“If we as a nation want access to fresh and locally produced food, then we must take bold steps to secure a permanent and affordable land base for working farmers,” says Lindsey Lusher Shute in the introduction to Farmland Conservation 2.0: How Land Trusts Can Protect America’s Working Farms. “There is no room for delay.”
Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), outlines the dire facts: “In the next two decades, more than two-thirds of the farmland in the United States will change hands. As farmers retire and pass on, their land is likely to transition out of family ownership and management forever. In rural areas, family farms are being purchased by speculators or consolidated into mega-farms. In urban-influenced areas, active farms are being taken out of production as they’re sold for development or rural estates. In both cases, the price of farmland is far greater than what the next generation of farmers can possibly afford.”
Formed in 2010, NYFC advocates for and supports young farmers building a career in agriculture. The group contends that the land trust community holds the key to ensuring that farm families have access to affordable farmland near urban markets.
Can land trusts take additional steps, beyond preserving farmland, to actively help to create a secure, abundant food system in the communities we serve?
In addition to the two-thirds figure, consider these facts:
- The average age of farmers in America is now at 59 and steadily rising.
- The main barriers identified by those entering into farming are access to capital and affordable land.
Take the example of young people who start new farm businesses in response to the growing demand for local, ecologically responsible food. The report describes how these farmers often rely on selling their products directly to consumers, either through farmers markets or community supported agriculture — and the best place for them to set up shop is near an urban center. However, farmers looking for farm properties within 150 miles of an urban center face competition from non-farmer buyers. The result is market prices driven too high for young farmers to afford.
For years, strategic preservation of farmland by land trusts has laid a foundation for long-term production of locally grown foods, particularly in urbanizing regions where an estimated 80% of Americans now live [The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency]. However, the challenges facing farmers today urgently require this work to be scaled up and strengthened to keep farmland owned by farmers and in agricultural production.
To highlight the opportunities for land trusts, NYFC released the Farmland 2.0 report in 2013, which includes findings from a national survey of 223 land trust professionals and from focus groups and interviews with farmers and professionals in the field.
The survey investigated the state of traditional conservation easements; land trusts’ level of knowledge of, and interest in, new easements to keep farmland affordable for working farmers; the degree to which land trusts are partnering with new farmers; and support for policy change that would accelerate the adoption of conservation easements with affordability protections.
A few land trusts have worked on farmland affordability for years and now more have joined them to help shape the next version of farmland preservation with innovative tools focused on keeping farmland owned by farmers and in agricultural production, and by welcoming next-generation food farmers as long-term partners. A few of these tools include the following (pages 17–19 of the report list the pros and cons of each tool):
- Working with farmers as conservation buyers. The simplest way a land trust can help working farmers is to help them acquire farms at “conservation value.” Land trusts that are focused on the viability of agricultural communi¬ties can target young farmers as conservation buyers and strategic partners. One benefit to the land trust is that when a new farmer acquires a property with a land trust and launches a new business, this demonstrates to a community that the land trust is behind working farms.
- Affirmative agricultural production language. This can be added to a traditional conservation easement to require the land be kept in agricultural use. Typically, affirmative language gives the land trust the ability to find a farmer to lease the property to if it is not being kept in active production.
- Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value. This is the strongest protection that a land trust can add to a tradi¬tional conservation easement to keep land in production and affordable to working farmers. The OPAV, or working farm easement, gives the land trust the option to step in and purchase a farm property at its agricultural value or assign its purchase to a farmer if it is not being sold to one.
Other strategies may include long-term agricultural ground leases, such as those championed by Equity Trust; community-based partnerships to establish incubator farms, such as Dirt Works; or whole farm affordability protection programs that focus on conserving the housing along with the land so the farmer has a place to live, as practiced by the accredited Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. In South Carolina, the accredited Pee Dee Land Trust recently received a Land Trust Alliance Excellence grant to prepare an assessment of land gift opportunities among farm owners in its region.
A Sense of Urgency
These affirmative strategies and incentives involve complexities with regard to valuation, enforceability and cost. The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program does fund these easements, but there is a need to educate funders about their value. They are best suited for land trusts that feel a sense of urgency about the issue of agricultural land transition, and are prepared to focus on working through these challenges and the task of finding good farmers who are ready for serious, long-term partnerships. For those who are leading the transition toward shorter food miles, healthier communities and stronger food and farm economies, Farmland 2.0 is an essential road map. A companion piece, Finding Farmland: A Farmer’s Guide to Working with Land Trusts, introduces land trusts to farmers and explains how they can partner with one another.
Lindsey Lusher Shute summarizes the issue this way: “As a coalition of working farmers, the issue of land access is at the very root of our work. We are eager to grow food for the nation, but we need the nation to pitch in by permanently protecting farmland for businesses like ours.”
For more information contact Holly Rippon-Butler, Land Access Campaign Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also see “Beyond Agricultural Conservation Easements” in Saving Land, Summer 2013.