New England communities care about their farms and farmland. While many are preserving farmland and buying local, they are falling short of helping to assure that their farms continue to be farmed into the future. Lack of farm transfer planning in New England is a major factor in the loss of working farms and farmland. Most farm families have not planned adequately–or at all–for the transfer of their farms to the next generation or another operator. Professional support for farm succession planning is limited.
This project emphasized that everyone concerned about agriculture and rural development has a role to play in supporting farm transfer. The project engaged farmland owners, service providers, and community development practitioners to: 1) raise awareness about farm transfer and succession issues; and 2) to improve farm transfer planning services in New England.
Project partners developed tools and methods to help farm families find the resources they need and to help providers deliver more effective farm transfer services. We conducted outreach to farm families and other farmland owners, professional service providers, and community stakeholders. As a consequence of this project, there is an established network of farm transfer service providers in New England. Farm families are more likely to take needed steps to prepare for farm transfer, and community members are better prepared to play crucial supporting roles.
Our objectives were to conduct outreach about farm transfer to farm families and other farmland owners, build support teams and referral services, develop and disseminate educational materials related to farm transfer, and build community awareness and provide training.
We developed a website (www.farmtransfernewengland.org) which serves as a portal for farm families and service providers. Under the leadership of the Farm Transfer Network of New England’s (FTNNE) steering committee, we designed and constructed an attractive and user-friendly site that features a searchable directory of service providers and a topical library of linked resources, from interactive worksheets to guidebooks to research articles.
To populate the directory, we developed a database of service providers in six New England states who were or might want to be involved in farm transfer services — attorneys, financial planners, Extension business management specialists, mediators, family communications specialists, estate planners, land use planners, retirement planners and tax consultants. We composed and mailed an invitation to approximately 150 providers describing FTNNE and the opportunity to list their services, along with a link to the provider form on the site. We followed up with two email reminders and phone calls in order to maximize participation. Knowing that farm transfer planning requires a team of providers, we wanted to encourage a team approach with their farm transfer cases. The letter to providers explained the intent and function of FTNNE and emphasized its service team orientation.
We drew from the farm transfer resource materials collected by the project managers, and solicited additional materials from the FTNNE Steering Committee. We catalogued all the materials, selected those most relevant, useful, and not redundant, obtained copyright permission when appropriate, organized them into topics relevant to farm transfer, and uploaded them. All materials are linked to PDF files, websites, or organizations where the document may be obtained.
We created a special section related to community development and farm transfer, geared to community development practitioners. We developed a fact sheet for community development professionals and a schematic diagram about farm transfer that we used as an educational tool.
The FTNNE steering committee drafted a tri-fold brochure describing the network and website. Five thousand copies were printed. In addition, we produced a one-page flyer and a press release. The brochure was mailed to about 700 farm operators who participated over the past four years in one-day Transferring the Farm workshops throughout New England. The brochure, flyer, and release were mailed to approximately 100 providers, including agriculture departments, Extension, Farm Bureaus, small business development centers, farmer organizations, and USDA agencies.
To meet our final objective of building community awareness about farm transfer, we recruited partners in three New England communities – Southeast Massachusetts, Litchfield County, Connecticut, and the Cheshire County area of New Hampshire. Our approach was to reach a group of organizations that might not be directly involved in farm transfer but that have important roles to play. In each community, we worked with our partners to develop invitee lists, invitation language, and meeting agendas.
We held a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in each community. We presented information about farm transfer, facilitated interactive discussion about roles and partners, brainstormed farm transfer case studies in small groups, listened to a farmer’s personal farm transfer story, showcased the FTNNE website, and handed out materials. About 25 participants attended each session, representing local and regional land trusts, conservation commissions, agriculture commissions, local planners, open space committees, regional planning agencies, law firms, farm groups and select boards.
In our proposal we said we would recruit two farms in each of our target communities that would engage in farm transfer planning with FTNNE network members. It did not turn out to be possible to identify farm clients in this manner. Rather, we can document that FTNNE network members delivered farm transfer services to at least two dozen clients as a consequence of building our network and awareness.
As a consequence of this project, there is a new, higher profile presence about farm transfer in the region and an organized network of services for farm families where none existed previously. Over one hundred agriculture organizations and agencies in the six New England states now know about the Farm Transfer Network of New England. In its first four months, the website received over 500 discrete visits. (Our performance target was 1,000 visits within six months.) It would be nice to have more, but there are still substantial barriers to farmers and providers perceiving farm transfer as a front-burner issue, and more work needs to be done to get the word out.
