February 8, 2024 |Krisztian Varsa

One Thousand Reasons to Celebrate Our Farms Fund

Farmland close to major U.S. cities is disappearing at an alarming rate. Several trends contribute to this issue, one being that farms are less likely to be passed down through generations of family today than in the past. The high price of land and operations around expanding cities is often out of reach for a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers, which results in farmland being sold instead to developers with deep pockets and converted to non-farm use.

The Conservation Fund’s solution to this urgent problem is our Farms Fund program, which is focused on conserving farmland and supporting emerging farmers. The program is anchored around large metro areas with growing demand for local, healthier food. Our proven buy-support-protect-sell model emphasizes connecting farmers to affordable land access and food system partners, as well as help implementing climate-smart farming practices. We’re working to create a new network of small to mid-sized farms selling fresh, healthy food to communities that need it.

Love is Love Cooperative Farm, outside Mansfield, Georgia, was the first farm that the Farms Fund invested in. Since joining the program, the Love Is Love Cooperative Farm team has already tripled their farm production, growing and selling more healthy, local food for rural and urban communities in the Atlanta area. Photo by Addison Hill.

The Farms Fund launched in 2021 in the metro region surrounding Atlanta, Georgia, and in a very short time has proven to be both essential and effective. Our success in Atlanta spurred expansions to Chicago, Illinois and Charlotte, North Carolina. To date we’ve secured more than 1,000 acres of farmland across 14 properties, supporting 15 farm businesses in the process.

It all began in the Atlanta metro region, where our latest acquisition in Fulton County, Georgia is a great example of all this program has to offer. Fulton County is located in the north-central part of the state in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Anchored by the state capital of Atlanta, it is within the most populated region in Georgia, with more than 6 million people calling metro Atlanta home.

It is where Many Fold Farm operated organically as a sheep farm and creamery for over a decade, improving soil and increasing wildlife and ecological function during that time. Along with grazing pastures and room to expand, this 154-acre property has areas of mixed hardwood and pine forest, wetlands, streams, lakes and floodplain. These habitats are important to hosting a very wide biodiversity of plants and animals native to the region and contribute to a healthy watershed.

Many Fold Farm. Photo by Addison Hill.

Many Fold Farm was an ideal property for the Farms Fund to acquire because of its proximity to both local and Atlanta markets. It clearly met the needs of several of our growing pipeline of farmers seeking to be part of our program, with specific features like abundant pastures and processing, cold storage and commercial facilities already in place on the farm. Going forward, the property will roughly be split in half and operated independently by two next-generation farmers — Hillery Goodgame and Michael Gault — who will lease to own their land in the long run. Additionally, The Conservation Fund is partnering with Rodale Institute’s Southeast Organic Center to provide critical organic and regenerative farming research for southeastern farmers on 9 acres of the farm.

We are excited to welcome Blue Heron Farm Urban Farms and Sanctuary, a sustainable farming operation owned and operated by Hillery Goodgame, to the Farms Fund family. For the past three years, Hillery has grown a variety of vegetables and raised livestock on a nearby Fulton County property with limited in food-growing spaces. Her goals for Blue Heron are to establish a diverse production system with orchards, livestock, produce and forestry contributing to a holistically managed farm business. She also looks forward to mentoring young people to pursue careers in farming, forestry and environmental equity. Having an advantageous farm site like Many Fold will allow her to maximize the farm’s potential and continue to invest in long-term food and climate solutions.

Hillery Goodgame. Photos by Addison Hill.

 

“Land access is the greatest challenge for farmers, and we were no exception. Now that the Farms Fund has provided a path toward ownership, we can continue to grow and supply fresh, healthy foods to urban and rural communities that have traditionally lacked access to nutrient-dense local food. Blue Heron Urban Farms is committed to conservation, agricultural innovation and regenerative and climate-smart practices. This purchase immediately impacts the present and future of the metro Atlanta farming landscape and the food system in Georgia.”

- Hillery Goodgame


Hillery Goodgame. Photo by Addison Hill.

We also look forward to supporting the growth of Smyly Farms, a pasture-raised poultry farm owned and operated in Fulton County by Michael Gault since 2018. Michael’s farm business has grown exponentially in the last two years, expanding to serve four farmers markets, two restaurants, and a wholesale market. Smyly Farms is quickly filling the organic poultry niche in the Atlanta market, producing organic eggs, pastured poultry meats including chicken and duck, and a value-added product in bone broth. Smyly Farms experienced the growing pains of many young farmers today, including losing land leases on three properties in the last three years. Michael envisions Smyly Farms as a holistic farm addressing the needs of the local and greater Atlanta communities while scaling to meet the demand for organically raised eggs and pastured poultry meat.

Michael Gault. Photos by Addison Hill.

 

“Access to land for young farmers is almost impossible, unless you are born into farming or have a wealthy family. As a first-generation farmer, I don’t have either of those advantages. What I do have is the Farms Fund’s support, and with their help I now have land to farm and eventually own that is close to our markets and customers. It has made the difference in our farm’s production this year and sets us up for future success.”

- Michael Gault


Photo by Addison Hill.

Through the Farms Fund, Hillery and Michael have the opportunity to confidently invest in the land and their businesses with secure land tenure. This would not have been possible in Fulton County without the Farms Fund.

While we are proud to say the Farms Fund surpassed 1,000 acres of farmland protected in just over three years, it is truly only the beginning of what we know can transform the local food and farming landscape in metro regions across the country.  From new opportunities just down the road in Fulton County, to farms outside Chicago, Charlotte and beyond, there is so much more we can do with the help of our amazing partners and supporters.


FIND OUT MORE

Read the Farms Fund Summer 2023 Update.

Watch our video to hear directly from our farmers.

Written by

Krisztian Varsa

In his role as Georgia Farms Fund Program Manager, Krisztian Varsa works to acquire and transition farmland for next-generation producers who are scaling their farm businesses to meet the demand of their community for locally grown, healthy food. When he’s not busy shifting the food system, Krisztian enjoys fly fishing and camping with his family.