Buying Zena Cornfield - The History

The Story of the Purchase of Zena Cornfield in the Words of Gay Leonhardt, WLC’s Founding President (1991)

In the spring of 1989, the Woodstock Land Conservancy was awaiting its 501(c)(3) determination from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS had already taken six months on the application, having misplaced our files somewhere. In other regards, we were just learning the ropes, reading a lot of material from the Trust for Public Land and the Land Trust Alliance. We had a volunteer board of six or seven people. We had raised $2,000 (mostly from the Board and friends of the Board) and we had done one conservation easement (with a boardmember) which was being held by a local non-profit until the IRS granted us our 501(c)(3) status. We had insurance and great legal help. We had a name, the Woodstock Land Conservancy, but no one had heard of us, except for a few lawyers.

Laughing Over $160,000Overlook with WLC sign

In late April a local realtor visited, telling me he had an exclusive on the sale of a 22-acre open field on Zena Road. The field provided a beautiful view of Overlook Mountain. Farmers had grown corn in it for so long that it was called “The Cornfield” or the “Zena Cornfield.” Woodstock has few open fields and none with a similar identity. There are a few other fields on Zena Road where corn was grown but this was always the Zena Cornfield. Its long-term owners had sold it a few years before to someone from New York City, causing concern.

The realtor said he knew we were worried about the field being developed. In fact, we had written the owner a year before about the possibility of a conservation easement. Given that our purchase would be a good thing for the town he said he was willing to bring the price down a bit and kick in some of his fee – all we would need to do is come up with $160,000. I laughed and explained we had $2,000. He said, ”think about it.”

I talked with some boardmembers about where to get the money. There was some big money in town so we decided to go after it. How about a couple of $50,000 donations and then a few $20,000 ones. We began by contacting the biggest money – the answer was no. We then tried a few of the medium-sized monies – again, no. By the end of one day we knew it wouldn’t happen that way.

Getting Help

I’d read in Exchange about raising money by pledges (“Raising Money for the Big Project,” Thomas C. Bailey, Winter 1989). I called the Land Trust Alliance (then called the Land Trust Exchange) and they gave me the names and numbers of other land trusts that had experience with pledge systems. I spoke with two land trusts who were helpful, encouraging, and full of information. They were also very big; trusts with staff. One made clear to me that the amount of work involved could not be underestimated. I worried about how we could handle such a big commitment.

We had a board meeting and decided to try the pledge system. We would ask people to give over three years, which seemed like enough time to pledge some serious money, but not too long. If we got enough pledges to buy the cornfield, we would; if not, we wouldn’t. This would be explained right on our pledge form and would save us the trouble of returning money if we did not make it. The pledge system also would allow the community to see our progress as we went along.

We signed a contract with the realtor and put up a thousand dollars as down payment. A boardmember agreed to provide an anonymous loan for the full amount should the deal go through. The closing date was set for August 17th. That gave us five weeks.

How Do You Ask for Money?

I had never asked anyone for money for an organization before. Neither had the other boardmembers. We made up lists of people we knew who might give. The first evening of phone calls I felt shy and tentative; nonetheless people, I spoke with pledged money to the cornfield. By the second evening phrases like “how about $1,000 per year” were rolling out of my mouth. I coached some other boardmembers and we gave the job of assembling mailing lists to those too shy to attack the phones.

Our local newspaper, The Woodstock Times, ran a big front page story about the cornfield at the end of May. The story ran with a large picture we had created. It showed what the cornfield would look like if developed as it could have been. A local architect drew two houses onto a photo of the cornfield.

