Spotlight: Farmer in the Deal


When developers' bulldozers approach farmland, a common reflex of open space lovers is to call for new laws: subsidies, bans on land sales. It seldom occurs to them that the farmland may still be profitable—if managed properly.

Enter Austin Dunham (Dunny) Barney II. Barney is not only showing existing and would-be New England farmers how they can harvest the long green but is making a profit himself in the process. He got into the business after he and a partner, in 1983, purchased the bankrupt, abandoned Folly Farm, near Simsbury, Connecticut. After they turned it into a thriving concern, people kept asking how they'd done it. "We'd love to own a farm," they'd say, "but we don't know how to run one." Barney created Farmvest Inc. to tell them.

The typical Farmvest client is a doctor, lawyer, or entrepreneur with a hankering for wide-open spaces and enough money to buy not only a farm but also Farmvest's expertise. Barney's firm finds the land (and real-estate commissions on properties costing a million dollars-plus aren't chicken feed), figures out what crops to raise, and hires help to manage the farm. Thus Barney achieves both profit and conservation by tapping a new market of part-time farmers.

Barney himself, a friendly 41-year-old, didn't grow up on a farm but did learn a healthy respect for Mother Nature while hunting and fishing on tracts of land his family owned. His father, a Connecticut fish and game commissioner, was also a founder of Ducks Unlimited, a national duck and goose habitat preservation organization.

Barney studied international politics at Yale, but his political interests soon became domesticated. After earning a master's degree in public administration at Syracuse University, he went to work as a planner for the Hartford city government. Later, his combined urban and rural perspectives landed him the job of director of Connecticut land-use planning.

There he became good friends with his boss, Dan W. Lufkin, who was also a successful businessman. Lufkin persuaded Barney that market or quasi-market incentives are better than outright restrictions on property use.

Even during his government days, Barney was active in numerous volunteer organizations, such as the Hartford Architecture Conservancy. Supported by members and grants, the group buys, restores, and resells properties. When old hotels or dwellings are converted to offices, the group buys or is given easements on the facades—contracts preserving the historic exterior architecture.

Barney started farming much the way his clients do, as a sideline to a full-time job. In 1984, while working as director of Cigna Corp.'s charitable and social action program, he and a partner resuscitated the decaying 235-acre Folly Farm the free market way: they bought it and made it a going concern, exploiting its natural advantages while keeping it largely agricultural.

To generate some cash flow, they built a large 55-horse riding stable and leased it to a riding instructor for an equestrian school. They've hosted 18 horse shows since then—each of which has shown a profit for the farm. They harvested 140,000 board feet of oak. To cut their debt, they sold 65 acres of untillable, forested hillside to developers, who are now carving out 22 home sites. "In trying to preserve farms with private capital, the onus is on creative land use," which may include some residential development, Barney notes.

Aggressive marketing helps, too. The operation is the largest sheep farm in the state and is building a market for its mutton among restaurants and exploring outlets for woolen blankets.

Barney's sheep-raising expertise comes from over a decade of operating a nearby smaller farm with his wife, Susan. They and their two young children live in a rebuilt barn. "We started with a couple of goats and sheep and ducks and geese and steers. We were given two piglets as a wedding present." It was picturesque but too complicated. So the Barneys decided to focus on one kind of animal. "We taught ourselves, with the help of vets and seminars, how to do everything but surgery on our sheep."

Farmvest often advises the same simplification—some farms should cut back to one kind of crop or livestock until they get the knack. Creativity is important, too. When foreign competition cuts Maine potato farmers' sales, Barney suggests, growers might do well to switch to other crops, such as broccoli.

He encourages investors to provide incentive plans in their contracts so that their hired farmers acquire equity in the farm as time goes on. "In that sense we are kind of marriage brokers, putting together the farm community and the nonfarm community."

For all of his consulting and brokerage work, Barney most enjoys working on his own farm. "I like the interplay of natural elements—the seasons and their impact on living things, the process of birth and growth of livestock, the game of developing and improving strains of animals. As I see the ducks and geese swimming in our drainage, or deer wandering through our sheep, I feel very much a part of the natural wonder. It's an uplifting and humbling experience at the same time."

All this and money, too? How are you going to keep them away from the farm, now that they've seen a profit?

John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.