Jason and Kristin Touw, along with their four children, live in fear of losing the farm they’ve come to love.
Jason is working hard to stay at Wagon Wheel Farm on Sarah Wells Trail in Goshen, where he’s worked for the last 19 years. Wife Kristin came on board several years later.
It all started in September 2000, when Touw, who was raised in Sussex County, N.J., in a family of longtime farmers, answered Joan Kozareski’s ad for a country apartment.
“I was a country guy who refused to go into an apartment or condo," he said. "I was working on my MA at New Jersey City University in my field, environmental science and biology, and this apartment suited me."
Touw did his undergraduate work at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
Joan Kozareski didn’t live at the 58-acre Wagon Wheel Farm, but she did live close by at Overlook Farm on Kozareski Lane in Hamptonburgh. She had inherited these farms and other properties in Goshen from her parents and grandfather.
“She never sold any of the properties that she inherited,” said Touw. "Joan loved the farms."
From garden to farm
Once at Wagon Wheel Farm, Touw's love of farming took shape. He asked Kozareski if he could use a one-acre field for a garden.
“I started with sweet corn, squash, and a mixture of other vegetables that my grandmother allowed me to sell at their farm in Branchville,” Touw said.
Slowly, the “garden” got bigger and bigger, eventually spreading over 163 acres. Hay, oats, rye, pumpkins are now growing alongside the sweet corn and mixed vegetables. He’s added several hundred laying hens to offer fresh eggs to his customers.
As the farm work expanded, Jason continued at his job teaching environmental science at Warwick Valley High School. Kristin, a 2005 graduate from Miner Agricultural Institute, teaches advancement placement biology there.
They basically run the farm together, calling on outside help when needed. Additionally, Jason did 90 percent of building repairs on the property.
“Although in her 70s, Joan was always with me while I worked," he said. "We were a tag team. It was good.”
Jason said that in 2013, Kozareski told him, "'You should buy me out. This is a good fit for you. You like this work.’ She assured me there would be a way.”
Kozareski was on board to keep the farm growing. By signing the Control of Land by Landowners Agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), she surrendered all use of her land and buildings to the Touws.
In researching how he could assume ownership of the farm, Touw learned from the USDA that he needed five years of farm production records. So he and Kozareski started keeping meticulous records. Touw then applied to the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for a cost-share grant that assists in diversifying and expanding the farm business.
The grant, available to all farmers who promise to be faithful environmental stewards of the land, was for $18,300. To improve the farming at Wagon Wheel, they used the funds for crop rotation and winter cover crop, which extended their growing season and brought their farming up a notch. They purchased necessary equipment through a USDA microloan to increase the amount of acreage.
Kozareski wrote in a letter to the USDA that she observed Jason, Kristin, and son Sam operating an excavator to clear roughly 15 acres that was placed back into agricultural production.
“I see them planting the fields together, tending the farm stand, working hand-in-hand long hours to see their dream come to fruition," she wrote.
“We were starting to grow our own business,” said Touw. “Joan absolutely wanted this. She watched and was a part of whatever we did. She loved seeing the kids working the farm. She loved what was happening here — the chickens, the bales of hay, the farm stand.”
In 2018, a New Farmer’s cost-share grant for $45,000 allowed the Touws to purchase equipment that increased production efficiency. Last fall, they were pre-qualified for a mortgage with Farm Credit East, with additional funding from the USDA.
A reversal of fortune
Then, at age 78, Kozareski died. It was sudden, and just a short time after Touw received the grant and mortgage approval.
In her will, signed in 2013, Kozareski left her estate, which included several million dollars, to the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Goshen, and the Hamptonburgh Cemetery.
The Touws are now in debt. Under the terms of the grants, if the growing is halted, the money must be paid back to the respective agencies. And they’re out of the farming business, which the whole family had labored so hard to grow.
In a letter of support of the New Farmer’s Grant application, Kozareski makes it clear she wanted the Touws to purchase the farm. In that letter, dated Jan. 2, 2018, she writes:
“I have also encouraged the applicants to consider purchasing the farm from me in the future. With the support of this grant, and my willingness to keep this farm a working farm that perhaps someday the applicants will own themselves, there is significant potential for the Touw family to maintain this as a working farm for the next 35-years or longer given their ages and the interest that their children take in materially participating in daily farm operations.”
They received encouragement from Matt Decker, Director of Conservation and Stewardship with Orange County Land Trust. In a letter of Jan. 8, he wrote,
“Wagon Wheel Farm is located in an area that the Orange County Land Trust considers to be a priority for protecting farmland. The vast majority of the property has soils that are classified as ‘Farmland of Statewide Importance.’ The best way to protect farmland is to keep the land in production through good farmers with a successful farm business. It was clear at the end of my visit with Kristin and Jason that they have the expertise, energy, and vision to continue building their farm operation.”
Kozareski had applied to Goshen to be a part of its farmland preservation program. In 2005, Goshen voters authorized the town to spend up to $5 million to purchase farmland, with matching grants from Orange County, to keep chosen parcels forever green in Goshen. Unfortunately, Wagon Wheel Farm wasn’t selected as one of the properties.
“The moment we have a purchase agreement with the charities, we’re applying for farmland preservation,” said Touw.
''This is our home'
Etched into Kozareski's headstone is an exact replica of Overlook Farm, the idyllic farm of 103 acres where she was raised and continued to live until her death.
Said Touw, “Anyone who would apply for farmland preservation and have their farm etched into their headstone, wouldn’t sell out to a non-farmer.”
Wanting to purchase the farms from the estate, Touw has appealed to the charities to sell to him. In fact, his proposal offers a higher amount per acre than farmland comparisons done by a realtor.
“This is heart-wrenching for me and my family," he said. "Nineteen years is a long time to be in one spot. I brought my wife here, we had our children here. This is our home.”
He wants to stay and continue the farming business that he, his family, and Joan Kozareski had started.
But this tale of dedication and hard work doesn’t have a happy ending. Touw received word that his most recent purchase offer to the five charities has been rejected. They’re looking for more money.
To learn more and keep updated on the Touw family's efforts to keep farming, go on Facebook at FriendsofWagonWheelFarm. To give them your support, go to change.org (search Wagon Wheel Farm).
“This is heart-wrenching for me and my family," he said. "Nineteen years is a long time to be in one spot. I brought my wife here, we had our children here. This is our home.” -- Jason Touw