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Wealthy Philanthropist Claims He Was Duped, Defrauded By N.H. Farm Consultant

photo of rolling farm
Aaron Eidman
/

Joshua Rechnitz is a media-shy New York philanthropist with a history of funding projects that align with his personal interests.

His pursuits have ranged from a proposed $40 million bicycle racing velodrome to studio space for contemporary artists in Brooklyn.

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In recent years, Rechnitz, 55, has turned his philanthropic attention to sustainable agriculture. That led him to Bob Bernstein, a New Hampshire-based land conservationist and consultant with an interesting pitch. 

Bernstein, through a string of LLCs and more recently a non-profit called Northeast Farm Access, or NEFA, raises money to purchase farms at risk of development, and then leases the land back to multiple tenant farmers.

The projects, which Bernstein calls “agricultural centers,” are meant to conserve open space, give organic farmers the stability of long-term leases, and bolster the local food movement, all while generating tidy two-percent profits for Bernstein’s financial backers.

“I was over the moon hearing all this,” Rechnitz said in an interview with NHPR. “I was so high on this idea of a farm, and that, as opposed to one farmer, multiple operators could work on the farm. It seemed like a little community in itself.”

But after investing more than $3.4 million to fund two agricultural centers in New York's Hudson Valley, Rechnitz now accuses his former partner of fraud. 

In a 40-page civil lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month, Rechnitz alleges that Bernstein’s model for preserving threatened farmland is in reality a vehicle for him to siphon money from wealthy investors. In an email to NHPR, Bernstein rejected Rechnitz’s allegations and said he expects to win in court. But he declined to address the details in the lawsuit, which paint him as a man in perpetual motion, charging ahead on agricultural projects in multiple states, while rarely completing tasks or giving his investors an accurate accounting of where their money was going.

“Bernstein sought out social-minded investors like Rechnitz and convinced them that by investing in NEFA they were investing in a more sustainable future for farmland, farmers, and the communities they support,” Rechnitz’s attorney Luke Nikas wrote in a legal complaint.  “But NEFA’s 'innovative' investment model was, in reality, to take money from investors, frivolously spend it, and collect fees by charging a percentage of virtually every dollar NEFA spent.”  

The lawsuit centers on Bernstein’s payment structure, as well as alleged falsehoods about the viability of the farms. For every dollar spent by Rechnitz — including an alleged $750,000 on a goat dairy, hundreds of thousands of dollars on outdated tractors, and the aborted construction of ‘Escape Cabins’ that could be rented on AirBnB — Bernstein and NEFA1, his for-profit business, collected management fees, allowing him to “enrich himself”, according to the lawsuit. 

The legal action, filed in New York, is not the only hurdle Bernstein is now facing. The treasurer of NEFA’s board of directors recently raised red flags about Bernstein’s bookkeeping practices and asked the full board to investigate the organization’s finances. 

Last summer, securities regulators in New Hampshire also turned their attention to Bernstein, resulting in a $1,000 fine for selling $50,000 in promissory notes without receiving proper exemptions. Bernstein described those violations as “growing pains” to his investors.  

Arrowhead-2.jpg
Credit Aaron Eidman
Arrowhead Farm, in upstate New York.

Bernstein declined an interview request from NHPR, and didn’t respond to a list of questions about the allegations against him. But in a brief email, he called the lawsuit “inaccurate and misleading.”

In an email, he wrote that the lawsuit “reminds me of the movie Rashomon,” referencing the 1950 Japanese film in which a crime is retold from the perspective of multiple characters, each offering a different version of events. “The facts, as documented, tell the true story.”  

Saving Farms, Helping Farmers

Bernstein, who lives in Antrim, N.H., started NEFA in 2013 after a long career in land conservation and consulting work. In 2019, he launched a separate non-profit entity that solicits donations and grants to help fund more farm purchases, while changing the name of his for-profit venture to NEFA1. 

The non-profit's website lists six agricultural centers, including a farm in Marlborough, N.H., four more in upstate New York, and a new property in Unity, Maine.

Bernstein’s ambitions extend further, as outlined on NEFA’s website, with a goal of operating 45 agricultural centers, valued at more than $100 million, by 2030. Bucolic images of rolling pastures, bumper crops of produce and smiling farmers suggest his success. 

NEFA’s model of using investor money to fund the purchase of at-risk farms isn’t unique. Development pressure, as well as a graying population of farmers, has put agricultural land across the Northeast at risk. Private and non-profit programs are stepping in to make land available — and affordable — for a new generation of farmers.

In Rechnitz, Bernstein found a wealthy donor with a growing interest in soil health and local food, and a track record of funding his passions while keeping a low-profile. In 2012, the New York Times ran a profile headlined “The Mysterious Mr. Rechnitz” on account of the New Jersey-born philanthropist’s disdain for media attention.

RELC_05202020_PN-40.jpg
Credit Peter Nelson
An aerial shot of Arrowhead Farm

Rechnitz, however, appears to be putting aside his preference for privacy when it comes to Bernstein. 

“What is an ag center? Nobody quite knows,” Rechnitz said in an interview with NHPR. 

He described hearing Bernstein’s initial funding pitch inside a Brooklyn brownstone in 2018. Shortly after, Rechnitz invested $400,000 in the Esopus Agricultural Center located in Kingston, N.Y.

“My idea is to create localism, where — it feels kind of old fashioned — you have a downtown with a hardware store, and you do business with people you know,” said Rechnitz. “It sounds a little anachronistic and kind of ridiculous, but that is what I believe in, and what makes strong communities.”

