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March 2013

Reversal of Fortunes

By Kyle Darbyson

Converting from course to Farm proved to a be sound move for James and Stephanie Lemon

Reversal of FortunesThere are pumpkins growing on the No. 5 tee box of Lakeview Golf Course in Cool Ridge, West Virginia, and owner Stephanie Lemon couldn’t be happier. It isn’t a “typical” scene for a golf course, but then again, Lakeview isn’t your typical course. In fact, it’s no longer a course at all.

Lakeview, a nine-hole track built by Lemon’s grandfather in 1961 on the site of an old rock quarry, hosted generations of golfers while affording the owners a comfortable living. Eventually, however, changing demographics and increased competition hit the small enterprise hard. Aging locals began favoring competitors that offered carts, something Lemon and her family had never bothered to acquire. “I thought the course was such an easy walk,” she explains.

The Great Recession of 2008 delivered another serious blow. Even after Lemon dropped rates to under $10, rounds continued to fall and an already shrinking revenue stream got that much smaller.

For Stephanie and her husband James, the last straw came in 2009, when the family was struck with a serious illness; the couple knew then it was time to get out of the business. The surviving family members were unanimous in their support of closing the course, the decision made even easier by the fact no one’s livelihood would be affected. “There wasn’t anyone else working besides me and my husband,” Stephanie says.

Yet even as developers lined up to buy the 105-acre parcel, the Lemons had something different in mind. “I always told my dad how good of a farm the course would be,” Stephanie notes. It’s a dream she’d held onto during the darkest days of the course’s struggles. So on March 1, 2010, the plows came out, and Lakeview Golf Course was transformed into Lakeview Farms.

The conversion was surprisingly smooth. Stephanie and James had always been interested in farming, going so far as running a small garden on site while the course was operating and even selling brown eggs out of the clubhouse. Since the land was already zoned agricultural and was to be completely organic, they needed no permits or regulatory permission to transition into a working farm. “We’d basically been running the course as organic for years,” Lemon notes.

That experience has served the couple well in their new venture. Rather than expensive bags of fertilizer, the farm relies on kitchen scraps, compost and a healthy dose of manure donated by local ranchers. Collectively, these efforts are paying off for the Lemons, who have spent just $4,000 converting a third of their land from course to farm. “We’re already making more money than we ever did with the golf course,” says Stephanie, noting that she and her husband plan to plant apple and pear trees on another third of the property next spring.

Indeed, the Lemons’ decision to transition from golf course to farm runs counter to a national trend that sees an acre of farmland disappear every minute. It’s also a reversal of the way many course owners got into the business. But with so many golf courses struggling, the Lemons’ strategy may become a more common exit option for other operators. “A course just a few miles down the road closed last year and brought in cattle,” Stephanie notes.

To be fair, making the switch from golf to farming isn’t without its challenges. Yule Golf Club, a daily fee course located an hour northeast of Indianapolis, Indiana, had been in operation for 45 years, but like Lakeview, the club was hit particularly hard by the recession. Revenues had declined steadily over time, precipitated by the loss of numerous high-paying jobs at the local General Motors plant. “The writing was on the wall for years,” explains Brachen McCurdy, who managed the course for his father, who owns the facility.

Even so, the course was viewed as a strong piece of civic infrastructure—it attracted new housing, generated valuable tax revenue and, perhaps more importantly, provided a sense of community in a town being ravaged by economic forces. So when the local government heard of the McCurdy family’s plans to close the course and sell the land, they quickly offered to run the course for up to two years while a new owner was found. The McCurdy family declined.

Local citizens were devastated when they found out about the closing. But after the 158-acre parcel of land was auctioned off to a local farmer who planned to plow the course under, they were downright incensed. Convinced the loss of the course would hurt both the reputation of the town and the value of their homes, a group of residents pressed town council to reject the deal. The zoning board listened, and the petition to rezone the course as agricultural land was denied. Conditions of sale were contingent on the farm plan going through, meaning the McCurdy family is stuck with a distressed asset and no viable exit plan. “We just want to stop the bleeding,” McCurdy says.

No doubt, giving up the golf business for the farm business looks to be a thorny issue that a growing number of operators could face as they look to navigate treacherous financial waters. But for Stephanie Lemon, it was the best decision she’s ever made.

“I spend way more time outside now than I did when we ran the course,” she says. “All the stress is gone.”

Kyle Darbyson  is a Vancouver, Canada-based freelance writer.

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