End of a four-year road to transition farmland now in sight for Singing Hills Dairy
Lynne Reeck, owner and operator of Singing Hills Dairy, has been looking to transition off her farmland since 2018. Now thanks to a partnership between Renewing the Countryside and American Farmland Trust, a successful transition could be in the near future.
Editor's note: This is the first in a continuing series on the transition of Singing Hills Dairy.
NERSTRAND, Minn.— There are only two goats left at Singing Hills Dairy, and they are nervous.
The two goats once were part of a herd consisting of 26 milking Saanen and Nubian, and they are the only animals left of Lynne Reeck's operation.
Singing Hills Dairy is a small goat cheese dairy farm owned and operated by Reeck, who produced fresh chevre, feta, curds and yogurt in the certified cheese plant on the farm. The farm also raised whey-fed pork in season.
That's all in past tense because after nearly 25 years, Reeck is ready to move on from the farm and business, which is too much for her to handle on her own. She sold the rest of the goat herd for meat in the process of packing up her operation to prepare for a transition in the near future, if all goes as planned.
"They're not sure what to do with themselves," said Reeck on a frigid Jan. 7, as the two goats scampered to the corner when they saw a person other than Reeck enter the barn. "They're nervous, but they're warm in here."
As a wave of farmers like Reeck look to retire and transition their land, Minnesota's statewide programs such as Farm Link fall short in getting transitions done in a timely manner. Filling in the gaps in Reeck's case is a partnership between Minnesota-based Renewing the Countryside and the national organization American Farmland Trust, built to help lower the price of the farm for the incoming farmer.
Reeck's cheesemaking skills were honed in the building a few steps away from the barn she visited the goats on Jan. 7. In the small cheese plant she used milk from her goats to make chèvres and fetas — once in high demand for aficionados near the Twin Cities, along with traditional cheese and yogurt.
All the necessary instruments were still inside Reeck's small cheesemaking plant on Jan. 7. Empty coolers and buckets lined the lower shelves, a scale and open recipe book was on the tabletop, and a digital chart recorder hung plugged-in on the wall. Reeck worked six days a week in the space to produce around 150 pounds of cheese and yogurt a week, which she'd sell pretty much all of that same week.
She prepared extra cheese for the Dec. 18 Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis, because it was her final sale. She sold out of everything within an hour.
In a separate room of the cheesemaking plant, there is a milking parlor which Reeck milked goats in twice daily, as they fed on organic grain. The stand is surrounded by remnants of encouragement even though the parlor won't be used again by her. A boombox with a box of CD albums next to it was still playing, and a KEEP CALM AND LOVE CHEESE sign hung on the wall.
Land ideal for farming
Reeck purchased the 25-acre plot that borders the Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park in 1996, from a family who she said were the biggest landowners in Rice County at the time. The land was rented for decades before she bought it, and Reeck said several updates were needed to make it suitable for a successful operation.
In 2009, Reeck transitioned from growing vegetables on the land to raising goats for a micro-dairy. The shaded pasture turned out to be the perfect setting to raise a goat herd, which grazed on the farm's grasses and foliage from the many trees. In the winter, the goats fed on alfalfa hay.
In the first few years after switching from vegetables, Reeck also raised pigs and around 20 goats for meat, which she'd sell to restaurants in the Twin Cities. To meet demand and maintain supply in recent years, Reeck bought milk from her neighbors, Morgan and Keith Allen of Hay Creek Farm, who milk 30 goats.
A workload too heavy
Although the farm was considered a micro-dairy, the daily workload required to maintain Singing Hills Dairy was big. For several years, Reeck handled all of the farm work on her own. The help she got from family was with packaging and selling.
It was 2018 when Reeck said she decided the work that went into the operation was too much for her to sustain.
"The process of transferring the farm has been for me, a many, many years-long process," said Reeck. "There's been various steps along the way that I've taken to try to make it possible for me to do the work of transferring, since I'm here alone."
Realizing the work required more than one person, Reeck took steps such as cutting the herd down and getting help from her neighbors, but the daily milking and weekly cheesemaking was still too much.
"The business itself was too much work, and then taking care of the farm properly, and keeping things up, really, is probably a three person job," she said. "And I thought the farm was going to sell in 2019, but it didn't, and here we still are."
Renewing the Countryside
Since 2018, Reeck has been working with Renewing the Countryside to find a way to successfully transition the land to new farmers.
"As with many farmers, (Reeck) farms by herself, and there comes a time when you realize that you just can't do it all," said Jan Joannides, executive director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside. "But she really wanted the farm to be transitioned to a new farm family, and a farm family that would have the same conservation values that she did to protect the land, and that's how we got started working with Lynne."
At first, Renewing the Countryside helped to get the word out that the land was for sale. The efforts attracted offers, but Reeck said they were far less than she needed to feel financially stable transitioning off the land. She said after several offers to purchase the land fell through, it was clear that another approach was required.
"I was getting fairly desperate in terms of finding a solution because of just the precarious position I was in financially," said Reeck. "And (Renewing the Countryside) really stepped in and used the resources they had to help make contacts and connections."
The biggest connection made was with American Farmland Trust. AFT is a national agricultural organization that works with on-the-ground projects like Renewing the Countryside's with Reeck's farm. According to its website, AFT has prevented millions of acres of farmland from being converted into residential or commercial land.
To make the land which Singing Hills Dairy exists on today more affordable to emerging farmers, and to protect it from development, Renewing the Countryside and AFT have partnered to raise the funds needed to place an agricultural conservation easement on the land . Placing an agricultural conservation easement on the land will cover the difference between the farm’s current purchase price and the price of the farm after it’s protected by the easement, therefore allowing the farm to be sold at a reduced price to an incoming farmer.
The transition model (nicknamed Buy, Protect, Sell) may be new for Minnesota, but it's been used "quite a bit" on the East Coast, said Joannides. She said in other areas of the country, there are state funds that can be used to cover an agricultural conservation easement, which can then be matched by federal funds.
"In the case that we're working on here in Minnesota, Renewing the Countryside and American Farmland Trust are working together to raise those funds to be able to cover the cost of that easement," said Joannides.
The cost of the easement is $150,000. As of Jan. 7, Joannides said that around $110,000 had been raised through the partnership between Renewing the Countryside and AFT. She said the hope is to have the the funds raised and the farm closed on by American Farmland Trust by the end of February.
Land of their own
From there, the goal of Renewing the Countryside is to facilitate the transition of Singing Hills Farm to another farm. The new operation to take over the land will be the Lor family, who Joannides said have been farming for over 20 years on rented land.
"The Lor family is a multi-generational family of farmers, started by the parents who now have children who are young adults, who've farmed with them," she said.
The Lor family has succeeded at growing and selling their produce in the Twin Cities area, but the uncertain future that comes with farming on rented land has held them back. The problem when leasing land, said Joannides, is that farmers never truly know how long a lease will last.
"(The Lor family) has been in a couple situations where the landowner decided to sell the land, and so they no longer had access to it, and had to move their operation somewhere else," she said. "It's just a challenge to figure out how to do everything again, in a new space."
Reeck hoped originally that the entire business of Singing Hills Dairy could be sold, because she said the cheese business is a "niche that nobody else is filling" in the area. But once she met the Lor family, she knew they were the right ones to take over the land.
"They're great people, and I think they're very excited to be here," said Reeck of the Lor family. "And I think that for them, this place is going to be a blessing."