BRUNSWICK — The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust is giving farmers working its flagship property a new lease on life.
BTLT last week announced a 50-year agreement with farmers Seth Kroeck and Maura Bannon at Crystal Spring Farm, a picturesque swath of agricultural land on Pleasant Hill Road, just outside downtown Brunswick.
“It just feels good for us to have a long-term plan in place we can both count on,” BTLT Executive Director Angela Twitchell said.
“One of the things that is special about this land trust is that we really recognize the historic nature of the agricultural property in our communities and how important it is to maintain them for active farming,” she added.
The long-term lease gives Kroeck and Bannon rights to cultivate vegetables and raise sheep and cattle on 115 acres of farmland, and allows the couple to continue living and working in the farmhouse and other buildings.
The lease also secures public access to walking trails on the 321-acre property, keeps it open for demonstrations and workshops, and maintains a popular Saturday farmers market.
“We worked a long time on this agreement so that it would meet the needs of the farmers and the land trust,” Twitchell said.
Crystal Spring was purchased by the trust in 1997 to preserve the area from development. The trust signed the first lease to farm the property with Kroeck and Bannon in 2003; the couple have been working there on a series of five-year leases ever since.
So far, the arrangement has been good for both parties: The trust has realized its goal of preserving a working farm, while Kroeck and Bannon have built a successful community-supported agriculture program that provides organic produce to shareholders in Brunswick and Portland.
The pair also host a children’s summer farm camp and train the next generation of farmers with a annual apprenticeship program.
But the short-term leases didn’t cover the equity Kroeck and Bannon have put into the property. During a tour of the farm earlier this week, Kroeck said the couple felt like they were starting over again with each new lease.
“The nature of quality agriculture has to do with sustainability,” he said. By working the land, the couple have improved its soil and made it more productive, but without a durable lease, their investment didn’t seem permanent.
The new agreement erases that sense of uncertainty and adds a rent-funded maintenance account to pay for repairs to the farm buildings that Kroeck and Bannon can use at their discretion.
Importantly, the lease is transferable: Kroeck and Bannon will have the right to sell it, and the business along with it, to a new tenant – another way of recognizing the couple’s equity in the property.
“We’ve spent the last 11 years building this business from scratch,” Kroeck said. “But we needed to think beyond our term.”
The agreement was designed so that a new tenant could pick up a guaranteed business, but also have a useful, reasonable arrangement with the BTLT’s future leadership, and vice versa, Bannon noted.
“All of us at the table recognize we’re not always going to be around,” she said.
Although the longevity of the Crystal Spring lease makes it stand apart, similar arrangements between preservation groups and farmers are becoming more common in New England.
That’s especially important for small-scale farmers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the cost of owning the large properties, Bannon said.
“You couldn’t afford to pay your mortgage on a place like this if you were just farming for income,” she said.
Historically, leasing land has been common for farmers, but in recent years land trusts have begun to focus on saving farmland for its historic and environmental value, Twitchell added.
“There’s been a real recognition that preserving working farms and good farming soil is an important purpose of conservation,” she said.
Farmers Maura Bannon and Seth Kroeck and their children Griffin and Leila at the Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick. The couple recently signed a 50-year lease with the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust to work the land.