Anthony Mecca is a soft-spoken, 29-year-old farmer who operates Great Song Farm, in the Town of Red Hook, located in the mid-Hudson Valley’s Dutchess County.Great Song Farm is a fruit and vegetable CSA with 90 members.Mecca is one of a growing number of young people who, having grown up isolated from agriculture, are launching careers as farmers.
The Columbia County Land Conservancy helped connect Mecca with Larry and Betty Steele, who own a 90-acre farm in Dutchess County, N.Y. Inspired by a creative lease pioneered by a Massachusetts farm where Mecca had worked, they came up with an arrangement whereby Mecca pays no monthly lease fee until the farm achieves a specified level in annual sales. Once lease payments begin, the Steeles’ will reserve half of each payment for improvements to the farm’s infrastructure.Great Song Farm is now in its second successful season.
A series of projects underway at American Farmland Trust (AFT) are designed to help farmers like Mecca by increasing access to farmland in New England and New York. Recent grants from the USDA’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), Farm Credit National Contributions Program, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation have funded AFT projects to support the transition of farmland to the next generation of farmers and improve access to farmland.
Mecca grew up in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, and aside from a horse owned and boarded at stable by his mother, has no background in agriculture. “My father worked in banking—IT stuff,” Mecca explains. “I was into that, programming, building computers. But once I got out into the world things started to open up to me. I knew that being shut in a room somewhere looking at a computer screen was not enough.”
Giving himself the “gift of time,” Mecca traveled abroad eventually ending up back in New Jersey working in the produce department of a food cooperative where he developed an interest in sustainable agriculture. He took work on a number of different farms in California and the Northeast. “I read a lot of books and started thinking about what I was supposed to do in life. I decided I wanted to work intimately with soils and crops and have a community grow around that.”
Another important thing Mecca learned during his years of exploration was that he did not like farming with tractors. “I didn’t enjoy what the tractor did to the soil,” he explains. “It was not a good struggle.” Mecca decided he wanted to learn to farm with draft horses. This desire led him to Natural Roots Farm, a horse-powered vegetable farm on leased land in Western Massachusetts. “At Natural Roots Farm there were strong individuals that influenced me,” recalls Mecca. “I knew I wanted to start small. I didn’t have a lot of money. I learned from the landowner and farmers at Natural Roots Farm how a good lease arrangement could work.”
Mecca began his quest to find farmland to lease in the Hudson Valley. “If you decide you want to lease how do you find land?” says Mecca, recalling the struggle. “I put up flyers and called and met with people. But nothing quite worked out. I was young. Landowners have certain expectations. There were various situations that might have been workable but nothing felt right.”
Then Marissa Codey, Conservation and Agricultural Programs Manager, for Columbia County Land Conservancy (CLC) put him in touch with Larry and Betty Steele. “Somehow I had heard of land trusts,” said Mecca. “I started calling them up and asking questions. At the time most land trusts were not focused on agricultural land. They were mostly interested in conserving wild places. But I ended up talking to Marissa at a time when CLC was just starting its farmer-landowner match program.”
The Steeles own a 90-acre farm in Dutchess County. About half the acres are open land and the rest is woods and wetland. “Larry and Betty genuinely wanted a CSA on their farm.” The Steeles and Mecca worked out a detailed lease agreement based on the Natural Roots Farm lease. “They had a really beautiful lease,” says Mecca. “And they let us use it.” The Steeles and Mecca reviewed the lease together point by point, discussing what each element meant to them. They ended up signing a five-year lease, which is the minimum lease period required for the landowners to receive agricultural assessment—a property tax reduction for productive farmland.
At the end of last year,Mecca and his partner, who has since left the farm, each invested $2,000 of their own money to get the farm started.Mecca’s grandmother lent him the $4,500 he needed to purchase a pair of draft horses. That and the contributions from the CSA members got Great Song Farm started. After its first successful season the farm is now in its second year.
Reflecting on the farm and his leasing arrangement with the Steeles Mecca says, “What does ownership mean? I don’t want to buy land. I don’t want to have to view land as a commodity that can be bought and sold. I think land is something to be held and worked with. It is a community asset. A mortgage would be something a bank is holding over my head. It’s the bank’s job to make money off of you. I’d much rather have a relationship with Larry and Betty than a bank.”