By Georgina Schaeffer
We didn’t envision what’s here now,” Marnie MacLean begins speaking of Thompson-Finch Farm in Ancram, New York. “I envisioned a homestead and maybe Donnie envisioned an orchard. But we did not think we would be farming so much land and bringing in so many people.” While the MacLeans moved to the 209-acre farm from Vermont in 1981, the property has been in Marnie’s family since the 1860s. Originally operated as dairy farm by Marnie’s family and then leased out to other dairy farmers in subsequent generations, today Marnie and Don operate one of the largest, organic fruit farms in the area.
The MacLeans planted their first orchard in 1982 and began growing a small amount of vegetables, selling them to local restaurants, stores and organizations including Guido’s, the Hawthorne Valley CSA and Store, the Berkshire Co-op and Camphill Village in Copake. “We planted a very small patch of strawberries and the next year we let people come and quickly realized they would pick what we grew; that little patch morphed into five acres,” Marnie continues. While the MacLeans retain their wholesale accounts, the pick-your-own strawberries and blueberries are the main draw at Thompson-Finch Farm. “We were very clear from the beginning that we didn’t want any extraneous attractions,” Marnie says. “There is no petting zoo or corn mazes.” With little to no advertising, some 200 families a day come to pick from the MacLeans’ patches in the summer months. “I think that’s why it’s become so popular. One, because it’s organic, but I think almost all people like to think of themselves as farmers, agrarians or connected to the earth in some way, even if they don’t have their own garden,” she says. “We allow [people], with respect, to treat [the farm] as if it was theirs. It’s like a fishing hole that nobody talks about.”
The MacLeans spent almost 40 years building up their organic farm, but when Marnie’s parents passed away, the future of Thompson-Finch Farm was uncertain. “Every generation in my family was committed to and struggled with the concept of keeping the farm in the family, even if the family couldn’t be farming it,” Marnie says. The MacLeans originally approached the Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC) for help finding farm land to lease when they believed Thompson-Finch would need to go on the market. The CLC came back with a better offer: what if they bought the farm and leased it back to the MacLeans? “We don’t have need for the ownership of the land, but we wanted to preserve it so other farmers could farm it.”
The CLC, in partnership with Don and Marnie and Equity Trust (a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization dedicated to farmland affordability), worked together to devise a plan, and then implemented their collective vision with even more partners and supporters. More than 300 individuals, businesses and foundations, as well as the DLC and Scenic Hudson, jointly contributed to a successful $1.5 million fundraising campaign to save the farm. This past March the innovative project was finally complete; the CLC owns the land and is leasing it back to Don and Marnie, while the DLC holds the conservation easement. “There were a lot of really smart people involved and it’s set up with layers of protection for possible failures. We are really so happy with the project,” Marnie says. The MacLeans hold a 99-year lease on Thompson-Finch farm. When they are ready to retire, the CLC will work with them to find the next organic farmers who will take over the lease and carry out Don and Marnie’s legacy of thoughtful land stewardship practices. These practices have improved and enhanced the farm’s prime agricultural soils while protecting sensitive natural wetlands, streams and high-quality woodland habitats. Marnie adds, “It’s really quite amazing to be a farmer and to know that the land you are farming will be in agriculture for perpetuity.”