Everyone agrees the country needs new farmers. Trouble is, they can’t afford land

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September 17th, 2018
by Naomi Tomky

Everyone agrees the country needs new farmers. Trouble is, they can't afford the land
By Naomi Tomky
The New Food Economy | September 17th, 2018

Nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next few years, but most of it will go to investors and developers. Now, two online tools aim to help a new generation of farmers find land and demystify the cost of owning it.

Since 2012, Virginia Moore and Rebecca Martello have farmed a tiny plot of land, just 1/16th of an acre, 45 minutes from their home in Bremerton, Washington. That worked out for the first five years, when the couple grew only enough to eat themselves. But this season they sold 10 shares in a 16-week CSA branded as Sun Dog Farm—a small step forward that quickly maxed out their cozy plot. Now, with every available inch already planted, their dream of becoming full-time farmers is on hold.

“We can’t expand, can’t go into markets, can’t serve more people,” says Moore. So the pair will continue to work elsewhere—Moore full-time as a mental health clinician, Martello part-time as a dental assistant—until they can find more land. The tiny plot they do have is owned by Martello’s parents. But the hunt for acreage of their own has so far been unsuccessful.

America has a farmland problem. It’s too hard to find land for sale or lease at reasonable rates, making growth a challenge, especially for new farmers going into business for the first time. Land access is the top challenge young farmers face, says Holly Rippon-Butler, the Land Access Program Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). The issue isn’t just land prices, which have increased by a stunning 1600 percent since they bottomed out during the farm crisis of the 1980s. American farmland is also increasingly consolidated, owned by non-operators who see their holdings as an investment, and would rather rent than sell.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 percent of U.S. farmland is owned by non-operators. But in some heavily agricultural states, that number is even higher. In Iowa, for example, more than half of farmland is farmed by renters. The economics of agriculture change completely—and not for the better—when farmers are working someone else’s land.

This gathering crisis is coming to a head as the oldest current generation of farmers prepares to retire. The average age of U.S. farmers is 58, a number that’s been on the rise for 30 years. What happens when those farmers retire? It depends, but if a farmer’s children decide not to get into the farming business the land is likely to be sold to non-farmers, developers, or corporate landlords who want to profit from agricultural land without farming it themselves. The NYFC estimates that nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next few years, a development that’s likely to make affordable land even scarcer.

Virginia Moore and Rebecca Martello are just two of many young farmers who are struggling to find and secure funding for farmland

“Pressure to develop is really high,” says Moore. “People are buying their first home, their second home, and they and the developers are all willing to pay in cash.”

That’s why advocacy groups, land trusts, and other non-profit organizations are looking for ways to ensure that land continues to be working farmland, passed down to the next generation of farmers. Some hope that new online tools can make the process of finding and financing farmland easier, and two solutions, specifically, could provide models for the future. The first acts like an online matchmaker, connecting people selling land with the farmers who need it. The second helps to demystify the confusing economic prospect of acquiring farmland in the first place.

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