Farm and Farmland Acquisition: A Curriculum for Farmers and Communities

Final Report for CNE10-082

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Kathryn Ruhf
Land For Good
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Project Information

Summary:

This project focused on land acquisition for beginning farmers. Access to land is one of the biggest challenges facing new farmers in New England. In this project, farmers, service providers, and community partners improved their understanding of land acquisition issues and options, and strengthen relationships to get farmers onto the farms that these communities value.

We designed a curriculum with and for farm seekers and community partners. The curriculum developed into an online stand-alone course for farm seekers that can also be used as an integrated module in other educational programs for beginning and other farmers.

Project Objectives:

Design an effective online educational curriculum. The online course is completed and in active use. It may be found at http://newsite.landforgood.org/.

Pilot test the curriculum with beginning farmers. Eleven farmers in Connecticut and Vermont were actively engaged in designing and reviewing the course. Groups in each state met with a
Land For Good staff member to generate detailed input into the course.

Engage community leaders in curriculum development. Twenty-one community members and professionals provided input and feedback during course development.

Have the curriculum used by other groups that teach and work with beginning farmers. The course was promoted to twenty-four organizations for their use in their farmer programming. We also broadcast the course to about 60 contacts, and through 4 list serves. It is linked from the Land For Good home page www.landforgood.org.

Introduction:

Farms and farmland in New England are expensive, scarce and hard to find. Many farming entrants think their only options are to buy land, settle for an insecure rental without a future, or put off their farm dream. Many new farmers are not adequately informed about the options or prepared to make wise choices about land. As a consequence, many entering farmers become discouraged or risk making poor, unsustainable decisions that undermine their farming start or prevent them from expanding or investing.
Existing beginning farmer education and assistance programs don’t adequately focus on the land issue. And, many communities do not have a full appreciation for the land and housing issues that farmers face. Community partners such as town planners and conservation organizations need to build their awareness about these challenges, become more involved and play supportive roles, particularly around land availability, alternative tenure and affordable farmer housing.

This project provided a valuable new resource for farm seekers, a tool for service providers who work with beginning and other farmers, and a vehicle for engaging community partners in these critical issues.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Susan Bartlett
  • Bob Bernstein
  • John Bliss
  • Mike Ghia

Research

Materials and methods:

First, we researched existing materials on this topic to identify useful links and particular gaps. Then, two LFG field staff in CT and VT recruited and met with 11 pilot farmers to develop an initial framework and content areas for the curriculum. These groups met at least four times each and provided essential input into the course design and content. They set priorities and provided continuous feedback so that the course was built by farmers and staff. We followed up with the pilot farmers when the course was uploaded. The overall feedback was very positive.

The framework for the course is built around a set of topics. Each topic has informational content, stories, resource links, and a set of tools. Users who work through the course wind up with an action plan of about two-dozen worksheets. We encountered many challenges in how the course would actually function electronically. This took a lot more time and resources than we imagined. It still needs work.
During the research and design phase, we reached out to beginning farmer, farm business planning and related programs across New England to learn more about their interest in this topic, and find out what tools they were already using. We identified and contacted about two-dozen groups in New England, including lenders, course instructors, and non-profit beginning farmer programs.

We consulted with community and professional partners in our two pilot communities to: determine gaps in knowledge and service from the community’s perspective; engage their participation in the curriculum design process; and build their awareness of land access issues. About 20 community and professional partners participated in the pilot farmer sessions or otherwise contributed to course content and format. These included: University of CT Extension who is also a farmer; Agricultural Resource Specialist, VT Association of Conservation Districts; Staff person, Land Access Program, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture; University of CT, office of the Dean of the College of Ag; previously with Farm Bureau and 4-H; University of CT Extension educator involved with risk management; UVM Extension staff, former program coordinator for Land Link VT; Retired farmer, New York state; Farm Credit personnel; NRCS field staff UVM Extension Farm Business Management Specialist; CT NOFA director; Lender at Windsor Federal, CT; UVM Extension Business Planner, and former agricultural lender; Lender in charge of the Socially Responsible Banking Fund at People's United Bank; University of CT Extension educator; CT Department of Agriculture Land Link staff; Lender VT Agricultural Credit Corporation of the VT Economic Development Authority; Staff, VT Land Trust; NOFA-VT Journey Farmer Program Coordinator; USDA-NRCS District Conservationist (retired); and UVM Extension New Farmer Project and Women's Agricultural Network.

These individuals provided expertise in the areas of financing, the search process, land transactions, business and financial planning, technical resources, farmland conservation, and farm planning, for example. Many of the community partners are from organizations with whom land seekers have worked or with whom future seekers will work to be able to gain land access. Several have interacted with farmers in the pilot group.

