Part I: Land in Crisis
This post is part of a three-part series on the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on land access and security for farmers. The first post outlines potential impacts of the crisis on farmland; the second provides strategies to help keep farmers on the land; and the third suggests potential policy solutions.
Land is critical.
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the essential role of farmers, farm workers, and all those who support our food system. The conversation about the value of food, and how we access it, is just now coming into focus for many Americans. As we scramble to feed our communities, protect growers, and stabilize supply chains, we must also talk about how access to land is an essential element of community stability, health, and well-being.
Land is the foundation of nourishment, resiliency, and sovereignty. It forms the basis of our agricultural economy and underpins our ability to feed and heal ourselves. Furthermore, land is critical to the health of rural communities and our response to the escalating climate crisis.1 But we know that land access can be tenuous and ownership is vastly unequal.2 As long as it remains that way, particularly for young and beginning farmers and farmers of color, our communities will suffer.
This moment of instability threatens to exacerbate an already-existing crisis of farmland loss and to multiply the barriers that farmers face in accessing land. That does not have to be the path that we take, however. As we see the devastating effects of the current crisis unfold in our society, we must not let our farmland fall into crisis as well.
Farmers cannot compete with the forces of land loss.
Each successive Census of Agriculture report published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that land is leaving agriculture and there are fewer farmers. We know this anecdotally, too. While many people can think of someone in their family (perhaps a few generations back) who was directly engaged in the business of growing food, fewer than 2% of the current population are farmers. Likewise, farmland continues to be irreversibly lost to development at a rate of more than 1.5 million acres per year, according to the American Farmland Trust.3 Amidst these trends, Black and Indigenous communities have experienced disproportionately high rates of land loss and dispossession as a result of violence and discrimination, often sanctioned by policy.4
The average age of farmers continues to increase in the U.S. and millions of acres of agricultural land are predicted to change hands in the near future.5 Although the number of young farmers and ranchers has risen slightly over the last decade, finding secure access to land is an insurmountable barrier for many of them. Land-related challenges are compounded for Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color, along with farm workers and New American farmers, who face additional obstacles of structural racism, historic and ongoing racial prejudice, language barriers, and threats to personal safety.
As developers and other non-farming landowners are increasingly attracted to farmland, the cost of land is steadily becoming disconnected from its value for food production, particularly near urban markets.6 Young farmers simply cannot compete.
As a result, nearly a third of young farmers rely solely on rented land to run their businesses.7 In these often-precarious arrangements, farmers do not have the long-term security to make investments, build marketing channels, or plan for their personal futures. Similar challenges exist for farmers contending with heirs’ property issues, in which fractionated ownership of the land complicates decision making and can lead to land loss.8 Leasing can be an effective strategy for initially gaining access to land or expanding a farm business, especially given the fact that taking on the long-term debt of a mortgage is risky (or may be out of reach), but having secure tenure is critical to a farmer’s ability to stay in the field.
The current crisis is compounding existing challenges.
As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on our economy, the healthcare system, and people’s lives, it is exacerbating the precariousness that young farmers were already experiencing. While some of the effects of this crisis are already apparent, the longer-term results will take years, and even decades, to play out. Although it is true that the sudden increase in demand for local food has been a boon for the farmers who are able to meet it, how and when will that translate to secure land tenure? The following list describes some of the impacts that this crisis may have, or is already having, on land access and security for farmers. It is important to note that although some effects will be widespread, most will be felt individually with a high degree of variation. And it is clear that those who are most vulnerable will bear the brunt of land insecurity and loss.
