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Flying V Farm: worker-owned business sets roots

The path to establishing land tenure can be arduous but with hard work and a little bit of luck,  breakthroughs do occur. The fruits of such a labor came to life when Flying V Farm took root near Placerville earlier this year. The farm is operated by four members of their collective: Brenna Lanton, Lucy O’Dea, and Cody and Grayson Curtis, who are brothers. Together they have established themselves as a worker-owned business. [see note below] Their name references migratory birds flying in a “V” shape, each playing a part in supporting the flock as they work toward a common goal.

Last fall and winter, Liya Schwartzman, Central Valley and Foothills Program Coordinator for FarmLink, helped the Flying V farmers to develop a lease with terms and provisions that suited their needs. Grayson reported that, “It put shape to this wild array of ideas we had. We’re grateful to have the structure and security we have in our relationship with the landowner.”

The farmers’ landowner was looking for a tenant who was passionate about organic food and could demonstrate a strong work ethic, and found Flying V through shared connections. Having worked with Farmlink before, the landowners suggested that perhaps FarmLink could help set up their lease.

“The project started with the idea of growing food as a worker-owned business. The four of us worked together, built a vision, and sought out land,” reported Cody, “We have security on this land so we can build out this vision and see it flourish, hopefully for a long time.”

Lucy added that, “We’re super excited to be growing here in our first year with the help of Farmlink, who assisted with our lease on this beautiful land, and helped build a great relationship with our landowner, who has been extremely supportive. Liya helped us write a lease that brought us into a secure relationship.”

“The Flying V farmers had a clear vision, and by asking key questions, I was able to help put their vision into action in the lease negotiation,” reports Liya. “Too often landseekers don’t recognize all their options, and might approach their negotiation without a clear list of priorities, apart from getting access to the land. By taking the time to prepare and negotiate terms, they ended up with a secure agreement and a lasting relationship with their landowners.”

In response to questions for this article, Cody wrote, “An important goal of ours was to supply produce to our region’s co-op groceries: the Placerville Food Coop, Sacramento Natural Foods Coop and Briarpatch Food Coop. As a cooperative, building relationships with other cooperatives is an important part of our vision and values. These relationships have proven key to the success of our business in this first year, and will remain a priority for us moving forward.” He added, “We are working to revive the farm stand on the property that had been out of use for many years. This year, our goal is to get it to a place where we can sell our produce during the busy tourist season here [in the popular “Apple Hill” region of El Dorado County] in Fall. Our plan is for it to be a place for the public to gather around food and a market opportunity for ourselves and other food producers in the region.”

Flying V’s lease negotiations provide inspiring examples for others. Having worked with previous farmers on their land, the landlords understood the pressures faced by the farmers. Cody wrote, “Our landlords have been gracious enough to recognize that farming is really hard and uncertain. They want to see us succeed and they want to see us grow. One of the ways they are encouraging our success and growth is by investing in permanent infrastructure such as the farm stand and a greenhouse. Having these agreements in the lease has been really important to us.” He added, “When leasing land, it can be a gamble to make investments that you can’t take with you, even if they are right for your business. We’ve been able to build a greenhouse and cooler with a sense of security and with our business’s capital freed up for the expenses of growing produce.”

The landowners also made conditions favorable to Flying V’s success by allowing them to ease into the full cost of managing the property. This was especially important for the farmers because the property is larger than their current resources can manage. There’s been good planning and reflection throughout this deal, made possible in part by FarmLink’s depth of experience with lease clauses that can support beginning farmers’ success.

Cody added, “Every asset is a potential opportunity or liability. In our case, one of the assets was ten acres of perennial plantings that were not in the best shape and may not significantly produce for a couple years. We could not have taken on full financial responsibility for them in our first year. So we are sharing some of those costs [with the landlords] and have a schedule built in to the lease where we will gradually take full responsibility.”

The Flying V farmers were able to set up a seven-year “evergreen lease.” Cody explained, “This means that our contract automatically renews every year for an additional year. We heard of another farm in the region who had a similar arrangement and decided that it would be the best choice for us as well. Farmlink helped to explain to our landlords what the terms meant and why they were important to us, and they agreed! The long-term lease allows for long-range thinking. Our security in land tenure helps us see problems in a less threatening way.” [Photos by Liya Schwartzman]

Note: To learn more about how business structures intersect with land tenure, read Growing on Solid Ground: A Farmer’s Guide to Land Tenure

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