There was a time in Saratoga Springs’ history when farmland on the city’s west side was plentiful. Now most of the area has gone from agricultural to residential and commercial. Only the 166-acre Pitney Farm on West Avenue survives.
Started by Jerome Pitney in 1862 to provide vegetables to guests staying at the city’s Pitney Hotel, it’s the last working farm in the city.
The broad expanse of sky above a green firmament of corn makes this vast, flat field the city’s best place to watch a sunset by far. But the view shed is just one attribute of this remarkable property. Of its 166 acres, 120 are tillable. Geyser Creek rolls along its southwestern edge toward the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Far back on the property is a 40-acre woods. Easily accessible from West Avenue is an assortment of well-maintained structures, including a farmhouse, barns, a silo, and a corncrib.
William, Judith and Kathy Pitney own the farm, but they do not work it themselves. Since 1991, they’ve been leasing it to the Thomas Poultry Farm, the Capital Region’s largest egg producer. With 200,000 hens in Northumberland to feed, they grow corn on 95 of the farm’s most accessible acres.
Harvest for the Future
Volunteers spearheading the preservation of the Pitney Farm are hosting a "Harvest for the Future" barbecue Sunday, Oct. 2, as a fund-raiser. Catered by Salt & Char and Kim Klopstock's Lily & the Rose Catering, the dinner will offer live entertainment by 2013 Oscar-contending vocalist Donna Britton and, as guest speaker, conservationist Jerry Cosgrove and local historian Field Horne. It's all happening between 4 and 7 p.m. under a tent on the farm at 223 West Avenue, Saratoga Springs. RSVPs are requested by Tuesday, Sept. 29 on the Pitney Meadows Community Farm web site.
One can imagine how many houses one could build on a property this size. One also can imagine what a developer would pay for the right to do it. The farm is valued at $2.28 million, but that number does not greatly interest the Pitneys. They’re determined to leave as their legacy the Pitney Meadows Community Farm, a resource for the entire community.
Understanding the Importance of Agriculture
Sandy Arnold, who operates Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle with her husband, Paul, is among the leaders in the effort to save the Pitney Farm. She envisions a broad range of educational offerings, including workshops, a formal farm apprenticeship program, community gardens, farm-to-school projects, field trips and tours, and courses in nutrition and safe food-handling.
As models that suggest what Saratoga Springs ultimately could achieve with the property, Arnold points to community farms in Burlington, Vt., Waltham, Mass., and Poughkeepsie.
“We want to develop more farmers who can feed their local communities healthy products,” she says. “We also want to bring children back to nature and farms, and help them understand the importance of agriculture in all of our lives.”
The Pitney Farm, Arnold says, “can become a resource for emerging and established farmers to learn and share best practices for the long-term health and fertility of farmland, including organic farming practices and sustainability principles.”
“We aim to bring members of the community members into the food-production process,” she adds. “The more transparent we can make our agricultural system, the likelier we are as citizens to make healthy food choices and adopt forward-thinking farm and food policy.”
A Teaching and Training Farm
The current plan calls for a large teaching and training farm using the property’s existing buildings with new facilities to be added. Small incubator farms will be made available for new farmers, with experienced farmers to oversee them.
“There would be classroom teaching time, but also plenty of space for students to actually get their hands dirty, to experiment, trial, and learn by doing,” says Kilpatrick. “After students graduate from the teaching farm, they could start their own incubator farms. These would be one-to-three acre plots they would farm on their own with supervision from the staff at the school.”
MEMBERS OF THE NEW BOARD OF PITNEY MEADOWS COMMUNITY FARM INC. JOIN WILLIAM PITNEY, CENTER, AT THE FARM. FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: JOHN SCONZO, MICHAEL KILPATRICK, SANDY ARNOLD AND PAUL ARNOLD.
Discussions have begun with Skidmore College and SUNY Adirondack about opportunities the farm might present for their students. SUNY Adirondack appears to be an especially likely partner in light of the expanding program it’s offering in sustainable agriculture.
With Saratoga Springs High School almost directly across the street, there’s a clear potential for a wide range of programs that engage high school students in farming. Community gardens would be open to the public for growing their own vegetables and small fruits.
More educational possibilities become easy to imagine with successful fund-raising. For example, the Pitney Farm might become the hub of a region-wide “Winter Growing Institute” that helps farmers expand production and increase revenues by extending the growing season through the use of solar-heated “hoop houses” or “high tunnels” – solar-heated, plastic-covered structures that, by providing a warmer production environment, offer farmers the advantage of starting crops earlier in the spring and harvesting them later in the fall and throughout the winter.
A Five-Year Plan
“Over the next five years”, says Arnold, “the non-profit Pitney Meadows Community Farm, Inc., aims to raise as much as $15 million to fully realize the possibilities for the farm that are envisioned in the current business plan.” However, the immediate challenge is to raise $1.1 million by the end of the year, an amount that will be added to approximately $2 million already in hand, thanks to contributions from the Pitneys and other donors, Saratoga County, and the City of Saratoga Springs, which is putting in just over $1 million from its Open Space Bond Fund to pay for the conservation easement that will protect the property from development in perpetuity.
Arnold credits Saratoga PLAN for the essential assistance it provided early in the project, including performing the necessary land surveys and title search, and conducting structural assessments of the farm buildings.
She also praises for their help the Saratoga Springs-based LA Group, which has provided a site plan at no charge to the project, and Beth Hershenhart, chief executive officer with Innovative Resources Group, Inc., who has helped in forming the project’s Leadership Team.
“After collaborating with the Pitney family for more than 5 years, the dream of the community farm is becoming a reality,” says Arnold. “We’ve already reached many important milestones with the community’s help. Now we just need to finish strong.”