Rushton Farm sets the table for a successful future

Education is an important part of the programming at Rushton Farm. Here Aaron de Long (left), Fred de Long and Ashley Brister work with a class participating in a spring potato planting. In August, this same group will come out to harvest the potatoes and learn about the value of planting and harvesting food.

There’s a seeming catch-22 for growers in settled, suburban areas, especially for the burgeoning crop of new growers. Even if they find land to farm, the cost of the land itself is prohibitive. However, one solution is proving to be a win-win for everyone.

By taking already conserved land and turning portions of it into sustainable agricultural space, partnerships between land trusts and growers are helping provide food for the surrounding community and lessons for the rest of us as cooperating land trusts grow a healthy batch of public engagement – celebration, really – of their precious land.

“It finally feels as if we are moving toward having a large, interactive farm community similar to those found in California and New England,” says Fred de Long, the community farm program director for Willistown Conservation Trust (WCT), which brought him in four years ago to help take conserved land and develop it into Rushton Farm in Newtown Square, Pa.

Ever since, he’s been working with other local and national land trusts to promote the development of community farms on conserved land. “We have found it provides an economically viable land alternative to local farmers, as well as benefiting land trusts through community outreach,” de Long says. “This is particularly important where we have seen so much open space lost to suburban sprawl.”

What the unique partnership has led to are events that unite Rushton CSA and WCT members – some of whom are one and the same – like a tomato tasting in August that drew 150 despite the threat of rain.

The effort began between 2006-07 when WCT, which has conserved, eased and protected 6,646 acres of expensive, historic and fertile land, was looking to diversify its programming and engage the public. “They looked to agriculture,” de Long says.

With help, he began farming 6 acres, first on leased land, then as of June 2010 on land purchased from a cooperating family to help stave off even restricted development. The preserve opened to the public this past May 28.

The farm plots, which generate a harvest of 25,000 pounds of food and include 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables, are part of an 80-acre oasis of farmland, wetlands, grass areas and woodlands that provide grounds for an array of additional educational programming.

For example, when the growing site was first scouted, no one was thinking about bird habitats or even appealing to children. Now, de Long and Lisa Kiziuk, WCT’s director of bird conservation, take education on the road with their talk “Food and Feathers: Connecting Farming to Wildlife.” One stop is October 16 at the Natural Lands Trust Alliance Rally in Milwaukee, Wis.

In 2007, WCT went to Temple University’s Fox School of Business for a feasibility study that measured whether the connection between sustainable agriculture and land trusts could be realistic and practical. On a consulting basis, de Long was hired to create a proposal for an initial 35-member CSA for 2008. Today, the project is breaking even, though still with $30,000 in grants and special gifts help.

WCT’s concern, and the concern with all land trusts, was “mission creep,” a departure from its core objectives at a cost. It’s found that “getting into the farming business,” as some have put it, is essential to connecting people with the land, one of its core missions.

Among “goodwill measurables,” a phrase the trust has latched onto, in the first year, WCT’s mailing list, where it receives the bulk of its contributions, increased 17 percent. The nonprofit has also found that donations are up, and that 70 percent of those who support the farm are also giving to the trust. The CSA, which now boasts 100 members, has created additional funds. CSA demand is up, too. There have never been less than 100 on Rushton’s waiting list.

The Rushton Farm staff weeds spring crops.

“It was wild ground,” de Long says of the topography he first found that hadn’t been farmed since the 1970s when it was in a field corn-soybean rotation.

Permitted to put in some infrastructure, a small pole barn and a small greenhouse went up at the outset. Since then, a 1,200-square-foot heated hoop house was added to allow for income generated from raising plants from seed for sale and other profitable ventures.

In an effort to appease the long waiting list, from the start, Rushton began a Saturday farm market that’s open to the public from mid-June through October. CSA pickups are on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Pumpkins waiting to be carved at the annual Rushton Farm Harvest Celebration. Events like this allow land trusts to engage supporters and help them recognize the community value of local, sustainable agriculture.

