Gaining Ground in Maine

Final Report for CNE08-048

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jim Oldham
Equity Trust
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Project Information

Summary:

The goal of Gaining Ground in Maine is to encourage and improve the practices of agricultural land preservation. We have introduced and disseminated a preservation model that can permanently protect whole farms – the soils, the infrastructure and their affordability for farmers. We surveyed 100 community supported agriculture (CSA) farmers on their land tenure issues and developed outreach and educational materials in response to the results of this survey. We provided five workshops to 125 farmers and representatives of 8 land trusts. We have helped draft long-term leases for Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick and Broadturn Farm in Scarborough that can assure continued farming while protecting the interests of current and future farmers as well as the Land Trusts that own the underlying land and the communities they represent. In addition, we have held initial consultations with Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden, Great Works Land Trust in Berwick, and H.O.M.E. in Orland to explore similar solutions for farms they own.

Project Objectives:

1) Work with small farms and land trusts to protect the affordability and use of farms.

We are reaching out to farmers to provide education related to alternative forms of land tenure that can increase access to farms and make them affordable. Our goal is to help draft protection plans (legal documents and financing) for three to six farms in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of these protection models.

2) Increase the understanding and skills of conservation land trusts with regard to using Equity Trust’s models for conserving farms.

We hope to increase the understanding of land trusts for the need to do more than just purchase the development rights of farms if their real goal is to protect farms. In a growing number of communities purchasing the development rights does not bring the value of the farm down enough so that a farmer can afford to purchase and farm it.

3) Increase public awareness of the need for farm preservation efforts to address whole farms: soils, infrastructure, and farmer.

We are promoting dialogue among farmers, farm organizations, land owners, conservation professionals, state agencies, policy makers, consumers and others regarding the challenges faced by farmers in gaining access to land and then preserving and stewarding it, as well as the opportunities for whole farm preservation in the state of Maine.

Introduction:

Today, the typical price of a farm is far higher than a family farmer can afford. While conservation easements are widely used to bring down the value of land by removing the development rights, “gentleman farmers” seeking rural ambience are now competing for farms with conservation easements, driving the price of farms out of the reach of working farmers. Most conservation easements do nothing to insure that the farm is agriculturally productive or to protect the affordability of the farmhouse and barns.
The impact of this on farmers is that:

A) Many farmers are working rented land. Previous Equity Trust research (2001) showed that 50% of the land worked by CSA farmers is rented. Since CSA farmers sell shares of their harvest to individuals within the community who become “members” of the farm, CSA farmers take a great risk when they build this membership base around a farm that they do not own themselves. Further, when a farmer owns his land, farmhouse, or barns, he has the opportunity to gain equity, but rented land does not afford the farmer this opportunity. And for farmers using sustainable farming methods, often the most serious issue with rented land is this: Although they need to build the fertility of their farm’s soil, they have no way of taking this valuable asset with them should the land be sold out from under them, or their lease terminated for any reason.

B) Family farmers who own their land face a constant financial struggle to hold onto their land. Increasingly, as the cost of land continues to rise, more and more farmers have had to take second jobs working off the farm to pay the bills, especially the mortgage and land taxes for the farm. The USDA has found that for farms with sales under $100,000, the income from these off-farm jobs (and the related benefits such as health insurance) is critical.

C) When farmers retire, it is a challenge to make the farm accessible to younger farmers. A generation of farmers is now retiring, as over 25% of U.S. farmers are over 65. Retiring farmers often have their retirement income tied up in the equity of their farm and are unable to sell at a price that is affordable to a young farmer when non-farmers are able to pay much more. Retiring farmers are forced to choose between their own need for retirement income and their wish to see the land that they have stewarded continue to be farmed.

A healthy working farm is made up of three critical pieces: the agricultural soils, the infrastructure (house, barns, greenhouses, fencing, etc.) and, most importantly, the farmer. Traditional conservation easements only protect one of these three pieces: the agricultural soils. They do not bring the price of farms down low enough for farmers to afford or protect the infrastructure.

Gaining Ground in Maine is a statewide project that combines broad outreach and education to farmers, land trusts, public officials and others, with direct technical assistance for farmer-land trust partnerships developing shared-equity models to protect and preserve farms.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Ellie Kastanopolous
  • Jim Oldham

Research

Materials and methods:

Gaining Ground in Maine has combined public education around land ownership, farm affordability, and preservation of sustainable local agriculture, aimed in particular at farmers and land trusts, with intensive technical assistance to farmers and land trusts working collaboratively to develop alternative farm ownership models that serve their mutual needs and those of their communities.

