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Latest from Young Farmers

The Swamp of Land Ownership

By Alex Ball

When I first started farming at 18 with no previous agricultural experience, I jumped right into the food system with both feet, hoping to find either a clear path to economic success, or a hard path that would provide moderate stability and at least a profitable business. Reality quickly set in as I realized that, as a child of a working class family who grew up in the heart of the recession, I couldn’t access what I needed to operate a successful small farm business: financial support from my family, pre-existing capital, or accessible farmland. 

The first five of my twelve farming seasons was spent on different plots of rented land each year. I had a hard time finding secure farmland, and when I finally did, two separate pipelines forced me to move, as well as exploitative landlords who broke leases in order to extract as much value as they could from me as a tenant. After all these stressful changes, I used every cent I had to purchase two acres of extremely depleted and wet farmland to try and stabilize the business through land ownership. At that time I didn’t care how poor the quality of the land was because, for the first time, I was in control, I owned the land, and nobody was going to kick me off or try and gouge me for more money. What I didn’t understand is how much money it was actually going to take to develop that poor piece of property, and by the time I came to terms with that reality, I was already committed. 

After five years of development and an embarrassing amount of money spent, time sacrificed, blood shed, and a serious flood and hail storm in one season, I had to make a change. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t afford to own farmland. I did not have enough pre-existing capital to build a farm business while trying to fully develop raw land, and couldn’t afford a turnkey developed property. This was heartbreaking at first, but after I let go of the goals and dreams of my younger self, the fog lifted and a world of opportunity opened itself up. I wanted to be a farmer, grow food for my community, and work the land, and none of those dreams require my name to be on a land deed in order to be successful or to be valuable to my community.

I am now in the process of selling my old land and although I wish it could go to another grower in my community, I can’t let them inherit a project that wasn’t suited for that space from the start. My wet urban lot will most likely be backfilled with a home or garage built on it, and when I drive by it in the future I can look at the old property, smile, and think of all the hard work and lessons I learned out in that swamp. For the future, I’ve found myself at a new farm property right down the street from my apartment with a cooperative of small local growers who all lease land together. It almost feels like a dream come true to have such a safe place to farm so close to my home after five years of drudgery. When I first started farming, I couldn’t find a good farm lease to save my life, but after immersing myself fully in my local farming community for over a decade, I have created enough connections that enabled me to find affordable farmland to lease close to my home and market. This has been my unique journey, but I want to advise other growers that the deeper you are connected with the growing community around you, the more opportunities you will find.
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