A smiling Bill Pitney handed over the keys to the farm his family has owned for 154 years to Sandy Arnold, prompting applause from a large crowd keeping warm under a tent at Pitney Farm on Friday.
Then Arnold handed him a hat with “Pitney Meadows Community Farm” on the front and his name on the back, and a Marmot jacket. He put the hat right on.
"I will be proud to wear these,” Pitney said, holding back tears.
Before the exchange, Pitney’s sister, Kathy Pitney, said, “We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to help create a vital community resource for generations to come while preserving our family's history of agriculture and civic responsibility.”
Dozens of supporters and public officials were in attendance Friday for the celebration of the sale’s closing, which took place Thursday at The Adirondack Trust Company’s office in Saratoga Springs. Under the new ownership of the nonprofit Pitney Meadows Community Farm, Inc., the 166-acre piece of land on West Avenue will be turned into a large, community-supported farm and agricultural resource center, with trails for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing.
“I just remember working here and being here and loving it, and thankfully I’ll be able to come here so I won’t completely miss it,” Bill Pitney said. “We believe this is the right thing to do to educate these kids.”
Kathy Pitney added, “Having grown up with this, we know how important it is for children to experience it.”
Arnold, a family farmer from Argyle who is leading the project with her husband, Paul, said the dream began five years ago when Michael Kilpatrick of Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville approached the Pitney family with the idea.
“After this week, I've realized that miracles do happen,” she said.
With the sale finalized, she said the electricity will be turned back on in about two weeks.
“For 2017 our goals are to get the infrastructure back up and going -- we need utilities here -- and we’re hoping to do the community gardens, children’s gardens, and have some trails,” she said. “You might even see us out cross-country skiing on the fields this winter. “
The property was sold for $2.43 million, which was determined to be a “very conservative appraisal” by Cathy Allen, a local Realtor and Pitney Meadows board member. In addition to accepting a conservative valuation, the Pitney family also donated $645,000 of the purchase price. The remaining $650,00 and an additional $150,000 in closing costs were covered by the Pitney Meadows organization through private donations and a loan from Adirondack Trust. Community support for the project has brought donations to about $435,000 toward the purchase and $130,000 for operating costs and program seed money.
The city of Saratoga Springs committed $1.13 million to permanently preserve the property as farmland -- “the biggest expense our city taxpayers have ever spent on preserving open space,” Mayor Joanne Yepsen said.
“This is about more than just preserving 166 acres,” she said. “It's about sustainability. It's about what kind of city do we want to be. It's about preserving the agricultural industry to the point where we can grow it, literally.”
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, said the project represents “an investment in making sure that the children of this community understand where food comes from.”
“Once upon a time, from Franklin Square west, it was all farms, and while this is the last big parcel of farmland in Saratoga Springs, it’s not just protecting the past,” she said. “It is an investment in the future.”
As part of the Pitney Meadows group’s continuing fundraising efforts, all those who make contributions of $2,500 by Dec. 31 will become founding patrons, to be recognized with a plaque on the silo at the Pitney Farm and an invitation to a free annual Founders' event.
The organization laid out plans Friday for a large, self-supporting teaching and training farm similar to ones in other Northeastern communities such as the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester County and the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, Vermont. Plans for the farm include a community garden, a children’s garden, a year-round farmers’ hub, a farm apprenticeship program and a commercial kitchen.
“Among our chief goals is to bring children of all ages onto the Pitney Farm and teach them the vital importance of agriculture, and what it means to produce healthy food for their families,” said Mary Pieper, a consultant to nonprofit organizations and member of the Pitney Meadows board. “We’re exploring a range of synergies with the Saratoga Springs School system, the Saratoga Springs YMCA, and the Waldorf School.”
“We aim also to train a new generation of farmers in sustainable agriculture,” added Paul Arnold, who established Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle in the late 1980s with his wife, Sandy, and has helped dozens of young people start careers as small-scale family farmers.
Partnerships with Skidmore College and SUNY Adirondack, which offers an expanding program in sustainable agriculture, are also being discussed, and the Pitney Meadows group is exploring the establishment of a regional "Winter Growing Institute" to help farmers extend the growing season with solar-heated “hoop houses.”
The property includes two distinct parts separated by railroad tracks. To the east on West Avenue are 131 acres that include 90 acres of rich farmland, farm buildings, trees and wetlands from Geyser Brook, which form the farm’s western boundary. To the west of the tracks are 37 wooded acres with deciduous trees and 100-year-old white pines.
Over the years, the farmland has been used as a truck farm, growing vegetables for the former Pitney Hotel on Grand Avenue, the Pitney’s Meadow Dairy Farm and as a horse boarding operation. In the 1930s, the farm field was used as the first airplane landing strip in the city. Most recently, Thomas Poultry leased the land to grow feed corn.