Tom Hutson: Honoring a Legacy of Stewardship and Embracing a Future for New Farmers
I’m a farmer, so you just have to understand one thing,” said dairy farmer Tom Hutson, holding up a sample of bottomland soil scooped from his family’s 380-acre River Haven Farm in DeLancey, New York. “This is gold to me.”
Tom was in New York City to accept a Steward of the Land award from American Farmland Trust in 2006, when he made a point of pulling a plastic bag of dirt from his pocket and commenting on its contents to the assembled crowd. Seventeen years later, Tom is still talking about soil: how glad he is to have it, how well his alluvial silt loam can grow food, and how fortunate he feels to be transitioning his fertile land to the next generation of farmers.
Tom has lived on the farm his entire life, but he approached his retirement from dairy farming with increasingly bad knees and no heirs to take over. “It was a blessing to be born here and able to grow up here and have the kind of soils that we have,” Tom says. “Everything that I learned about valuing the land came from my dad, from the day I was big enough to tramp around behind him on the farm.”
Without children, Tom knew his farm would eventually leave his family. But he didn’t want to see it go out of farming. Tom attended an American Farmland Trust “No Farms No Food” rally day in 2011, which gathered farmers to descend on the state capital in Albany to advocate for conservation programs that protect farmland and natural resources. There, he listened to aspiring new farmers talk about how difficult it can be to find land in the Hudson Valley.
“I began listening to some of the speakers, and it enlightened me. The light bulb was flicking, and I thought, ‘There are people who really do want to farm and deserve a chance,’” he says. “It made sense to me to use the farm to help young people get started.”
Leading by Example
Water that flows through Tom’s property and nearby farms has another purpose: It supplies clean drinking water for millions of downstate residents. New York City faced a looming crisis in the early 1990s. The city’s drinking water supply originates upstate, primarily in the Catskill Mountain region west of the Hudson River. It’s one of the largest surface water systems in the world, delivering more than 1.1 billion gallons of drinking water daily to nine million people.
More than 30 years ago, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP) faced the prospect of spending billions on a costly water filtration system. Instead, city officials launched a groundbreaking program to protect the water supply at its source. With help from American Farmland Trust and the farmer-led Watershed Agricultural Council, the agency partnered with farmers like Tom who manage much of the area’s farmland and forestland.
Tom volunteered to be one of the first pilot farms. He and other watershed farmers adopted conservation practices to manage their farms in ways that maintained the purity of New York City’s water. They also worked with the Watershed Agricultural Council and the NYC DEP to permanently protect their land with conservation easements.
Before the easement was in place, Tom had to go up against some of the naysayers in his town who thought his farm would inevitably be developed. “I said, you don’t get a vote. You’re not paying the taxes. You’re not here on Sunday doing chores. No, don’t talk to me about what’s going to happen to my farm,” he says.
In 2006, Tom received the Steward of the Land award from American Farmland Trust for his leadership in protecting farmland and caring for the environment while serving as an inspiring model for other farmers. Since the watershed program began, more than 200 farm and forest families have protected their land, on over 32,000 acres. The conservation easements limit the location and density of development, while the landowners retain ownership of their property and agree to practice good stewardship.
“The nationally significant model has demonstrated that well-managed landscapes can act as a natural water filter while sustaining rural communities,” says Jerry Cosgrove, American Farmland Trust’s farm legacy director.
Looking to the Future
Now Tom is serving as a model again.
“Tom has always been a guinea pig, but I think pioneer is a better term,” says Jerry, who helped guide the watershed easement program from its early days. “I’ve known Tom for 30 years, but more recently, I’ve nudged him to think about the future of his farm. What’s next? We had many conversations and decided we should take matters into our own hands and come up with something creative.”
In April, Tom sold River Haven Farm to American Farmland Trust in exchange for cash and a charitable gift annuity that will provide him with income for the rest of his life as he transitions out of farming.
“We will lease most of the cropland to neighboring dairy farmers, the hay ground and pasture to Tom for his heritage beef herd, and a small parcel to the Iridescent Earth Collective, who have developed an amazing relationship and rapport with Tom,” Jerry says.
Longer-term, AFT plans to hold the property while local partners at the Catskill Agrarian Alliance form the West Branch Commons which aims to purchase the farm and lease it long-term to new and beginning farmers at affordable rates.
“This is a new approach to land ownership that American Farmland Trust is supporting in this project,” Jerry says. “We hope that this potentially will be a new model for transitioning land to newer farmers.”
During the process, the incoming farmers received technical support and guidance from AFT’s Farmland for a New Generation New York (FNG-NY) program, working closely with program specialist Tim Biello. Tim has helped advise the farmers’ business and production plans, and earlier in the process, he visited the property to help identify the area best suited for vegetable production on the former dairy farm. On the legal side, FNG-NY Regional Navigator Pace University Food and Farm Business Law Clinic has been working with Catskill Agrarian Alliance to develop the board and structure of the commons to manage the land in the future.
Of course, Tom doesn’t plan to go very far in retirement. He remains at the farm raising his beef herd and serving as a mentor to the new farmer generation. “My brother said to me, ‘I know you want to die with your boots on.’ That’s probably how I intend to do it,” he says. “But luckily, I met these young people that want to farm, and I’m very enthusiastic. You have to respect and encourage that. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
This story originally appeared in AFT’s summer 2023 print newsletter, written by Kirsten Ferguson.