By Michael Durante, Land Access Program Associate
A thin line separates opportunity from crisis in America’s agricultural economy. Farmers over the age of 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one, and U.S. farmland is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of older farmers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly two-thirds of farmland is currently managed by someone over 55. Yet young Americans continue entering agriculture despite the odds. For only the second time in the last century, the 2012 Census of Agriculture registered an increase over the previous census in the number of farmers under 35 years old.
The demographics suggest that finding farmland should be easier now than ever, and indeed the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that over the next five years, nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland are expected to change ownership. But beginning farmers consistently find that accessing land—particularly finding and affording land on a farm income—is the number one challenge they face. NYFC’s 2017 National Young Farmer Survey found that 75 percent of young farmers did not grow up on a farm. First generation farmers have particular difficulty building the collateral necessary to qualify for financing while renting land, earning low pay as farm workers, or paying back student loans.
It should be noted that the challenges faced by farmers are not shared equally. For farmers of color and indigenous farmers, the disappearance of family farms has not been simply economic, but systemic. These farmers have faced disproportionate rates of land loss over the last century, which has been attributed in part to decades of discriminatory practices by the USDA, which the department itself has been forced to admit and begin to address.
NYFC’s 2017 survey found land access, overall, to be young farmers’ most significant challenge. This presents a major problem, considering secure land tenure—most often achieved by owning farmland—is a fundamental component of a viable farm business. Without building equity in land, farmers have trouble qualifying for loans, saving for retirement, or investing in long-term sustainable farming practices.
Farmers are well-known for their characteristic thrift and work ethic. Those qualities, with more awareness of the farmland financing process and a lot of business planning, will allow them to make the best of this financial challenge. We recommend several strategies for farmers seeking land:
Plan ahead. Envision your successful farm in words and numbers. By understanding your business goals and needs, you will more easily identify how people and programs can help you to achieve them. To apply for a loan, you will always need to show a business plan; even if you are running a business already, a plan will help you understand how to improve it.
Search, even before you’re looking. If you are seeking land for your business, start asking people about it. Join or start an NYFC chapter, and talk about your land search. Go to your local USDA Extension office. Often farmland is sold or leased without ever going on the open market; landowners need to know you’re looking. NYFC’s Land Affordability Calculator will help you understand this process and compare properties.
Visit your FSA branch. The USDA Farm Service Agency exists to provide economic stability to American farmers and ranchers. If you cannot qualify for other credit, chances are the FSA can still help you buy a farm or grow your business if you show them a solid business plan. Read NYFC’s Farm Service Agency Guidebook to learn more.
Work with a land trust. Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that conserve land for a variety of reasons. Increasingly, land trusts are preserving working farmland. Land trusts can help you access affordable farmland by purchasing a conservation easement to reduce the cost of a property. Read NYFC’s Land Trust Guidebook for Farmers to learn more.
Even the most prepared beginning farmer can be stymied by the structural barriers to land access. While policy solutions—like modernizing FSA, increasing funding to federal farmland access assistance programs, better student debt solutions for farmers, and programs that assist historically underserved farmers—are needed, there are tools and resources available today to help you find and fund your dream.