that "you can't save farms without saving farmers." What Barnett and Duffus started as a crusade for open space and scenic vistas quickly turned into a pioneering experiment in social engineering.

   "We'd done a lot of talking about protecting farmers and protecting farmland, Smith says, "so here was a golden opportunity to demonstrate to the farming community, which has always been skeptical of the practical hands-on ability of land trusts, that we could keep a farm in operation."   Says Barnett: "We had to stop dithering and do something concrete about protecting the Champlain valley." Says Duffus: "We had to go get a seat at the table." So they did. They bought the farm.

   Or most of it. Before Dan and Judith got involved with the trust, they had sold off 250 acres of timberland to a local forester. That left 950 acres, which Duffus and Barnett tramped several times for good luck. Then they put in their bid: $600,000, which worked out to about $630 per acre. "It was a hair high for agricultural land," says Barnett, "but accounting for the value of the buildings, it was a fair price." The Christians accepted the bid.

     The first thing they had to do was find someone to take it off their hands, because the trust didn't have $600,000. Trusting in God or some other benefactor to provide, they had signed a contract that gave them three months to come up with the price. They set only two stipulations for the buyer: The farm was to remain a farm. Or possibly two farms. And any residential development would be held to specific, highly restricted areas.

   Duffus went out in search of a "conservation buyer," perhaps a real estate investor with concern for the environment who would agree to a plan that would preserve the farm and also allow limited development. "We were particularly excited about securing public access to the frontage that lay along the Boquet River," says Barnett. "Its salmon-spawning stream is designated a recreational river by the state's Wild, Scenic and Recreational River Program." Along that stretch of the Boquet lies a swimming hole called Little Falls, where local people go. Access had been informally granted to the public by previous owners, and the trust aimed to convert that privilege into a perpetual right by granting the land to the town or the county as a park.

   The next step was to prepare a land-management strategy that would enable a buyer to profit from the land's farm productivity while permitting some degree of housing development well away from the working farmlands, the river, and the road frontage.

   Duffus and Barnett proposed to set aside two parcels of land as working dairy farms (one of approximately 260 acres, to be called North Farm, the other of about 216 acres, called South Farm), and to permit limited forestry activities on additional acres. The riverfront portion was designated a public resource by the state, and the Boquet was to remain a "free-flowing river."

   The trust found not a buyer but a lender, and that with only a month left to go. The J.M. Kaplan Fund, a small, family-run philanthropic foundation, made what is called in philanthropic circles a program related investment-- in banker lingo, a bridge loan--which enabled the trust to pay off the Christians.

   Improbably, the dream buyer for the farm showed up almost immediately following the Kaplan "investment." He was Robert Thall, a retired dentist. Dr. Thall agreed to the terms of the trust. These included conservation easements on the two farm parcels that comprise one-half of the estate--a total of 475 acres. The tenants, who were located by the trust, have three-year leases, at the end of which they can renew or exercise an option to buy. On North Farm, Bill Raus and Gary Cox are keeping pigs and developing a small truck garden. With their leasehold goes the old farmhouse, and they plan to renovate the place and start a bed-and-breakfast business.

   On South Farm the business is still milk, and the dairy farmer is 22- year-old Ben Christian, Jr., Dan's nephew. He and his wife, Debby, live in a house trailer near the barns, where they keep 80 cows.

   If the Thall's tenants eventually exercise their option to buy the parcels they're leasing, the price of the land won't have risen with development values in the region; it will have remained "capped" at its agricultural value by the conservation easement. Presumably, the land will remain affordable for working farmers in the near and distant future. As for the remaining 475 acres, 425 acres are in timberland, 50 acres are involved in the riverfront area, and Dr. Thall retains the right to sell or build on some 17 housing lots, all discreetly tucked away at low-profile points on the property.

From: Lear's Magazine, December 1992

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