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ATLANTA — Joe Reynolds and Judith Winfrey, the married couple who started Love Is Love Farm 13 years ago not far from downtown Atlanta, are part of a generation of landless America farmers who grow food in rented fields.
They have no family farm to inherit. They work about two acres, growing enough food to sell to a handful of restaurants and about 200 customers who pay for seasonal produce subscriptions. It’s not a business model that kicks out enough income to buy their own farm.
The Working Farms Fund aims to change that. The couple are the first beneficiaries of an ambitious new program that buys large tracts of farmland in danger of being developed and leases it to farmers, helping them save enough to buy it — with a guarantee that local institutions like universities and hospitals will purchase as much food as the farmers want to sell them.
The program is part of a new, national agricultural push by the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization that balances environmental preservation and economic development. Since it started in 1985, the fund has protected more than eight million acres.
The new program aims to bridge the gap between small, urban farms and large, highly industrialized ones — with what is often referred to as agriculture of the middle, the midsize regional farms that once fed most of the country but started to decline in the 1950s and ’60s.
In their wake, urban farms began popping up in nearly every part of the country, and a wider appreciation arose for food grown locally and organically.
“What we haven’t figured out is how to scale up that model now that we realize we need a robust, strong food system around urban centers,” said Mindy Goldstein, who directs the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University, which provides the legal infrastructure for the project. “Instead of a couple-acre farm that feeds the neighborhood, we need to think about how can these farms feed cities like Atlanta or Chicago.”
In its debut effort, the Working Farms Fund is buying 20- to 500-acre plots within a 100-mile radius of metropolitan Atlanta and restricting it to agricultural use through a conservation easement. It will lease the land to farmers who have been working with the fund to develop business plans that include saving money to buy their farm outright within 10 years.
An agricultural easement comes with some unique advantages for the farmers. Because the value of property can drop by as much as 60 percent when it is taken out of the commercial market and becomes agricultural land, it becomes the more affordable.
The goal is to buy at least 12,000 acres of farmland near Atlanta, help start 150 farm businesses and support four or five strong rural farms in the next 20 years, said Stacy Funderburke, a regional counsel for the Conservation Fund who has been developing the program for a decade.
Agricultural trusts that help young farmers buy land aren’t a new concept, but the Working Farms Fund has taken the idea even further. Farmers become part of a network intended to help them create a financially healthy working farm, which includes contracts with institutional customers.
In Atlanta, Emory University and its hospital system have agreed to sign food-purchasing agreements with farmers, who can then use those contracts to secure loans to improve the farm. In return, the farms help Emory move closer to its goal of using locally and sustainably grown food in 75 percent of its meals at the university and 25 percent in its hospital system.
“Whatever they grow, we will buy,” said Dave Furhman, a senior director of campus life at Emory, which serves more than 6,000 meals a day.
The Working Farms Fund uses grants from foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and money from the Conservation Fund, which has set aside $2 million for the project. The money from the rent and eventual sale of a farm will be put back into the program for the purchase of more land.
Recruiting minority and first-generation farmers who historically have not been able to own land is a priority. Global Growers, an Atlanta refugee and immigrant farmer collective, is the second group to lease a farm under the program, and the Georgia Korean American Farmers Association is right behind.
The cattle ranchers Will and Charlsy Godowns are in line to acquire 300 acres. Another farm, Pride Road, is run by the Muhaimin family that moved to Atlanta after losing their farm to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They are looking at a 25-acre site to grow hibiscus for teas, sodas and jams.
“This only works for farmers and farm groups who want to own their own land,” Mr. Funderburke said. “It’s not designed to set up farmers with a cushy lease for a long time.”
The fund’s next target is Chicago, which has a high concentration of young and minority farmers in Illinois and millions of acres of farmable land within 100 miles. A lot of that land has either been used for chemical-intensive farming of commodity crops like corn, or lacks the kind of infrastructure needed to grow and process fruits and vegetables.
“All the ingredients here are so ripe for this type of vehicle,” said Emy Brawley, the Great Lakes regional director for the Conservation Fund. “We have a ton of farmers and a ton of land, but it needs to be retrofitted back into land that can support food production.”
The owners of Love Is Love Farm will continue to work part of the four acres they rent in Atlanta until later this year, but are turning their attention to their new land. They are leasing, about 70 acres in the tiny town of Mansfield, about 50 miles from the city.
A packing shed and the season-stretching polyethylene structures called high tunnels need to be built, and the farmers only recently finished digging a well in the center of one field. They planted their first crop last month — sweet potatoes that will end up in Emory’s kitchens come fall.
Their new land has opened the door to other opportunities, too. Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Reynolds, who are both in their 40s, have joined with three other, younger farmers to turn Love Is Love into a worker-owned cooperative. The idea is to create something that can be passed on.
“Joe and I are the elders here,” Ms. Winfrey said. “Because we’ve got land that’s under conservation forever and we’ve got a technical structure that can go on forever, we can get out when we are ready and know someone new can come in and keep this going.”