By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm
No matter where they live, one of the biggest barriers that young farmers face is access to good quality land. In the West, good land for agriculture is usually tied to good water rights, which is a big factor in the price of land. When we started our search for a piece of land that we could call our own, we stuck to one of the emerging organic produce economic models: we needed to be close enough to a well-to-do city in order to fetch a good price on our products, but far enough away that we could afford land.
We looked at properties in the Animas Valley for about a week before realizing that we were kidding ourselves even thinking about affording land that close to Durango (the well-to-do city). In the Animas Valley there are plenty of beautiful acres and one of the last free-flowing rivers, but encroaching development and numerous media accolades from the likes of Outdoor, Forbes, and National Geographic have made that land out of reach for beginning farmers. We refocused our search on the Mancos Valley, which is largely undeveloped thanks to being a 30-minute drive from Durango over two minor mountain passes and one county line. The piece of land that we settled on would never have been within our reach in the Animas Valley.
Even after we found a piece of land that was within our price range, getting a mortgage on 72 acres proved to be very difficult. No conventional bank or credit union would touch that much land, and the USDA programs that loan money to beginning farmers are slow and cumbersome. After going to almost every lender in town, we finally found a bank that actually read our business proposal and had recently decided to go after more “sustainable or green investments.” We were a good fit for this new chapter in their portfolio, and they kept our loan in-house instead of trading it in the open market like most mortgages (think financial meltdown in 2008), which we really liked. We knew what we wanted and we plugged away until we got it, but we had to be incredibly determined and flexible to put all of the pieces together.
I personally believe that getting more willing hands onto rural land to produce local food on a small scale should be an aim for this country. Revitalizing rural communities could help to manage parcels of land better, keep open spaces from being developed, bring back rural economies, and provide more access to good quality food.
There are plenty of willing, young farmers, but unless they have the ability to own the land they work, their desire to make longterm improvements to the land diminishes. We need more land ownership—not just land tenancy—but their are immense barriers to ownership and incredible responsibilities after the dotted line is signed.
I have long been an advocate for contemporary agrarianism and some form of a New Homestead Act, which could use the populist movement in this country to repopulate rural areas and make farming an easier investment for young and beginning farmers. I was discussing this topic with a friend the other day who is currently looking to buy land and running into all of the same problems that we did. When I brought this idea up, he agreed with me, but then immediately asked how people would qualify for such a radical land grant.
The first Homestead Act put a lot of people on land for the first time, but it also led to the displacement of millions of native peoples, widespread land speculation, price manipulation, commercial and industrial development, and events like the Oklahoma Land Rush and the dust bowl.
Should anyone with a pipedream of farming be given almost-free land to do with as they please? I think definitely not, yet there should be an easier and cheaper way to get young people back onto good quality rural acreage. Whether it comes from government agencies, land link programs, or through word of mouth, young people are already being encouraged to take on land responsibly, but I can’t help but hope for something a little more progressive and radical to help expedite the process.
Editor’s note: For information on NYFC’s approach to helping young farmers find affordable farmland, visit our land access policy page.
This post is part of a series following four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico as they write about their experiences with water access and explain everything from what it feels like to clean a 400-year-old acequia to how they’ve learned to make the most of the water they have through conservation and crop selection. To help you understand the terminology around water access, we’ve put together a short glossary at the bottom of this blog post.