Everyone volunteered: a musician did a radio ad with a local actress doing the voice over and a video person did another ad for the local TV station which ran it as part of its public service ads. Two boardmembers kept the weekly newspaper ads varied and effective. Boardmembers and others did mailings as we collected mailing lists from other non-profits, politicians, organizations down the road from cornfield – anyone we could think of. And we all made phone calls, spending endless evenings. It helped that we had to raise money fast. It helped that people were giving money to save a specific parcel. It helped that Woodstock is small so that when we solicited pledges at the local supermarket we would see people we knew. It helped that the cornfield was full of history having been in agriculture since native American times, having been drill field for militia in the War of 1812, and having grown corn in a town with little agriculture. It helped that it had some of the best soil in the county. But the details and history didn’t matter next to people calling up and telling us they cried when the field went on the market or asking us “would we accept a small donation” – they just wanted to be part of it.

We broke the pledges down into groups:$33 per year; $66 per year; $100 per year and for the wealthier people in town $500 or even $1,000 per year. We raised an average of $2,000 per day at the supermarket and as the closing date drew near we were receiving $2,000 per day in the mail. At this point we wrote the Kaplan Fund. They were impressed by what we had raised and added $15,000 to the pot. After a few weeks it became clear we would make it and then some, which would provide a buffer to guard against unfulfilled pledges.

We closed on our expected date and began sending bills out. Billing 550 people wasn’t much fun since we were all worn out from seeking pledges. We sent second bills to those who needed a reminder. The following year we did the same. It was fortunate that the billing was on the anniversary of the closing. August is a good time to pay bills compared to April or December. Some people pre-paid their pledges. We paid back the loan as we received the donations.

In 1991 we sent our last bills in the midst of a bad recession with very little building going on. For a final notice I sent people copies of their pledge pages which show their signatures. Oddly enough we received one check for the full amount from a donor who never paid us anything till he received the copy of his pledge page. The largest pledge was from the Kaplan Fund. The most emotional pledge was from a woman who paid us $5 per month till she reached $100.

Down the Yellow Corn Road

We succeeded in buying the cornfield due to the emotional response people had to the property. It took hard work. Four people basically devoted their entire summer to it and another dozen people pitched in. But all that work would have gone for nothing if it hadn’t been for the fact that people from all over town really cared about the cornfield. In 1989 we were in the middle of a building boom with land prices skyrocketing and several big developments before the planning board of the town. Many people felt the town was on a steady course of development that would turn our mountain landscape into a suburban sprawl. Here was a chance to save an important bit with a spectacular view.

The effect of the cornfield purchase on the status of the Woodstock land Conservancy in the community was powerful. Everyone knows who we are now. Unfortunately, many people think we’re in the business of buying land and we spend our time explaining about conservation easements. We’ve done two easements since the cornfield purchase and we’re working on two more. The Kaplan Fund gave us $15,000 for general use for 1990-1991 based on our cornfield performance. We should have no problem when the IRS asks us to demonstrate broad public support in order to maintain our tax-exempt status.

We received an Eleanor Roosevelt Community Service citation for 1990 from the State of New York. In May 1991 we received a card from the White House congratulating us for being nominated for the 1991 President’s Volunteer Action Award and complimenting us as a “bright point of light.”

The effect of the cornfield purchase on the land is delightful. A neighbor right down the road with open fields who had been thinking about preserving her land placed an easement on her property. So the $160,000 we raised preserved 22 acres and we got another 11 acres preserved at no cost. The Zena Cornfield is currently growing hay, oddly enough, after we signed a five year lease with a local organic farmer. Since the field had been sprayed with pesticides for about twenty years, our plan is to keep it in cover crops for five years and then go from there.

The effect of the project on the board was to make us a cohesive working group and to leave us worn out. We decided not to ask the cornfield donors for any additional money until their pledges were paid. After that we will do a mailing and find out how many people will support us generally.

The experience of the cornfield project has left our board able to think big but wary of the work involved. Since then we have focused our efforts on conservation easements, identifying significant parcels, and laying the groundwork for several major projects.If there is a lesson to be learned from the cornfield it is simple: fund-raising is emotional. Land preservation is emotional. The rest is just hard work.