- Land insecurity and loss. Farmers may experience insecurity and land loss due to inability to make rent or mortgage payments as a result of lost sales revenue, declines in off-farm income, and general financial distress. Many existing disaster loan programs and risk management tools are not equipped to address the challenges this epidemic is creating, nor are they often accessible to young and beginning farmers. As a result, many farmers can’t make use of cash-flow lifelines that are necessary to manage through catastrophe. An additional factor of concern is that unlike in many other industries, farmers tend to live where they run their business. This creates particular vulnerability to eviction—if a farmer is forced to leave either their house or their land, they will often lose both. These challenges will be exacerbated if landlords do not suspend rent, eviction moratoriums do not apply to farmland leases, and financial institutions do not extend mortgage forbearance measures to the farm sector. See the resources section below for more information on evictions and foreclosures on farmland during COVID-19.
- Land purchases and financing. So far, there has been a mixed impact on the process of real estate transactions. On the one hand, we’ve heard from farmers who have initiated the loan process and are still able to access those loans; closings on land purchase and conservation easement projects seem to be proceeding at this time as well. However, farmers will experience delays or barriers to accessing financing for new land purchase projects as lenders move more operations online and more questions arise regarding farmers’ existing business plans. In addition, property transactions and securing mortgages may become more challenging as title and deed searches are complicated by office closures.
- Farm transition. The biggest consequences on land may come from the speed at which transactions happen as it is forced to change hands. The transition of farmland and businesses to new farming owners is a complex process that often requires assistance from financial and legal professionals—assistance that is not available equally, particularly to socially disadvantaged farmers.9 As farmers are facing uncertainty, or if they get sick themselves, they may be forced to make the rapid decision to sell. This might especially impact mid- and late-career farmers, and particular sectors. Many producers in the dairy industry, for example, where prices have been depressed for years, were already on the verge of selling and may now be pushed over the edge. Likewise, farmers who are marginalized as a result of their race, socioeconomic status, or production style are also at risk. In addition, we may see increased sell-offs of land as older farmers feel the need to liquidate rapidly to replace retirement savings lost in stock market declines. While there are a handful of organizations that are dedicated to facilitating farmer-to-farmer sales in specific regions—such as Land For Good in New England, Renewing the Countryside in the Midwest, CA FarmLink in California, and SAAFON in the Southeast, to name just a few—we do not have a strong infrastructure for this work across the country. When transitions are forced to happen quickly, most often land simply goes to the highest bidder.
- Local planning and zoning. At the local level, many land use decisions are made by planning and zoning boards, which typically meet in person. Farmers rely on these meetings to complete some larger infrastructure projects and for land transactions that require subdivision approval. Canceled or postponed meetings may present delays in these projects and barriers to land purchase.
- Speculative land purchase. Land is a real asset that has the potential to generate value from appreciation as well as from what it can produce. As a result, it is highly attractive to both investors and those who wish to own land as an estate or second home. The trend of non-farmer interest in farmland is strongest in areas close to urban centers. The result is that those who aspire to run a farm business, particularly for direct-market sales, are unable to compete for land purchase. Often, the only opportunity left to them is renting. Anecdotally, we are already hearing stories of increased farmland purchases by non-farming buyers in parts of Connecticut, California, and the lower Hudson Valley of New York as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. We expect this trend to ramp up as the economy rebounds and wealthy individuals look for a place to deploy their capital that is more tangible than the stock market, or that they view as providing them with personal security. That said, the economic decline may also foster a temporary slowdown in the acquisition of farmland by investment fund companies, which have been purchasing it previously.
- Farmland loss for year-round growing. As attention turns to securing the food system, there may be increased pressure to pave over farmland to create year-round, indoor growing spaces. If this is done indiscriminately, without care for protecting valuable soils, we stand to lose key farmland.
- Financing and property tax challenges. Trade barriers are creating commodity pricing uncertainty, which may lead to decreased ability to use land assets as collateral to capitalize operating expenses or other farm-related investments for those who already hold land. In addition, inability to pay property taxes in the coming year(s) may precipitate further land loss.
