Nutty Buddy Collective aims to transform local agriculture

THESE NUTS: Workers help out in the Nutty Buddy Collective orchard. The collective has planted young pecan, walnut, apple, quince, aronia and pawpaw trees and shrubs on land in Leicester. Photo courtesy of Nutty Buddy Collective

For founder Bill Whipple, the Nutty Buddy Collective represents the culmination of a lifetime of work in sustainable agriculture. Founded in 2014, the pioneering group is exploring alternative ways to conserve land and cultivate food.

As a commercial orchardist with 30 years’ experience, Whipple understands how to recognize and effectively utilize resources to create new options for food production. He’s organized fruit lovers and community activists in support of edible parks. And using the expertise garnered from his commercial, chemical-free pear operation in West Virginia, he started Barkslip’s Fruit School in 2006 to show participants how to work in partnership with fruit- and nut-bearing plants.

Through those endeavors, Whipple came in contact with like-minded souls, including his four partners in Nutty Buddy: Tom Celona, Justin Holt, Greg Mosser and Ramin Sadeghian. These men share a vision of land as something more than just a real estate investment — and an understanding of what taking the long view can mean for transforming the agricultural sector.

Nuts and bolts

Besides diversifying the food system, says Whipple, perennial agriculture creates impacts that carry over from year to year.

It starts with identifying underutilized parcels. The key is negotiating agreements that give farmers who may be rich in ideas and dedication but short on cash long-term access to the land, while ensuring a fair (if unorthodox) return for the property owner. This opens the door to planting nut- and fruit-bearing trees that may take up to 15 years before they start producing a marketable product.

The for-profit collective’s goal is to create an agricultural model that’s accessible to anyone who’s passionate enough to commit to and work with it. The template, notes Whipple, creates a marriage between property owners who want their land preserved and are willing to look beyond quick returns, and folks who want to venture into agriculture but lack access to the land they need. By focusing on private rather than public land, the collective dodges bureaucratic hurdles and the inevitable discouragement as projects stall while waiting for official permission to proceed.

Conservation-minded landowners sign 99-year lease agreements, with options for renewal. The leases are tied to the property, not the owner. Within the collective, each member has an equal number of shares, which are structured so that no one person can take control of the business, and eventually, the collective won’t be beholden to the original members. This ensures the organization’s sustainability and ability to adapt to future conditions.

As a legal mechanism, the leaseholds are far simpler than more conventional options such as conservation easements. Nutty Buddy’s website includes a leasehold template that can be downloaded and tailored for use in other areas, making it easier and cheaper to set up such an arrangement.

Currently, the collective is working with two local landowners, focusing on hickory, black walnut, chestnut, hazelnut, pawpaw, aronia berry, elderberry, cider apple and perry pear while working to spread the word and gain access to more land.

And though the preferred plantings require a long-term vision and ample patience, Whipple stresses the various financial incentives these leaseholds provide for preserving agricultural property, starting with the large potential profit margin. Landowners receive an agreed-upon share of either the crop or the profits; in addition, they may qualify for tax reductions or deferments. The agreements can also enhance property values.

The minimum size parcel the collective can work with is a half-acre; the closer to Asheville a potential plot is, the smaller it can be. The arrangement also works with different types of land. Nutty Buddy, notes Whipple, has access to a variety of tree species that have been genetically selected to maximize output in specific situations: riparian fruits in flood plains, for example, or orchards within hay and pasture areas.

Passionate partners

Whipple’s previous projects gradually connected him with a core group of people who were passionate enough to volunteer on projects aimed at reforming our food system. Barkslip’s Fruit School, for example, inspired The Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club, which bills itself as “an all-volunteer club dedicated to caring for the edible parks of Asheville, N.C., and planting fruit and nut trees in public places.” Whipple spearheaded the creation of such edible parks within West Asheville Park and Magnolia Park in Montford.

But where edible parks produce goods for free public consumption, Nutty Buddy aims to create marketable agricultural products. And in the process of developing those parks, Whipple met dedicated individuals who were willing to postpone their own immediate gain for seven or more years — working day jobs in the meantime — in order to create a sustainable long-term business model.

The collective’s members share work, investment and profit in an attempt to emulate the way forests naturally work, creating productive agricultural endeavors that are regenerative, interdependent, stable, low-input and nonexploitative.

Going forward, Nutty Buddy expects to draw on the community for resources and support as needed, building relationships in a variety of contexts. The North Asheville Tailgate Market, says Whipple, is one opportunity for direct sales. Another future sales channel, he explains, will be chefs and restaurants looking to offer more locally produced food. And once the local appetite for Nutty Buddy’s products has been met, Whipple also sees mail order as an option.

As the collective continues to spread the word about its model and mission, Whipple hopes more interested landowners will step up. In the meantime, he notes, the folks the collective is currently working with “are our fairy godparents: By their grace do we go. They share our vision and have been very supportive. They want to see us succeed.”

But while Whipple appreciates these landlords’ generosity, he also calls the arrangement a “perfect marriage if there are good prenups: Everyone wins.”

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About Josh O'Conner
Josh O’Conner is an urban/land use planner with a passion for urban agriculture. He can be reached at @kalepiracy or @joshoconner on Twitter or e-mailed at josh.oconner@gmail.com.

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