Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the next generation of farmers in the Pioneer Valley through the lens of McKinstry’s Market Garden. A second part will appear next Saturday, September 18.
Nothing in agriculture remains constant for long. But for McKinstry’s Market Garden in Chicopee, the changes over the past year and a half have been profound as they enter a new era.
While browsing COVID, they built a new flagship farm stand in the heart of the city, which reopened in May. Behind the scenes, the gears have started to turn on another major upheaval, as the older generation, parents Bill and Nicole McKinstry, prepare to hand over the farm and business to their sons, Will, 22, and Warren , 21 years old.
At some point, all farmers face a question of inheritance. Will the case continue? Will the land remain in cultivation? The way these questions are answered means a lot to any farm. Applied to all farms in the region, the answers shape our landscapes and write the future of agriculture and local food in the Valley.
The story of McKinstry’s Market Garden sheds light on what the farm succession process can be and what it means to those involved.
The McKinstry family has been growing vegetables in Chicopee for over 100 years and four generations.
“Our great-grandfather started selling them on his milk route,” Will says. “Since then, that has been the goal of the farm.
Beyond their 30-acre farm store on Montgomery Street, they own and operate 60 acres each in Granby and Hadley, and rent more.
For many, McKinstry’s is synonymous with sweet corn. They grow dozens of varieties, something of which is usually ripe from July 4th until early fall. Their own retail store is their biggest selling point. Recent renovations have widened their footprint and operating season, meaning they can sell more produce from their own fields, as well as other local foods.
Will and Warren grew up in the family business. Will says: “I have been a farmer since I can remember, going to work with my grandfather every day I was off school during the summer. Warren spent more time working in the store run by his mother, Nicole.
In some ways, it seemed inevitable that the younger McKinstries would take the reins, but for Bill and Nicole, it recently became time to formalize it.
Bill says, “I’m only 58, but I don’t want to wait too long. They know how to work, and they’re both done with school for now. If we didn’t let them participate in the farm, they could look for other jobs. That’s why the transition was now.
The change will be gradual and the formal papers have not yet been drafted. As Will explains, “So far it was just about adding responsibilities,” as he takes over his father’s leadership of field crop management, and Warren takes on a more role. important for retail.
Yet Bill and Nicole increasingly include their children in decision-making, “because they’re already doing a lot of the work,” Bill says. Soon they will transfer part of the ownership of the business to the boys, although the land will remain in their name for the time being.
Comparing his experience, Bill notes, “I was probably around their age when my parents and I formed a three-way partnership. And as in his case, he expects ownership to continue to shift to his children as they grow up in expanding roles.
In planning for a smooth farm succession, the McKinstries have a lot going for them. They have enthusiastic successors, they plan proactively and when it comes to the future of their farmland, they have flexibility.
None of these items are given to other farm families, says Jae Silverman, a field worker with Land for Good, an organization that helps New England farmers find farmland, maintain their land tenure and secure land tenure. plan for agricultural succession.
Just by knowing who’s next in line, the McKinstries have a head start, Silverman says.
“With the Massachusetts farmers, I would say it’s pretty split between those who’ve identified someone to take over – often related but sometimes not – and those who haven’t,” says Silverman.
Sometimes the successors are not obvious, but the cultural aversion to thinking about ends also blocks some farms. “In agriculture, in particular, there is a real taboo on retirement,” says Silverman. “But succession planning doesn’t mean it’s time to put the plan into action. “
And when the time comes for many farmers, retirement is a matter of degrees. They can still farm or live on the land – they are simply no longer the primary owners.
Whatever the circumstances, clear communication and alignment of goals from all parties is essential for a graceful farm transfer. When Silverman works with Land for Good clients, “we help people understand their vision for the farm by communicating it both verbally and in writing. Then we can help them understand the mechanics.
Farms don’t have to go it alone. Land for Good is just one part of a network of local organizations created to help farmers navigate complex issues – from farm succession to food safety compliance or human resource issues. The Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA) helps farms in all of these areas, and they and others often have funding to offset the cost of this assistance.
With the McKinstry family, “That they actively have conversations about this as a family is so important,” says Silverman, noting that unfortunate situations can arise because of silence and assumption, especially within ‘a family. “But when an older farmer has been in the shoes of the younger generation (like Bill McKinstry), he can use his experience of succession as a role model for what to do and what not to do again. “
Unlike most businesses, decisions made during farm succession strongly influence future land use in the region. The McKinstry family owns approximately 150 acres, none of which is under conservation easement. With easements, the development rights to the land are sold, whether to a land trust or to the state, and the use of the land is then limited to agriculture while the farm receives an injection of money and often lower tax rates.
“Conservation easements are an extremely important tool for preserving farmland and facilitating farm succession,” says Silverman. But the financial boost is “a trick you can only use once.”
In McKinstry’s case, Bill is happy that their land is free of restrictions. “We were fortunate not to have to sell our development rights, when other farms, especially dairies here, had to do so to survive,” he says.
The business can grow more freely, and if Will and Warren decide to save the land, that option is still there.
The logistics of farm succession may be trivial, but there are many things at stake: jobs. Earth. Local food security. And finally a way of life and culture, both for the farmers who grow food and for the identity of the region, anchored in agriculture.
How does it feel to see these implications as someone moving on a farm, or someone taking over? Next week, the two generations of McKinstry share their point of view.
Jacob Nelson is Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more and get involved with local farms in your neighborhood, visit buylocalfood.org.