Over the next 18 months, Rechnitz would invest and loan millions more to Bernstein, according to the lawsuit, including funding the purchase of a picturesque 271-acre former dairy farm called Arrowhead in Kerhonkson, N.Y.

“If you asked a kid to draw a farm, this is what he would draw,” he said.

According to court paperwork, Rechnitz alleges Bernstein told him he had leases lined up with six different farmers, including vegetable growers and a goat cheese-maker, which would allow the project to “pay for itself.”

Many of those leases were never formalized, however. Now, Rechnitz alleges Bernstein has defaulted on more than $700,000 in short-term loans, while failing to provide an accurate accounting of how the money was spent. 

It isn’t clear how much Bernstein may be profiting from these endeavors. The agricultural centers are privately held entities, while his non-profit hasn’t yet disclosed his annual salary.

But Rechnitz alleges that Bernstein is intentionally overspending on unnecessary infrastructure and equipment, asserting that allows Bernstein to collect fees, regardless of whether the farms generate revenue.

“I actually believe the guy believes in his own mind to be doing good...that he believes himself to be a Robin Hood, taking from the wealthy, and giving to those with less,” said Rechnitz.

Bernstein didn’t respond to questions about his payment structure or the fraud allegations made by Rechnitz.

“I was saddened and disappointed to see that Mr. Rechnitz recently filed a lawsuit against me and NEFA1,” said Bernstein in an email. “The allegations in the complaint are inaccurate and misleading. I intend to mount a vigorous defense and fully expect to prevail in this action.”

 ‘This is Abnormal’

Among NEFA’s own board of directors, there is also concern about Bernstein’s financial transparency and treatment of farmers who lease land. 

In December, Jasmine Burems, the organization’s treasurer as well as a tenant farmer, sent an email to her fellow board members, writing she felt “completely manipulated, blatantly used, bullied and tokenized for the purpose of Bob’s fundraising efforts and optics.”

In the email, which was shared with NHPR, she continued that despite being board treasurer, “To date, I have not seen, reviewed or approved any financial statements, budgets or bookkeeping records. This is abnormal.” 

Burems, who declined to comment for this article, encouraged colleagues to launch an investigation and obtain a forensic accountant to review the organization’s records.

“Bob is a great and well intentioned visionary for whom I have both care and respect,” said Burems. “This is why I’ve joined the board. But I have to call a spade a spade. And we have to make organizational improvements in real time because too much is at stake regarding the farmers involved and our role in regional food systems and local economies.”

Photo of farm fence
Credit Aaron Eidman

Bernstein didn’t respond to questions about Burems’ calls for an investigation.

But other farmers say they are also expressing frustration with Bernstein, claiming he’s failed to properly manage the agricultural centers and that he's reacted with hostility when questioned about his management of the farms.  

Luke Franco and his partner, who together own Tiny Hearts Farm, have leased land from the NEFA-managed agricultural center in Copake, N.Y. for six years. Along with growing fresh cut flowers they sell in a nearby retail store, Franco and his family also live in a farmhouse on the site, making Bernstein their de facto landlord.

“I would say that relationships here at the center have kind of deteriorated quite a bit,” said Franco, who is not involved in the lawsuit and declined to comment on it. 

Franco said tenant farmers have faced delays in obtaining necessary repairs to infrastructure on the farm, and are often excluded from management decisions that directly affect their operations.

“It’s undeniable that there’s been conflict, and conflict does not equate to smooth operation,” said Franco. 

In December, Franco said that Bernstein, 69, charged at him, bumping him in the chest, after the two disagreed about the use of a greenhouse. According to a police report, Bernstein had to be restrained by other witnesses, who apologized for his behavior. Nobody was injured in the confrontation, and no charges were filed. 

Bernstein didn’t respond to a question about the incident. 

Static and Conflict

Bernstein is no longer serving as manager for two of the agricultural centers he helped found, including Esopus and the Chester Agricultural Center in New York, which is now reorganized as a non-profit.

At Esopus, a 214-acre farm in Ulster, a group of investors in the project obtained financial records after Bernstein’s departure. Those records, they allege, show that Bernstein awarded himself and NEFA1 nearly $300,000 in payments and equity during the three-and-a-half years he actively managed the farm. 

“He made a very big point of saying everything was transparent and democratic, and so on,” said Dr. Paul Bermanzohn, an investor in the Esopus project. “And it was no such thing. There were a lot of murky financial transactions.”

Bernstein left as manager, Bermanzohn claims, under less than amicable terms, though Esopus is still promoted on NEFA’s website.

“He put this thing into motion, and then he dropped out in the middle of a lot of static and conflict," Bermanzohn said.

Bernstein didn’t respond to a question about his compensation at Esopus.

In New Hampshire, the Monadnock Agricultural Center in the town of Marlborough recently announced it was taking on a new tenant: a non-profit that works to save a critically endangered species of horse called Newfoundland Ponies. 

According to a local media report, the horses will be put to work on the farm driving plows, as the breed is designed to do. 

Town records show the Marlborough center is more than $30,000 behind on its property taxes.

For his part, Rechnitz continues to own Arrowhead Farm, which remains in operation with multiple tenant farmers, including the goat cheese manufacturer. 

While his lawsuit seeks financial damages from Bernstein and his for-profit LLC, Rechnitz said he’s more frustrated not by his lost money, but by the lost time. 

“He is not delivering on anything he promised to any of us, and it’s really criminal to farmers, what he’s doing to the land, what he’s doing to philanthropists,” he said. “We don’t have room in this for bad actors.”

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