Their written and oral input was generally complimentary. As for critiques, they pointed out gaps, both areas that needs to be expanded and topics that were missing that they thought that needed inclusion. They provided greater insight into their organizations and processes and how they work with farmers trying to access land. Importantly, they pointed out factual errors and unclear information. They provided additional resources and links, as well as feedback on the usefulness of the tools in their draft stages. Many provided stories from their experiences working with farmers seeking land. They also provided critique of the functionality of the web pages, look and format. As a result of all this input, the website design underwent many modifications.

The course was launched at the end of January 2012. When the course was ready to share, we contacted about two-dozen groups In New England to let them know about its availability. These included: MA Department of Agricultural Resources; Rutland Farm and Food; Maine Farm Link; CT Department of Agriculture; VT Women’s Ag Network; Coastal Enterprises, Inc.; NOFA/VT; NOFA/MA; Intervale Center; MOFGA; The Farm School; Farm Credit East; Cultivating Community; International Institute of New Hampshire; Nuestras Raices; New England Small Farm Institute; New Entry Sustainable Farming Project; University of MA Extension; Flats Mentor Farm; Ray Belanger, MA business planning course instructor; Hampshire College; VT Beginning Farmer Network; NOFA/CT; National Young Farmers Coalition; Greenhorns.

We invited them to refer their customers to the course and/or integrate it in its entirety or by module (for example, on leasing, or community partners) into their existing programming. We met with state FSA officials who were very receptive to the curriculum. All state FSA offices were informed about the course and can now use it in their borrower training programs.

Research results and discussion:

Immediate outcomes to report include positive feedback about the course itself. Over 100 people registered for the course. In late May we conducted an electronic survey to registrants. Fifty percent of respondents found the site via another website. Twenty-five percent spent an hour on the course and another 25% spent five hours or more. Half indicated they intend to spend more time on the course. Half found the course very useful, and the other half found the course somewhat useful. One-third reported feeling more prepared to acquire land. Seventeen percent stated that as a consequence, they have taken concrete steps toward buying or leasing farmland. In the open-ended question about what they liked best about the course, one replied, "great content; easy to understand." Another offered, "Real life farm experiences, practical."

Other user feedback about the course included:

I took the [course]and found it extremely useful. It includes in depth information on different land tenure options to evaluating your finances to resolving conflict. Thank you!

The layout is very clear and easy to use. I appreciate how I can print out different sections of each chapter. I was able to save the information to my pc or print it out for reference at a later date. There is a plethora of links provided in each chapter that allows me to dig much further into a subject without having to do any outside searches.

The questions really made me think about what I want and what I might not necessarily need when it comes to owning or leasing land. My favorite sections were the personal stories. They were very interesting and I thought it was a great way to “wrap up” each chapter. Thank you for providing this online course!

From our follow-up assistance, we share this anecdotal evidence of farmers in community being more able to obtain land as a consequence of information gained from this project:

A young farming couple developed a lease arrangement for 5 acres, a house, and a woodlot in Massachusetts for a diversified vegetable and livestock operation. We helped them understand various considerations that need to be addressed in the lease. We helped them address insurance issues and connect with farm insurance agents. The course information helped them prepare to work with an attorney who finalized the lease. They have signed a lease and are now farming at this location.

A Vermont farmer in his second growing year had located a parcel of land with a barn to lease from a non-farming landowner. The course helped him determine the terms to include in the lease, including how to address shared use of water and electric power with the property owner.

A land seeker used resources from the course (particularly land evaluation checklist) and our outreach strategy section to identify land that he then successfully leased.

A NH beginning farmer reviewed the entire course outline and worked through it in order. She printed out and completed farm search tool and farm evaluations tool. After that, she made several key decisions about purchasing a small parcel of land.

A NH farming couple with a small dairy completed the Holding Land and Financial Assessment modules prior to entering into lease with municipality, which they subsequently did.

A beginning farmer was referred to the course; he prepared a family living budget, and studied the Holding Land and Finding Farms modules. He studied the communications section to address shortcomings in past efforts. Newly armed, he approached two non-farming landowners.

Two non-farming landowners were advised to visit the course as preparation for recruiting a farmer-lessee. As a consequence, one of them is proceeding to explore a farm leasing arrangement.

A seeker went through the entire course in order. He utilized the Holding Land, Financial Assessment, farm search tool and farm evaluation tools. Now he is in the process of developing a long-term lease.

A young farming couple reviewed and completed the first 5 modules step by step. They presented their completed work to 3 potential lessors and are still looking.