The educational element of the project consisted of a series of workshops developed with the help of an advisory committee (including Maine elected officials, staff from land conservation and farming organizations and state agencies, farmers and a land use lawyer), and informed by input from a survey of the needs and concerns of Maine’s community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farmers. A total of five one-day workshops were held in locations around the state, scheduled during winter months over the course of the two-year project to encourage participation by farmers. Outreach through farming organizations and land trusts was successful in attracting a mix of established and beginning farmers representing a range of types of farms, as well as land trust representation.

The workshops used farmers’ stories and participants’ own experiences—as young people seeking farm land, as established farmers managing businesses on land both owned and leased, and as older farmers thinking about retirement—to explore issues of farm access, affordability, and preservation. We then explored the overlapping goals and needs of farmers, land trusts, and the communities around them to see how land tenure can be structured to serve both individual and collective interests. The essential provisions of agricultural conservation easements and agricultural ground leases were presented and discussed both generally and in relation to the specific situations of workshop participants (both farmers and land trusts). The workshops also addressed issues around financing land acquisition and development and, at the request of participants, the implications for farmers of sharing ownership with a non-profit organization.

Technical assistance consisted of intensive, on-going work with two pairs of farmers and land trusts to develop a long-term ownership arrangement for each farm. The work involved both joint and separate meetings with farmers and land trust representatives, and began with evaluating current ownership and management arrangements, the concerns of each party regarding the current situation, and their goals for the future. In both cases the farmers sought the increased security of more long-term leases than they currently held, and greater opportunity to build equity, while both land trusts were interested in reducing their responsible for maintaining buildings and overseeing farm operations, and reducing staff and financial investments outside their primary land conservation mission. Based on these goals, Equity Trust worked with the two parties at each farm to explore alternative ownership arrangements that addressed the varied needs of the parties and we presented and evaluated ownership models that use either an agricultural conservation easement or an agricultural ground lease.

Once the preferred model was agreed on, we again worked with the parties separately and jointly to develop the details of the land ownership arrangement the parties chose. In both cases this turned out to be the agricultural ground lease, under which the land trust will continue to own the land but the farmers will have a long-term lease combined with ownership of the buildings and the other farm infrastructure. The detailed technical assistance involved helping the parties think through the wide range of issues relating to their shared goals for the farm, including expectations regarding the type, mode, and extent of farming; farmer security; environmental stewardship; the right to make decisions regarding farm management; community access; care, upkeep, and ownership of buildings; opportunities for the farmer(s) to build equity; preservation of farm affordability, and rules defining how farm transfers will take place.

In addition to the intensive work described above, we provided initial consultations to Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden, Great Works Land Trust in Berwick, and H.O.M.E. in Orland to explore similar solutions for farms they own.

Research results and discussion:

The applied nature of this research makes the reporting of outcomes at the end of a two-year grant period somewhat arbitrary given that our community-based project will continue to carry out and build on the work started under this grant. That said, with two long-term lease agreements between land trusts and farmers well underway, and other projects in the works, the seeds have been sown for a new approach to whole farm preservation.

In our conversations with people involved in farming, land conservation, and policy making, it seems clear that there is a growing understanding of the problem of access to land for farmers and a desire to implement a model that addresses these issues. In addition, the general public wants to ensure that public dollars spent on farm preservation really keep the farms in active farming; they are very excited to have the work include the protection of the land’s affordability to farmers. It is slow work to prove that this is possible, and we have only just begun, but we believe that this will bear significant fruit in the near future.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Gaining Ground in Maine has incorporated three primary types of outreach:

• An initial survey of the state’s 100 CSA farms to identify needs and conditions of this group of farmers. CSA farms represent a portion of the farming community particularly well suited to, and in need of, the type of community partnerships and alternative land ownership models that Gaining Ground in Maine is exploring.

• Contact with agricultural and conservation offices and organizations in Maine including: the Maine Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, Maine Women’s Agricultural Network, Maine Farmland Trust, MOFGA, Coastal Enterprises, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Land for Maine’s Future, as well as many local and regional land trusts.

• Direct outreach to farmers and land trust professionals through training workshops and at agricultural fairs, conferences, and other gatherings. Workshops were advertised through the organizations and individuals initially contacted through the methods listed above.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Engagement of key constituencies
  • Gaining Ground began with the convening of an eight-member advisory committee bringing together Maine elected officials, staff from land conservation and farming organizations and agencies, community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farmers and a legal advisor (see Attachment I).

