Land Trusts Aid Beginning Farmers in Land Procurement
January 11, 2016 | AJ Hughes
The average age of American farmers is 58.3 years, and new farmers are needed to carry the torch. One of the biggest barriers to beginning farmers is access to land.
But obstacles are meant to be overcome, and land trusts provide an effective way to preserve farmland while blazing a pathway for retiring farmers to pass their land on to others.
Land trusts are nonprofit entities designed to protect resources, including farmland. One of the best ways they come to the aid of new farmers is through conservation easements—binding contracts through which a landowner sells some or all of his/her property rights to a land trust. Under this arrangement, a farmer would still own and be able to earn money from the property, but the trust would ensure that the land continues to be used for agricultural use, rather than swallowed up by development.
Farmers who sell development rights to their land also gain access to much-needed capital.
“Farmers can use this money to pay off debts or invest in infrastructure,” says Holly Rippon-Butler, land access program director of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). “It’s clear that land is a critical component to start and successfully grow a farm business. Land trusts align with the needs of young farmers.”
While farmland preservation is a main focus of most agricultural land trusts, conservation easements represent only one strategy. Ground leases are another—under this approach, the farmer sells land to the land trust and leases it back, but retains ownership of buildings. Agricultural ground leases were adopted from similar tactics used in affirmative housing initiatives.
A 2011 survey conducted by NYFC and involving 1,000 young farmers revealed that lack of capital and difficulty in accessing land are two of the greatest challenges facing new farmers. Consequently, NYFC is actively working to educate its members about how land trusts can help them find land to farm.
“It’s clear that land is a critical component to start and successfully grow a farm business,” says Rippon-Butler. “Land trusts exist as nonprofits to protect land from development and to meet the needs of farmers.”
To this end, NYFC conducts training sessions for farmers as to how they can benefit from land trusts, works to establish land trust national networks, and engages in policy advocacy.
“We’re empowering farmers to be active participants, and pursuing federal funding that supports land-trust work,” says Rippon-Butler. “Federal money is a pretty complicated process, and the farm bill could alter funding levels. It’s important that funding in federal and state levels stay consistent, but this is not happening.”
The key to overcoming this problem, she says, is advocacy—in which NYFC consistently engages.
“Farmers need to make their voices heard and be part of the policy and advocacy process,” she says. “We want to keep farming productive in the community.”
The USDA, recognizing the unique needs of young farmers, recently announced the availability of $5.6 billion in funding over the next two years to bolster programs that help new and beginning farmers. It unveiled a new web tool that enables farmers to benefit from USDA’s assistance.
Another approach that seems to be working links landowners with farmers. California FarmLink is one of many organizations striving to connect farmers and landowners. Through its FarmLand Listing database and Farm Opportunities Loan Program, it assists beginning, low-income, minority and small-scale farmers in obtaining land.
NYFC recently added a new feature—Land Opportunities—to its monthly newsletter. Each month, this section will showcase land available through land trusts.
“There are lots of opportunities for land trusts and land-linking organizations to work together,” says Rippon-Butler.