Two years ago, the Foster Farmhouse was a mess. The enormous 250-year-old building had been vacant for decades, and lacked heat, running water, and functional sewage. Refuse from previous inhabitants—several pianos, mountains of books and other debris—made it difficult even to walk around inside.
A Community Came Together To Revitalize a Run-Down Farmhouse
In Warner, New Hampshire, a community land trust aims to address affordable housing, access to farming, and Indigenous land rights.
But in 2020, the community of Warner, N.H.—a town of about 3,000 people just northeast of the state’s capital, Concord—came together to make it livable. The property was taken over by the Kawasiwajo Community Land Trust, a land and housing justice organization, and in December 2022 Nico Kimberly and his partner Ruth became the farm’s first new residents in well over a decade. Grape farmers and wine makers, the couple is excited to put the land back to work.
A different model of ownership
The Kawasiwajo Community Land Trust, known as the KCLT, grew out of a conversation three years ago at the Warner Public Market, a local coop. Warner residents Bret Ingold and Ellie Brown, along with Concord resident Andy Duncan, were discussing the need for affordable housing in town when someone mentioned the old Foster Farm. This got them thinking.
A few months later, the three attended a presentation about land trusts and alternative models for property ownership at the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s annual conference.
Community land trusts are nonprofit organizations that own and steward property for the benefit of local community members. They are governed by a board of directors, and prioritize community input and involvement. The first modern community land trust is generally considered to be New Communities Inc., which formed in 1969 to support families who faced eviction as a result of their involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
“I started to think about what we could be doing locally,” Ingold says, “and next thing you know, I’m fixing up a 1760s farmhouse.” Ingold is now vice president of the KCLT’s board of directors. Ingold’s grandparents at one time owned and worked the Foster Farm, and he feels strongly about building a community where land and agriculture is accessible.
“The price of property in Warner has become unaffordable due to speculation,” he says. “We all grew up here and cultivated an appreciation for living in a rural area with farms being important, and we want to make sure this remains a place where people can have access to land to farm.”
Restoring the farm
Before welcoming the first tenants in December, KCLT needed to acquire Foster Farm.
In October 2020, an anonymous community member purchased the 70 acres of the Foster Farm, and has been the primary financial sponsor of the many repairs and upgrades needed in the farmhouse. The donor still owns the land but has agreed to let the KCLT use it, and intends on selling it to the KCLT in the future. Because the land is owned outright, the KCLT is able to rent the four-bedroom farmhouse below market rate to tenants who align with its mission of land stewardship.
“That definitely fits our bill,” says Nico Kimberly, the new tenant. “We’re farmers… and we have a bunch of folks that need housing that work with us.” Nico describes their vineyard practices as “beyond organic,” meaning that they prioritize ecosystem management and increasing biodiversity.
To expedite the repairs to the farmhouse, and to build local support, the seven board members of the KCLT have hosted several community engagement and volunteer days. I first became aware of the KCLT while living down the road, and joined a group of community members in cleaning out debris from the farmhouse. I also listened in on a community brainstorming session about the potential future of the property and land trust.
Looking to the future, acknowledging the past
The exact future use and direction of both the land trust and the farm remains undecided, but KCLT Board President Ellie Brown believes that the KCLT will ultimately grow to encompass a large portfolio of initiatives. These may include buying additional properties in Warner for residential and small business rental, returning the Foster Farm to being a working farm, rebuilding a fallen down barn through a series of timber framing workshops, and establishing community gardens.
Keeping with the tradition of many community land trusts, community support and input is also central to the ethos of the KCLT.
“Rather than a developer trying to impose something on top of a community, this is really trying to be a lot more grassroots—letting people in a town make the decisions about what happens in their town,” says Brown, who has worked with a land trust in Washington state.
Also integral to the KCLT’s guiding framework is a commitment to Indigenous land rights. The group takes its name, Kawasiwajo, from the Abenaki name for a local mountain, more commonly known today as Mount Kearsarge. Ingold says that KCLT board members consulted with the local Abenaki community about using the name and were told, “that name is already here, so just bring it forward again.”
Brown says that the KCLT hopes to work hand-in-hand with the Abenaki community to create land easements to enable access to areas of cultural and historical importance to the Abenaki, and that at some point, the KCLT may try to purchase land to give back to the Abenaki. This is particularly noteworthy in New Hampshire, as the federal government has yet to officially recognize the estimated 1,000 – 4,000 Abenaki in the state, and has no apparent plans to do so.
When asked about community response to the KCLT’s restoration of the farmhouse, Brown says, “I’m sure there will be some people who are really excited, and some people who’ll say, ‘this sounds crazy,’ so we’re expecting to get a broad range of reactions.” In general, she adds, “people are excited about the community land trust model.”
Nico hopes that by being the first tenants at the Foster Farm, he and Ruth will be part of a legacy, and they will be able to look back and say “Wow, [Warner] is a thriving place where anyone can farm, and there’s lots of housing because the land trust has been able to purchase other homes and provide housing for folks.”
When asked about what he is most looking forward to about moving in, he says, “Honestly? The wood stove. There’s something that happens when you gather around a wood stove after a long day of working outside in the winter…There’s something magical about that.”
Patrick McNameeKing is an independent writer, composer, audio engineer, photographer, and producer of radio and podcast media.