Other trendsetters

Pioneering the CSA trend as early as 1990, the Peconic Land Trust and Quail Hill Farm partnership is situated on land in Amagansett, N.Y., that was donated to the trust by Deborah Ann Light.<0x202F>Quail Hill Farm has grown to 30 acres serving 200 families. It also provides produce to a local school, nearby restaurants, a farmers’ market and food pantries.

Potluck suppers at the farm help promote community support for Rushton Farm and Willistown Conservation Trust.

Elsewhere, at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, Mass., there’s such a demand for its full-subscribed CSA that they don’t market it aggressively in fear of not being able to meet the demand. There, too, in partnership with the nonprofit, farmers work alongside educational staff.

Two-thirds to three-fourths of its roughly 18 acres is in tillage during any given year (the rest is at rest), and more than 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers are grown. There are two full-time, year-round crop farmers and four seasonal apprentices. Enough is grown to supply its 225-share CSA, its own farmstand, several local restaurants and farmers’ markets.

The land is rich and has been in cultivation for 250-plus years. A collection of small farms was purchased in the early 1900s by Donald Gordon and Louise Ayer Gordon, who moved from Beacon Hill in Boston and bought up 12 farms to form their country estate and farm, which they named Drumlin Farm. After Donald died, Louise remarried and outlived her second husband, Conrad Hatheway. When Louise died, she willed the property to the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Originally 154 acres, there have been two subsequent purchases, one in the ’70s, the other in the ’90s, boosting the tract to 232 acres for the present-day Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, the hub of some 34,000 acres of land Mass Audubon has conserved. The 44 acres bought in the ’70s at Drumlin was recently put under a state agriculture preservation restriction when the state bought development rights. Another 12 acres is protected under a conservation easement with another local land trust, the Lincoln Land Conservation Trust.

North Field is one of seven production fields at Rushton Farm and is representative of the intensive approach taken in vegetable production at the farm.

In all, some 85,000 visitors are drawn to the sanctuary each year. The farming operation is part of the overall budget. Christy Foote-Smith, the sanctuary director there, says “This nonprofit approach to farming, letting an organization with a larger mission do the chunk of farming to subsidize the farm operation, can really help any farm through a lean year.”

The upside, she says, is that the farming operation presents an opportunity to share the message of conservation with the community. It’s also training future farmers. The challenges are in maintaining the right balance and not overshadowing the primary role of education and the wildlife component.

Farm Manager Ashley Brister rakes out a planting bed at Rushton Farm. The fields at Rushton Farm are turned with a tractor in the spring, and then worked by hand before planting seedlings.

“In our strategic plan, we stress the farming and nature connection,” Foote-Smith says. “You can’t talk about farming in isolation, but only in the guise of protecting valuable assets as well. There’s a natural connection that seems to be obvious. We would love to see more of it happening, but are we taking the bull by the horns? That’s where our quietness comes in. We’re carrying the message through by example; we’re not out on a speaking circuit.”

What’s next?

The next phase of de Long’s expansion is to continue using Rushton as a partial model. Individually, he says Rushton is locked in on membership and won’t expand acreage or alter a manageable, sustainable field plan. Plus, there are some grant restrictions on expansion. Then there’s the other catch-22: “Even if we opened up more land, there aren’t enough talented young farmers (especially in suburban areas),” he says.

Initially, he imported his brother, Aaron, and the current farm manger, Ashley Brister, from California farms. It was the three of them, especially that first year. Increasingly, even at just 42, he’s not “Farmer Fred” anymore. He’s predominantly relegated to the office and to travel. Aaron has since moved on and is farming in Vermont. Brister may also explore other options. Two new farmers are in training, and de Long wants to organize a system where two new farmers are always in training.

Rushton Farm has a large flower “cutting” garden where adults and children can harvest their own flowers.

Others in the region, namely the Natural Land Trust and the Brandywine Conservancy, are considering options on conserved land that are similar to WCT’s model. Areas that are too open, though, lack a market for a CSA, another catch-22.

“In suburban areas, we can’t find 20-acre tracts for new farms,” de Long says. “We need to find alternative ways to develop new farms and farmers, which is why I like this. We’re creating a groundswell for small, sustainable farms.”

For a video on Rushton Farm, visit

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.