On a recent morning at Lundale Farm, a 520-acre spread in Chester County, Kim Albano of Ironstone Creamery was on her way to feed her pigs while, in the next field over, Emma Cunniff and Noah Cohen of Kneehigh Farm were dropping scallion and lettuce starts into soil freshly tilled into tidy rows.
Cattle from Wyebrook Farm grazed on a hillside, beehives were stacked like condos near a strip of woodland, and, in a greenhouse, flats of True Leaf Microgreens' miniature basil, sorrel, and cilantro made a green patchwork, like an aerial view of the farmland that once dominated this region.
All this bustle at Lundale, a former dairy farm that, as of this year, is fully leased to nine small farmers, represents a new vision for farmland conservation and sustainable agriculture - and, its operators hope, a model for connecting small farmers with land trusts, which control more than 600,000 acres in Pennsylvania.
"Underlying this is the concept of reinventing the family farm for the 21st century," said Marilyn Anthony, Lundale's executive director. "On a family farm back in the day, there would be livestock, fruit, and vegetables: a full diet. Now, farms have gotten way bigger, and they specialize in one or two crops. What the USDA calls 'the farm in the middle' - it's not 25 acres, and it's not 1,000 acres - is the thing that's disappearing from American agriculture. We looked at this as a way to recreate the family farm, using multiple families."
This particular family farm belonged to Samuel and Eleanor Morris, who bought the land in 1946. Eleanor, who died in 2011, specified in her will that the land be farmed organically and biodynamically.
Their children, nonfarmers, had to get creative.
"There weren't good options," said Eleanor Morris Illoway, president of Lundale's board. "Large farming conservancies didn't want to take it unless it had a large endowment. . . . And it was unlikely to be sold as a piece because the land is under [conservation] easement."
Besides, in a region where plenty of farmland is devoted to commodity feed crops, Morris Illoway and her family wanted to do something radical: "Our goal was to have a place where actual food would be produced."
They realized they could accomplish that by removing two major barriers for farmers: access to affordable land and affordable housing. Growers could sublet an acre or 100 acres, depending on their needs, and some could live in the four historic farmhouses on the property. And they'd create a community, supporting one another as they grew.
The family created a nonprofit and hired landscape architect Simone Collins to divide the property into parcels suited to various crops. There are about 300 tillable acres, including large swaths now devoted to cattle grazing and crops such as spelt.
Dale Frens, 64, and his son Basel, 33, both of West Chester, leased an 11-acre field with high elevation and good drainage for their fledgling French Creek Organic Cider Orchard, which they'll plant with heirloom apple varieties in spring 2018.
Stable, long-term land access is critical to the endeavor, Dale Frens said: They won't see their first apples until 2021.
"There's also a good synergy at Lundale Farm, where farmers lend each other equipment, and we can contract with other growers," he said, explaining that the orchard is a sideline for now. (He's a restoration architect, and his son's a lawyer.) This fall, they'll hire a Lundale farmer to plow, till, and seed the land with a cover crop.
The creation of Lundale also enabled Clara Osborne, 27, and Jeremy Dunphy, 31, to scale up their farm, raising pastured pigs under the name Pasture Song. They started on one acre, in Dunphy's mother's backyard. They moved to Lundale this year, where they are living in one of the farmhouses, and expanded their operation to 27 acres.
They've planted greens, oats, and peas for pigs to forage and snack on; the process also naturally tills, fertilizes, and regenerates the soil.
"It's mutually beneficial: the land improves, the pigs get nutrition, it's humane - they can express their natural behavior - and it cuts down the feed bill for us," Osborne said.
Joe and Kim Albano, both 40, of Ironstone Creamery, have begun running a farm stand at Lundale, where they live in one of the farmhouses and raise chickens, pigs, and goats. They're renting 25 acres, and will have 35 more next year for Jersey cows and, they hope, a microdairy.
They came here after losing their lease on another farm a year ago.
"The hardest thing was finding landlords that support what we do as farmers," Kim Albano said. "And if a tractor breaks down, we have other people that support us, too. We're not just on our own."
That support is no guarantee, though.
Anthony said two vegetable farms had failed there in the last three years.
She has faith that Kneehigh Farm, which took over seven acres for vegetable production last fall, will fare better.
Kneehigh owner Emma Cunniff, 25, said it's a unique opportunity. "This land would be way too expensive for us to rent normally," she said. Plus, Lundale helped her navigate town-permitting processes, and a donor paid to install electricity on the site.
She has a 55-member community-supported agriculture program and sells regularly to Zahav. Because Ironstone is just next door, she can offer its eggs as a CSA add-on.
With this community, Morris Illoway wants to see how the nonprofit can help other farmers replicate the work on other conservation land.
They're in talks with groups such as the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust, which this summer created an online matching system for farmers and landowners. Dozens have already signed on to the service, said the organization's executive director, Andy Pitz. But he's hoping the nonprofit Pennsylvania Farm Link, which already hosts listings to connect farms with farmers, will take the project statewide.
"There are several thousand conservation easements in Pennsylvania. If half of those have farmland, that's a lot of land that could be made available to young farmers to use," he said. "But you've got to broker those relationships."