Jim Oldham from Equity Trust contributes this lesson’s guest blog.
Finding the land you need to grow your farm business can be daunting for a beginning farmer. Finding affordable land with secure tenure can be next to impossible. Fortunately there is a growing toolbox of strategies farmers can use, and many potential partners to help you succeed.
Property ownership involves what is often described as a “bundle of rights.” For a farmer trying to get on the land, there are different ways to divide those rights so costs and benefits can be shared with others. Your particular goals and challenges, and which organizations work in your region, will together determine the strategies and partners most relevant to you. In addition to traditional agencies like the Farm Service Agency or Farm Credit, potential partners for land-seeking farmers include land trusts, private landowners, social investors, and community groups. Each brings different interests and offers different resources to facilitate land access.
Land trusts are nonprofit organizations dedicated to land protection. Conservation land trusts focus on protecting natural resources and open spaces, often including agricultural lands. They can lower the cost of land to a farmer in exchange for giving up the right to develop the land, or they may be willing to lease land they own. Community land trusts hold land for socially beneficial uses—particularly affordable housing but sometimes for farming and other purposes—and could be good partners for a farmer seeking a secure, long-term lease.
Social investors seek a financial return while meeting social goals. Partnering with such a group to acquire land can lower the farmer’s entry price through a more gradual payment plan. As with a loan, you are essentially buying time by deferring payment in exchange for paying somewhat more later when you can more afford it.
A farmer can provide a non-farming landowner many benefits in return for a lease, ranging from lower taxes and land maintenance, to fresh produce, a sense of social contribution, or a potential future buyer. Institutional landowners may see leasing to a farmer as a way to advance their mission or give back to their community; or they may be willing to lease in exchange for some support for their programs (e.g. a food bank).
Community groups, including neighbors, CSA members, local co-op members, or other customers, will sometimes share the cost of land access in order to establish or protect a farm, and in return for having some say in the type of farming that will take place or where the food will be sold. These allies can work independently or in partnership with a land trust to raise funds for land acquisition or for the purchase of protections that lower the cost to the farmer.
All of these approaches can help farmers, but they involve entering into complex relationships that need to be negotiated.
What kind of security does a lease offer?
Are the partner’s expectations realistic?
Are the terms of a conservation easement farmer-friendly?
What is the long-term cost of a lease and purchase option offered by an investor group?
What other non-traditional partners are available if first options aren’t working out?
What new concepts can you propose if current options don’t work for you?
Partners can make land access possible, but farmers need to be able to evaluate options, advocate for themselves, and seek independent advice.
Jim Oldham is Executive Director of Equity Trust, Inc., an organization that has been advocating for affordable farms for farmers for nearly three decades.