Keeping Agriculture on Solid Ground

Land Protection as Diverse as the People and Communities it Serves

South of Essex, in an area bird-watchers call the Magic Triangle for its diversity of habitats and species, Mark and Derrick Wrisley stop to check on two hayfields—one they own, and one they lease. The fields look the same, both lush with midsummer growth. But the one they lease is a little unusual. The Open Space Institute acquired the 200 acres in 1994 and conveyed agricultural rights to the Adirondack Land Trust (ALT) to help maintain a critical mass of farmland in the Champlain Valley.

The Wrisleys value diversity too, rotating hay with corn, hard red spring wheat, sunflowers, barley and other grains, most of them organic. In all, the father and son, ages 59 and 28, work 1,500 acres scattered across the region, including two fields that are under conservation easements held by ALT. “It takes a lot of ground to rotate and still keep your hay base,” Mark explains. In the economy of organic grains, it’s hard to afford a combine or even storage bins if you’re cultivating just a few hundred acres. “You need land volume to keep the rotations,” he says.

Their products end up in diverse places: whiskey from Gristmill Distillers, in Keene; tortillas by Vermont Tortilla, across Lake Champlain; food for the goats producing Nettle Meadow Farm cheese, in Warrensburg; and Champlain Valley Milling flour, in Westport, to name a few. Non-food-grade crops can end up as cattle feed, birdseed, or as pellet fuel for the Wrisleys’ own home heat. They founded Adirondack Organic Grains with Bob and Adam Perry, another father-and-son farming team.

“It’s been challenging, but it works,” Mark says. “When you supply a small market, like Gristmill, it takes a lot of time to set up the machine and grind a thousand pounds a month and package it. I don’t know if you get that extra price difference to make it up. But I even just like selling to someone local who is doing something they keep in the community.”

A conservation easement is a voluntary land-preservation agreement between a landowner and a land trust that determines how a tract will be maintained over time. ALT holds more than 50 conservation easements across Northern New York, including 20 working farms totaling 7,363 acres. Those farms produce milk, apples, eggs, cattle, hay and grains. Most are in the Champlain Valley, where the agricultural land base is critical to the economy. By keeping farms from being segmented into housing lots, owners of conserved lands can be eligible for tax breaks as they support the local farming community.

To recognize this behind-the-scenes work, in 2015 the F. M. Kirby Foundation made a $2 million commitment to help ALT fund the perpetual care of farms, working forests and shorelines under conservation easements. While the Fred M. and Walker D. Kirby Land Stewardship Endowment will increase ALT’s capacity to serve as a resource for landowners, ALT still needs to raise an additional $3 million to meet its stewardship endowment needs; one of the F. M. Kirby Foundation's goals is to encourage others to support this work as well.