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Tackling Farm Entry & Exit Challenges for Today's Organic Farmer

By Kathy Ruhf, Executive Director, Land For Good

Added September 8, 2014. These days there is a lot of talk about beginning farmers. USDA Secretary Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers, and articles are appearing in the New York Times and elsewhere about young people starting to farm. At the same time, there’s concern about the aging of America’s farmers, with twice as many farmers over 65 as under 35 years old. The vast majority of agricultural assets are held in the hands of these older farmers, and about 70% of US farmland is expected to change hands in the next two decades.

Farm entry and exit are flip sides of the same coin. We need to pay attention to both, and solutions for one side of the coin can offer solutions to the other.

Beginning farmers – especially those from non-farming backgrounds – face considerable challenges. They need access to education, training and technical assistance. They need access to markets, capital and credit. They need access to mentors, peers and supportive communities. They need access to land and associated housing for themselves and their workers. And despite new programs springing up to address these needs, more must be done to assure that farms—including especially, organic farms—stay in farming and farmland remains productive. Newer models such as group farming, working with farmland investors, agricultural conservation easements, and ground leases hold promise for farmers to get onto land.

Access to farmland is one of the top challenges for beginning and established farmers in New England. It’s not a new issue, but contemporary conditions have made it harder for farmers to find and get onto land. It used to be that the eldest son inherited the farm. End of story. Now, there’s no guarantee that that son will farm, or that the farm can feasibly and simply “be inherited.” Nowadays, new men and women farmers are more likely to acquire land from non-family members. In surveys conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition and American Farm Bureau Federation, access to land and capital ranked as the top challenges for new farmers. Here, land for farming can cost up to ten times the national average. At least half of New England’s 30,000 farms and nearly 50% of its land are in areas where land is most desirable for development. Competition for good farmland and insecure land tenure prevent many start-up and expanding farmers from meeting their farming goals and contributing to our region’s food supply. In the case of dairies, the land and infrastructure requirements can be much more extensive. Thus, the entry can be much more daunting than with other types of farming.

Despite these obstacles there is actually an increase in the number of farms in New England, where beginning farmers made up 25% of principal operators in the last ag census. We need to nurture this new generation of farmers to maintain and expand our capacity to produce food and fiber. Without new farmers stewarding our region’s working lands, agricultural property will be abandoned or converted to non-farm uses. Our farms, farmland and farming opportunities could be lost forever.

At the same time, older farmers find it hard to plan for succession and arrange for a meaningful legacy. Many do not have identified farm successors, leaving the future of their farm in doubt.
Senior farmers transitioning out of farming and transferring their farms to the next generation in the family or a non-family successor is an essential part of a cycle that maintains working farms and farmland. Creating a secure exit from farming for older operators can also foster farming opportunity for new and scaling up farmers; a win-win solution for farmers, communities and the land. Farmers without identified successors (two-thirds of retiring Iowa farmers, according to one study) need special attention and help to find a transferee and execute a successful transfer.

According to a January 2014 New York Times article, the overriding concern of the two-dozen pioneer organic farmers who recently convened in California was, “How will they be able to retire and how will they pass their knowledge to the next generation?” The so-called “conundrum of retirement” that they pondered was framed in a larger context of our aging farmer population, the high cost of land, the need to pass on farming knowledge, and the shortage of interested farm family successors.

Organic farming has a long, strong and rich heritage in New England. It is thriving in many ways. But there is troubling handwriting on the wall. According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, only 11% of New England’s nearly 2,000 reporting organic farmers were under age 35, while 43% were 55 years and older. Nothing could be of more pressing concern to the organic industry than to make sure that organic farms stay in organic farming, that retiring organic farmers are assured a secure future, and that new organic farmers can step in.

Tackling farm entry and exit challenges requires a comprehensive approach that seeks creative solutions at multiple levels. Organizations like Land For Good (LFG) are stepping up with farm link, farmer training, and succession planning programs. At LFG, we specialize in farmland access, tenure and transfer. We work with new and established farmers, landowners and communities to help farmers get onto land, and transition from one generation or owner to another. We explore and promote innovative approaches to land access and transfer to assure the future of farming in our region.

Kathy Ruhf is executive director of Land For Good, where she has worked since 2004. Prior to that she directed the New England Small Farm Institute for 17 years. Kathy has written, consulted and taught about farmland and beginning farmer issues for 25 years. She also served as the coordinator of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group from 1992-2012, where she specialized in regional food systems and public policy. Kathy lives in Western Massachusetts.

Kathy Ruhf will be a speaker at the 2014 NODPA Field Days, talking about farmland access, tenure and transfer, and the exciting new tools and methods available to beginning and established farmers. You can reach Kathy Ruhf by email: kathy@landforgood.org. Visit Land For Good’s Website to learn more about their services: www.landforgood.org.