- Increased farmland consolidation and inequity. As much as 80% of wealth is inherited through land, and the forces of property transfer that have been underway for generations continue to consolidate it in the hands of a relatively small percentage of the population.10 As land changes hands quickly in this moment, it is most likely to be sold to those with the resources to cash flow the purchase, or with the existing land base to leverage as collateral. Young farmers, and particularly socially disadvantaged farmers, are likely to continue to get shut out of this process unless we take action to specifically address this.
- Farmland protection. Publicly-funded state and federal programs across the country have been critical to protecting millions of acres of farmland from development over the last few decades. As state and federal budgets are in turmoil, we may have to fight to keep this funding in place, along with funding for a number of other critical farmer training and support programs.
- Erosion of protective measures. Economic bounce back and crisis measures could see the erosion of protective measures on our land and water resources as extractive use of land is enabled to stimulate economic growth. This is already happening, and will likely only increase if we do not take action to oppose it. Land degradation will add to the stress that extreme weather events, increasing pest pressure, prolonged drought, and natural disasters are already putting on farm businesses.11
Moving to action.
As we take stock of the impacts, craft our response, and work to build resilience for the future, one thing is clear—secure access to land for those who grow our food is as critical as ever. Farmers must not lose land as a result of this crisis; we must continue to protect farmland and keep it in the hands of farmers while addressing the inequity of land ownership; and we must focus on building resilient local food systems with secure land access as the foundation. The next two posts in this series will explore strategies for individuals and organizations to take action, as well as potential policy solutions, to help keep farmers on the land.
Resources for farmers. Are you a farmer experiencing a land access challenge? We encourage you to check out the land section on our FAQ page, where we are keeping an up-to-date list of resources and information. We have highlighted a few key topics below, but please note this material is subject to change and the FAQ page will be the most current. You can also reach out to our team at email@example.com if you need further assistance.
Young Farmers’ Resources
- Young Farmers’ COVID-19 Response Landing Page.
- Young Farmers’ Resource Library, including a section on direct financial assistance opportunities and mental health resources.
- Our existing guidebooks, including one on working with land trusts and one on Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs.
- Our Finding Farmland online course includes interviews, resources, and information about various aspects of land access. It also links to our Finding Farmland Calculator Tool. Both resources are available in English and Spanish.
Loans and Financial
- USDA’s COVID-19 resources page, including updates on FSA loan programs.
- Farm Credit (text from a resource developed by the Food and Beverage Law Clinic at the Pace University Law School). “The Farm Credit Administration is encouraging lenders in the Farm Credit System to work with borrowers affected by COVID-19 to extend the terms of loan repayments, restructure debt obligations, and ease some loan documentation or credit extension terms for new loans. Farmers who are having difficulty paying debts owed under the Farm Credit System can contact their local Farm Credit lenders. If the lender is not providing necessary flexibility, farmers may also consider contacting the Farm Credit Administration directly at 703-883-4056 (Voice & TTY) or firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Land Loss, Eviction, and Foreclosure
- States are passing eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, and the CARES Act also included some protections for these measures. While we are still working to get clarity on how these moratoriums will apply to farmland mortgages and rentals, we have outlined what we know and some resources that may help below. It is important to note that things are changing rapidly and many of the measures below will be temporary.
- This spreadsheet, compiled by individuals associated with Columbia Law School and universities, provides state-by-state information on eviction rulings and executive orders, and is being updated regularly.
- The National Consumer Law Center is providing state-by-state summaries of eviction and foreclosure measures. .
- An example of a state-specific resource that may be helpful is this website for Virginia; other states may be developing similar resources.
- The Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition has a list of organizations working to provide resources and assistance to help mitigate land loss as a result of heirs’ property, including the Land Loss Prevention Project, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, and Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation.
How will eviction and foreclosure moratoriums impact farm mortgages and rental?
- Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) has published a guide for farmers on several programs, including many covered by the CARES Act, which was passed March 27, 2020. According to their analysis, “The CARES Act mandates a foreclosure moratorium and loan forbearances for some federally backed residential mortgages. As the rules for these programs are currently being interpreted, it is unlikely that they will apply to most farm mortgages, even if those mortgages include a farm homestead.” However, they point out that, “If a farm has a mortgage that only covers a residence—and not a large part of the farmland—that mortgage could be eligible for the CARES Act mortgage forbearance and foreclosure moratorium.” Read more detail of their analysis beginning on page 22 of the guide.
- The guide from FLAG also summarizes steps FSA has taken to stall foreclosures, including “the suspension of some direct loan accelerations and foreclosures. FSA says it will also consider allowing temporary deferrals of loan payments for guaranteed loans.” The guide also points out that “In general, USDA will follow state law for foreclosures.”
- We are working with the folks at Farm Commons (who are developing a series of resources on legal questions and COVID-19) to get some clarity on how state eviction moratoriums might apply to farm rental situations. Here are some initial considerations:
- For farm rentals without a residence (just cropland), protection is likely to be extended only if the order specifically includes commercial leases (which some states do include).
- While it is possible that farms with a residence being rented will be protected, it is also possible that they will be classified as commercial, losing the protection of the order.
- Separating the lease of a residence from the lease of farmland is something Farm Commons highly recommends to farmers (even in non-COVID19 times). If they are combined, you risk losing the additional protections residential leases get under the law.
- “If New England farms fully adopted just three NRCS conservation practices—planting cover crops, practicing no-till or strip-till, and replacing inorganic fertilizer with dairy manure or compost—New England farmers could remove over 1.65 MTCO2e annually from the atmosphere through reduced greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration as organic matter. As impactful as removing 360,000 cars from the roads.” Pottern J. & Barley L. 2020. Farms Under Threat: A New England Perspective. Washington, DC: American Farmland Trust.
- White individuals account for 95% of all farmers, own 98% of farmland, and receive the vast majority of agriculture-related financial assistance. Megan Horst & Amy Marion, “Racial, ethnic and gender inequities in farmland ownership and farming in the U.S.,” Agriculture and Human Values, 36 (1):1-16, 2019.
- Sorensen, A. A., J. Freedgood, J. Dempsey and D. M. Theobald. 2018. Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland. Washington, DC: American Farmland Trust.
- Leah Douglas, “African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century,” The Nation, January 26, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/african-americans-have-lost-acres/.
- The average age of farmers was 57.5 years old in the 2017 Agricultural Census, an increase from past Census reports. In 2014, the USDA TOTAL survey reported 91.5 million acres were expected to change ownership by 2019. In the 2012 Census, farmers over the age of 65 who were the primary decision makers on the farm operated over 218 million acres, or 24% of all agricultural land (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2018, Table 69).
- Particularly in the Northeast, “farmland values are mainly due to non-agricultural influences (such as the expansion of urban and suburban land use) that bid up the value of farmland.” Daniel Hellerstein, Dennis Vilorio, and Marc Ribaudo (editors), Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, EIB-208, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2019 // USDA ERS, “Land Values 2019 Summary,” August 2019.
- Sophie Ackoff, et. al., Building a Future with Farmers II, National Young Farmers Coalition, November 2017, http://www.youngfarmers.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/NYFC-Report-2017.pdf.
- “What is Heirs’ Property?” Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition, website, accessed April 2020, http://hprc.southerncoalition.org/?q=node/5.
- Mai Nguyen and Martin Lemos, California Young Farmers Report, National Young Farmers Coalition, 2019, https://www.youngfarmers.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/California_Report_10.21.19_LoRes.pdf.
- According to The Land Report magazine, the amount of land owned by the 100 largest private landowners grew from 28 million to 40 million acres between 2008 and 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/.
- “Young Farmers Climate Statement,” National Young Farmers Coalition, 2019, https://www.youngfarmers.org/2019/09/climatestatement/. Drought is the leading cause of production risk and crop insurance indemnity payments in the United States. From Daniel Hellerstein, Dennis Vilorio, and Marc Ribaudo (editors), Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, EIB-208, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2019.