It’s no secret that getting started in farming and ranching is only becoming more difficult as land prices soar; that’s a barrier to entry that proves insurmountable for many would-be food producers. That’s why coordinated efforts to match landowners with new farmers are on the rise.
A recent story on National Public Radio brought attention to the phenomenon and told the story of one of these organizations. The story focused especially on organic farmers living in and around urban areas, hoping to sell their products at urban farmers’ markets, and looking for available farmland close to the city.
One of the organizations stepping in to fill that role, in the Philadelphia area, is the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Marilyn Anthony, the eastern region director of that organization, explained that she hosts events where landowners and aspiring farmers could meet. She also encourages both sides to think about leasing as a win-win solution — an affordable way to start or expand a farming enterprise and, for the landowners, a good, and profitable, way to utilize their land. That, she said, is among her biggest challenges, because the complexities of a lease could seem daunting; leases are far more common still among very large farms and ranches than among smaller operations.
But it may be an idea whose time has come, as similar programs arise around the country, and the efforts to bring in new farmers expand. Many states now have FarmLink programs to promote and facilitate those arrangements. The Columbia Land Conservancy’s Farmer Landowner Match Program began just three years ago; as of June 2012, it had made a couple of dozen successful matches, according to its website. The website offers a list of the benefits landowners might experience when leasing their land to someone who hopes to farm it, which, it says, include:
• Lower taxes due to the Agricultural Property Tax Assessment
• Free or low-cost upkeep of your land
• Improved soil quality
• Rental income
• A share of the produce from your land
• Good care of your land, and the satisfaction of putting it to good use.
The goal of facilitating an entry for new farmers goes all the way to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has expressed his own hope of creating 100,000 new farmers within the next few years. To that end, government-backed loans to new farmers are on the rise. There are Department of Agriculture programs to help them buy land and equipment and even learn to farm, if they don’t have ag experience. There are programs especially tailored to women, Hispanics, American Indians and returning military veterans.
The Farm Service Agency has launched a “Start-2Farm” website and is expanding its financial and educational assistance programs. In January, FSA said it would expand to every state a program that guarantees farmland purchase contracts for beginning farmers and ranchers.
Inspiring all of this activity is the U.S. Census data, which show that our farming population continues to age — the average age of U.S. farmers rose from 52 in 1987 to 55 in 2007 — and thus the need to bring in young farmers to keep the country producing food as our population continues to grow.