After 20 years of having what many would consider one of the best jobs in the environmental NGO world, I took the plunge into the rough and tumble world of business. Whether it was it for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation or the Open Space Institute, I had been buying and selling land to preserve it in perpetuity for historic preservation, habitat protection and recreational use. The work was non-adversarial, amply funded and spiritually rewarding. Plus, I got paid to hike mountains, paddle ponds and enjoyed many a homemade pie at the table of friendly landowners.
While consulting for the Natural Resources Defense Council New York Foodshed Program, whose objective is to significantly boost the production, consumption, and accessibility of sustainably grown local food, I explored various policy, legal and financing options to address these issues in a scalable and replicable way.
But it became clear when seeking to protect working lands – i.e. farms – that the traditional conservation paradigm had to shift and that the non-profit model needed for-profit partners. It wasn’t enough to preserve the land base by purchasing and safeguarding development rights. Farms – whether small or big – are businesses that require all critical components of any product-based retail or wholesale operation – access to capital, efficient management and consistent markets.
If farms don’t make money and remain viable, the fallow land might convert back to forest cover, or even worse – a large mowed lawn of a ‘gentleman farmer.’ Farms affect all aspects of rural community growth and progress: $1 spent on a farm turns over almost three times locally, keeping mechanics, veterinarians, feed stores and other service providers afloat. Failed farms can have the opposite effect, not only on local businesses but on water and land management, and their demise directly impacts the natural resource base in the surrounding region.
And the timing couldn’t have been better. For the first time, New Yorkers are now listing “more locally grown foods” as their top priority, even above cost savings in dairy, meat and produce purchasing; 86% of shoppers say the presence of local foods is important in determining where they shop and 40% have a desire to see more local food available.
It all made sense in theory. But the market needed a practical example, a success story to prove it was possible to build an economically sustainable food business with sustainable profits, marrying the food production upstate with the growing demand for “local” products in the New York metropolitan region – home to more than 20 million people — and ensuring that the processing, marketing and distribution businesses could also succeed.
So when I received that all too familiar call from a desperate farmer seeking to hang on to his land, I took what I knew from my background in legal real estate conservation and jumped into the unknown – I literally bought the farm.
First, I formed FarmCo New York, as an umbrella organization to house what I’d design – economically and environmentally sustainable business ventures that could preserve productive farmland, create stable incomes for farm families and generate risk-adjusted returns to investors. Based upon a powerful social mission platform with a strategic acquisition framework, FarmCo would be uniquely positioned to offer the effective leadership needed to create profitable “farm to fork” operations. It took many long nights to develop a business plan that reflected our true potential. Colleagues offered terrific advice on this new approach to farmland protection and I was able to secure some seed capital to jumpstart our first project.
FarmCo’s primary strategy is to acquire farmland in and around the New York City Catskill Watershed, design business strategies along the entire food value chain, and employ family farmers as land managers, offering a network of processors, distributors, and point of sale contacts to support these viable agri-businesses. We would ensure transparency, efficiency and quality in an historically underperforming industry.
Less than two hours from New York City, the Catskills is home to the largest unfiltered public water supply system in the world. This natural wonder pumps 85 million gallons from six reservoirs serving more than 10 million NYC residents with pure drinking water. This is also a region of great agricultural tradition dating back to the mid-1700s, steeped in pasture-raised livestock, perennial crops and rich river-bottom soils.
So that call back in March 2012 resulted in FarmCo and its first venture — rescuing a 400-acre, fourth-generation dairy farm that had faced imminent foreclosure. The reason? The dairy cooperative that Pete Mauer had been supplying decided to cease purchasing his milk when he could not produce enough to make the drive up the hill worth it. Mauer, an only child, had used all of his available funds to cover medical costs for his aging parents. When they died, he continued as best he could to produce milk just as his great-grandparents did – but he couldn’t do it alone.
Mauer had one advantage that other farmers did not: since he was eight years old, he had raised guinea hens as a hobby. Several of the large plumed birds were on display the day we met. And that one visit with Peter triggered the idea of what to do next. Mauer’s Mountain Farms, the premiere and only NYS heritage French Jumbo Guinea Hen farm, commenced operations in June 2013. Antibiotic- and hormone-free, our hens are fed a custom blend of grains and corn supplemented with seasonal greens. They are humanely processed with a unique air-chill method at nearby Hudson Valley Foie Gras and sent to NYC every week.
Technically a wild bird, guinea fowl thrive only when not confined. All of our hens are raised in free-range conditions. The meat of the guinea fowl is white and moist, similar to chicken but higher in protein, lower in fat and intensely flavorful. Guinea hens have a significant yield of meat and fewer tendons in the leg and thigh area than other game birds, like pheasant, making them a cost-effective and substantial dish. Mauer’s adheres to the highest standards of animal welfare and natural resource management to produce economically viable, nutritionally rich and environmentally appropriate food.
FarmCo’s alternative farm production plan provided access to a consistent source of income, preserves the integrity of the farm, and has created one full time and two part-time jobs, with the likelihood of another full-time position to come. In less than a year, Mauer’s Mountain Farms is the leading provider of sustainably-raised heritage French Jumbo Guinea Hen serving the greater NYC metropolitan wholesale market of three- and four-star restaurants. Recently, distribution expanded via a large meat purveyor, extending our reach across the tri-state area – and now to Bermuda.
While our focus remains on growing operations three-fold by year’s end, we’re also looking ahead. We’ve identified niche markets based on current and potential use of Catskill agricultural resources and infrastructure for two new business plans: a farmstead yogurt effort using local milk from a kosher organic farmer and a grains intiative to provide expanding farm breweries and distilleries in NY with local ingredients as required by law. Combining strategic branding and marketing with distribution to wholesale and retail consumers, Farmco can provide a strong stream of consistent revenue. We believe this is an innovative approach to preserving a rural Catskill heritage and designing new and expanded sources of income for local farmers. With our partners on the ground and in New York City, we can accomplish a sustainable intensification of food production that protects the planet, provides for people and offers a profit.