    One hundred CSA farmers in the State were identified and their opinions surveyed regarding the viability of their farms, the type of assistance that would be beneficial to them and their input on farm assistance needs in general. Concerns farmers shared with us included their need for long-term access to land and for increased acreage, retiring farmers’ desire to pass on their farms, and farmers’ lack of equity when working on land owned by land trusts or other leased land. (See Attachment J).

    Made contact with agricultural offices and organizations in Maine including: the Maine Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension, Maine Women’s Agricultural Network, Maine Farmland Trust, MOFGA, Coastal Enterprises, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Land for Maine’s Future, as well as a number of local and regional land trusts.

Dissemination of farm preservation approaches

We have engaged a wide range of interested groups and individuals through the Gaining Ground in Maine project. Many of these groups and individuals were able to participate in a series of five workshops that we provided on models for whole farm preservation. Three of the five workshops included a mixture of both farmers and land trusts that lead to some interesting and useful networking. The farmers ranged from apprentices to farmers nearing retirement, and included farmers who own farms, farmers who lease farms, and farmers seeking farms. All of the land trusts that participated were already doing some level of farm preservation.

Farmers showed a lot of interest in the possibilities offered by the Equity Trust model agricultural ground lease and the model agricultural conservation easement. Similarly, land trust representatives were very interested in exploring the implications of these models for their organizations—what risks might be involved as well as the benefits offered. A significant piece of several of the workshops involved an intensive question and answer session during which individuals were able to explore the application of the models to their particular circumstances. An unexpected result of one workshop was the exposure of some farmers’ resentment for “land trust farms” based on the feeling that they create unfair competition to the already struggling farmers in their areas. This has opened up new areas for continuing dialogue and exploration that are discussed further under “Areas needing additional study” below.

Farm preservation and ownership agreements

We have been working with Broadturn Farm and Scarborough Land Trust, and with Crystal Spring Farm and Brunswick Topsham Land Trust to develop mechanisms to allow the farmers to gain equity from their work on these land trust-owned farms. We have drafted 99-year leases for both of these projects and are in the process of negotiating the terms of these leases between the farmers and the land trusts. It has been consistently easy to work with the farmers, who are very conscious of the positive benefits of the alternative ownership arrangements. However, the work is time consuming and it is important to schedule the majority of it outside the growing season when farmers have time to engage fully. Work on the land trusts side presents a different set of challenges. As nonprofits staffed largely by volunteer boards made up of individuals with a wide range of perspectives, experience, and energy to devote to the project, the land trusts are less likely to have as focused a vision for the farm and may take longer to reach a consensus regarding ownership goals. They also have time limitations and can be set back with the loss (or addition) of a board member or the distractions of other obligations. The most consistent lesson learned is that it takes a lot of time and commitment to put a project together, both on the part of the farmers and the land trust, but that taking that time up front creates a self-sustaining project that works over the long haul.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

Gaining Ground in Maine is very much an on-going project for Equity Trust. As a first attempt to address issues of whole farm preservation at a state level, the project took important steps toward disseminating our approaches widely across Maine and toward establishing models in the state that farmers and land trusts can learn from. At the same time, this statewide effort highlighted some important new challenges and areas that need to be addressed.

• The very significant differences in needs and resources of farmers in different parts of the state suggest that regional rather than statewide projects may be required to address the distinct needs of different groups. Farmers in more southern areas and near metropolitan areas face greater competition for land, with corresponding rises in land prices, but they also have easier access to markets that permits greater diversity in what they produce as well as opportunities for community partnerships that are less of a reality in more rural, isolated areas. These variables create very different needs and opportunities for partnerships between farmers and their communities in the preservation of affordable farms and the implications of these different realities deserve more study.

• Alternative tenure arrangements offer great opportunities for protecting at-risk farms and ensuring the continuity of small farm businesses, however, these non-traditional models often raise concerns among those they are designed to help. More work needs to be done to publicize and demonstrate the way these models can strengthen the independence and self-sufficiency of small farmers and dispel fears that they are giving up significant ownership powers to non-profit boards or government agencies.

• As the role of land trusts in farm ownership grows, and the shared equity models expand, continued efforts need to address striking the right balance between individual and collective benefits, and between supporting individual farms and farmers without distorting the market for others. As community resources are applied toward the protection and preservation of farms for the community benefit, care must be taken to ensure the viability of farm businesses while avoiding excess benefit to individual farmers or the creation of unfair advantage to one producer over others. On-going study of the economics of protected affordable farms and neighboring farms would provide useful data for fine-tuning the models.

• Currently each individual farm preservation project makes intensive demands in terms of both effort and cost. More work is needed to develop financial resources and to create methods for recouping and recycling the funds from each project if whole farm preservation is to be applied on the scale that is needed.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.