Approximately 75 people–service providers, land trust representatives, local and regional planners, conservation and ag commissioners, select board members, along with a few farmers–attended our three community meetings. These were specifically targeted to community groups and professionals, as described above. Of the 30 percent of attendees who responded to our follow-up survey, 90 percent reported that they: 1) obtained new information from the meeting about farm transfer issues and processes; 2) are better able to identify resources and make referrals related to farm transfer in their area; and 3) felt that the meeting was effective in raising awareness about farm transfer. Eighty-six percent reported that they now have a better idea of how they or their organization can play a role in supporting farm transfer planning. Three-quarters indicated that they would like to become more involved in helping and supporting farms to address their transfer issues. (Our performance target for all of the above was 70%.) Twenty percent stated that they are listed or will list themselves in the online FTNNE directory. This reflects that, while there is substantial concern about the issues, most participants did not feel they had specific skills to offer farm transfer clients.
Follow-up survey comments from the participants include:
“It’s so important to get the word out to farm owners now.”
“I realized how you need so many different professional in your network for all these [farm transfer] issues.”
“Thank you for bringing us together for such a good meeting.”
“This is incredibly difficult and complex. … the complexity of the process and what’s involved.”
“It became apparent that farm transfer is integral to larger dilemmas facing agriculture now… embedded in the whole controversy on retaining agland use, farm viability and land conservation as a whole.”
“…Would love a longer meeting; a follow-up meeting; more time!”
“The planning agent is the farmer him/herself; getting information to the farmer in useful form is the biggest challenge.”
“You are doing critical work; please keep conservation commissions and open space committees informed.”
Finally, and not least, is the impact on farm families. Over 700 farm families received information about the new farm transfer service, and thousands more were exposed to the information via press releases, newsletter articles, and web links. FTNNE-linked providers have worked with farm families across New England, benefiting from the availability of appropriate resources and an effective professional network. For example, a private sector consultant was facilitating the transfer of a third-generation Massachusetts orchard. When a complex business question came up, she brought an Extension business management specialist from the FTNNE network onto the team. In another example, an attorney who attended one of our community meetings provided valuable local information in a transfer discussion with a farm family. Six months after the end of the project period, we will assess client awareness and satisfaction with services received through FTNNE.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
During this project we produced an FTNNE brochure, a press release, and a one-page informational flyer.
We also sent outreach mailings to farm families, providers, and organizations. We created two specialty educational products–a schematic diagram depicting the elements of farm transfer and a two-page fact sheet on farm transfer targeted to community development practitioners. Both these products are online at www.farmtransfernewengland.org.
We have created a service infrastructure where none previously existed to address a serious gap in the farming community. With the aging farmer population and only about a quarter of farm families adequately addressing farm transfer, it is imperative to raise awareness about–and support for–farm succession planning. In New England the problem is exacerbated by a dearth of agricultural service providers dealing with farm retirement, estate, tax, business or transfer planning. The complexity and delicate nature of the issues, and the general reluctance of families to deal with them, make it necessary to conduct ambitious outreach and galvanize traditional and less-traditional partners to work with farm families. This is the only regionally focused farm transfer network in the country. Our website has the most comprehensive collection of farm transfer resource materials of any on line.
We have reached sectors in the community that care about agriculture but had no information or awareness about farm transfer until they participated in our meetings. We have stimulated dialogue about how groups can participate in and support farm transfer – from telling a neighbor farmer about the FTNNE website to designing a conservation easement to allow long-term leasing as part of a farm transition. We have also raised awareness about this issue and resources now available among farm organizations and agencies. As a result, they are more likely to spread the word to their constituents and encourage them to initiate farm transfer planning.
As described above, this project will benefit all New England farm families who will–or should at some point–contend with transfer and succession. The project directly affects profitability because farm viability and farm succession are inextricably linked, and because viability is no more vulnerable than during a transition phase. The project demonstrates that communities have and want to play a role in keeping their farms viable, and that the more they know about farm transfer the more they can be effective resources and participants. From this project we see the importance of reaching as many communities as possible and involving as many stakeholders and providers as possible. We appreciate how important it is to reach farm families and their support network at the local level.
We also learn that one of the main challenges in farm transfer work is getting farm families and other owners and managers of agricultural land to address the issue in a timely fashion. All the resources and providers in the world won’t help if the barriers for families to get the process started and completed are too high or too many. Fruitful and important next steps include how better to market farm transfer planning. Another lesson is that in many cases, it is the junior generation that is more motivated to pursue transfer planning so targeting them might be especially effective.