Red Fire Farm

By Kristen Wilmer, CISA Program Assistant
Published in CISA’s June 2012 Enewsletter

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Talking with Ryan and Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm, one is struck by how much they have already managed to achieve.  Both from non-farming backgrounds, they each separately discovered their passion for farming early on.  Together, they now have a thriving farm and are at the forefront of a movement to keep farming viable for future generations.

It’s rare these days for someone to know what they want to do for a living early on, and to stick with it.  Ryan took over his parents’ garden in middle school and started a roadside stand in their front yard.  As his business grew he rented land from a farmer a couple miles down the road who enjoyed having Ryan around and taught him to use his old tractors.  Ryan’s farm, Old Depot Gardens, was one of the first certified organic farms in Massachusetts.  “I never really questioned whether I wanted to be an organic farmer or not – based on the values my family has always had, organic was the way to do things.”

Ryan helped start Common Wealth CSA, a CSA cooperatively run by several Franklin County farmers, and dreamed of becoming a full-time farmer.  When he graduated college in 2000, he purchased land in Granby to start Red Fire Farm.  The CSA model was still a new concept at the time, but to Ryan, a young farmer without much capital, it held a strong appeal.  “CSA jived with our philosophy as far as being a farm growing food for the local community,” Ryan said, “and it also seemed to be a way to have a better chance of making the farm financially viable.”  CSA was a cornerstone of Red Fire Farm’s marketing from the start, though Ryan also marketed through farm stands and farmers’ markets to make his produce accessible to more people.

Sarah became interested in farming while a student at Vassar.  As an environmental studies major she wanted to find a way to help people feel connected to the land and understand how ecosystems work.  She joined a local CSA and saw CSA farming as a way to achieve this.  “I felt like my experience being a CSA member had so many answers to the issues I was studying in school.”  Sarah had already begun her own CSA in her hometown of Stafford Springs, CT when she met Ryan.  When Ryan visited he would offer farming advice, even lugging his spader along once for Sarah to use in tilling her fields, all of which suitably impressed Sarah!  The two quickly found they had a lot in common and Sarah decided to join Ryan at Red Fire in 2007.  She started out doing field work and over time took on more of a management role.  “I think we have pretty similar philosophies of why we want to farm,” said Sarah, “and it’s been really awesome to work with a partner on creating that.”

As time went by, the farm in Granby started to feel small.  They were farming over 60 acres of land, but owned only twenty of these, and they had been unable to come to an agreement on buying or securing a long-term lease on the rest.  Ryan and Sarah began looking elsewhere for farmland, and soon found two adjacent farms with 45 tillable acres for sale in Montague – just two miles from the farm stand Ryan had started in grade school.  The farms were located on some of the best soil in the world and came complete with good infrastructure and access to two rivers for irrigation – an opportunity that seemed too good to pass up.

They were able to secure a mortgage on the two properties, though the purchase stretched their finances quite a bit.  They started looking into models that might make it more affordable over the long-term, both for themselves and their successors.  “Coming from non-farm families, we didn’t have any land to inherit from our parents,” Ryan said, “and so certainly one of the biggest struggles is figuring out how to have access to land… a struggle virtually every young farmer without a farming family faces.”

Mount Grace Land Trust offered to partner with Ryan and Sarah on a “whole farm affordability campaign.”  The goal: Mount Grace will raise money to buy the land, including land that is under farm structures.  The Trust will then offer a lifetime lease on that land to Red Fire.   The lease is inheritable by heirs, and is far more affordable over the short-term than outright ownership.  The value of the land, farm house and other structures will be limited to their agricultural value in perpetuity, which ensures that they remain affordable to successor farmers.  This arrangement is fairly rare – the farmland protection offered under many Agricultural Preservation Restrictions excludes farm structures, such that these structures can appreciate beyond their agricultural value and cease to be affordable to farmers.

In the meantime, Ryan and Sarah are excited about their new home and are working hard on renovations to improve the efficiency of the farm operations in Montague.  They have almost finished renovating their packing barn and installing a large cooler with multiple chambers to accommodate produce with different storage needs.  Their cooler is equipped with a passive cooling system which will conserve energy by cooling with outside air in winter.  A newly installed geothermal system will provide their other heating and cooling needs.  They are just about to transition their main farm operations to Montague, though they plan to continue farming in Granby.  The new baby they are expecting any day will arrive to quite an exciting scene!

Given the pending addition to their family, Ryan and Sarah’s concern over the future of farming is no surprise.  “You have a situation where farmers are getting older, and farmers are selling land off for development,” Ryan says.  “I think we need to create some method for succession.  Now there’s a growing interest among young people in farming – getting those people connected with farmland and having ways for them to access it affordably is key.”  With some of the best farmland in the country combined with the greatest development pressure, farmland here is among the most valuable in the country.  As Ryan puts it, “It’s not like we’re in the Midwest with good farmland as far as the eye can see – it’s really a precious resource around here.”

And what a world of opportunity their baby will enter!

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