From our survey of service providers around region who have received information about the curriculum, we received the following feedback:

I definitely intend to use the course as a comprehensive resource to which I can refer beginning farmers exploring considerations in farm acquisition. After reading through the course myself, it is clear that this will be an indispensable tool for both farmers and service providers alike.
This looks interesting! I forwarded it to all classes this year and last.

Thanks so much for this great resource! We’ll certainly share it with the farm seekers we work with.

This is such a great resource and we will be adding it to [our] FarmLink website.

I have passed information about the course to clients and colleagues through email lists and word of mouth, reaching about 100 people. I will put a permanent link to the course from our new farmer website.

I find the course tremendously useful. Mainly, it is one of the most comprehensive collections of land access and tenure related educational materials available anywhere in the nation (from my vantage point of having searched the internet far and wide for the past few years). It's comprehensiveness is due to each chapter having a collection of resources from many different places all over the internet, and these are organized in a manner that is logical and easy to access, making the course overall very useful and easy to use.

One of our farmer/writers reviewed your course: http://www.youngfarmers.org/news/2012/04/26/new-online-resource-on-acquiring-farmland/

Massachusetts FSA is putting the link to this program on our state website. I have shared the link with 64 employees in three states.
I will be able to better advise clients who are thinking about buying farmland.

I plan to use one part of it shortly in my effort to[help a client] find a successor farmer. I like the way the course is broken down into segments and you can then dig deeper into a particular area. Most sections also have additional resource areas that are available to investigate.

In terms of follow-up with community partners who were involved in project, we received very substantive feedback from them. Much of this feedback was quite detailed (e.g., typos, confusing language, more nuance suggested, etc.). Most of those comments are not included here.

I took a look at your website and it looks really good. You are creating such an important resource for farmers--good job.

Very handsome site; seems easy to navigate.

I think the basic categories are there although I might rename some (i.e. "finding farms" to "farmland assessment") and move others. Communication and negotiation only seem to apply to leasing and so seems to be an outlier with rest of topics...could it go under About leasing? The intro for each topic should be consistent.

Adapt the tools into online writable docs that can be saved and worked on in different increments of time...and then compiled into an attractive looking doc that can be printed ... maybe
that's the intent? But there is some IT programming that needs to happen. [LFG note: Yes, that is the intent for next steps on the site.]

This is GREAT!!! Some things I noticed. In Financing your Farm, [this paragraph] talks about risk and managing risk. I do not think that is why people clicked on this location. They come here to find out how they can buy a farm. I think this paragraph should be rewritten a little with a focus on buying a farm and not focused on managing risk.

What a wealth of information has been accumulated to help people learn about farmland tenure.

I speak to many new and existing farmers that still don’t think of a “free/barter lease” as a lease or a rental because they do not pay anything for the land. I see you have a brief section on this in the lease section. Why are you giving conservation programs so much space and breadth? I am not sure I see the tie to land tenure but perhaps it was related in a section that I skimmed over quickly.

Other outcomes: Less immediate outcomes are more challenging to gauge. Secondary audiences such as service providers and community members that we engaged in the course design process felt that the issue of land access merits the considerable effort that developing this course required. This project built our capacity to work with our farm seeker clients, and we expect that it will be a significant resource to other providers who work with this audience.

In terms of the big picture, this project, with the course as an enduring deliverable, will undoubtedly help beginning and other farm seekers make better choices about land tenure, and add significantly to providers’ toolboxes. In that way, farm viability and future farm sustainability will be positively impacted by this work. In addition, because this is a work in progress, we will continue to engage farmers, service providers and community members to add and revise course material, bring new stories and improved tools, and share the course in classes, workshops, and through links from other organizations.

Course participant survey results, Table 1
Questionnaire email to service providers, Document 1

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

As described above, the main deliverable from this project is an online course (www.newsite.landforgood.org) on land acquisition. Our outreach to let others know about the course included emails to about 60 recipients, and posting about the course on four list serves.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This is largely covered in the above section. We believe that communities will benefit from farmers making good choices about land access, and from community and provider partners having adequate information to support and serve them in their land tenure process.

In terms of what was effective or ineffective, the biggest challenge was in getting concrete responses from groups that we hope will use the course in their work. This needs to be an ongoing process of outreach. Our biggest overall challenge was in the technicalities of website construction to meet our pedagogic objectives, as well as managing an enormous amount of information for the course content.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Certainly the course can be used by anyone, anywhere. It is free and there are no limitations to access. The process of engaging community and professional partners in the land access issue could be replicated or adapted in any number of ways, not limited to producing an educational product.

Future Recommendations

There is always more work to be accomplished on this topic. Specifically related to this project, we intend to make the finishing touches on the course this year. These include adding stories, and fixing some technicalities around the tools so that they are user-friendlier.

More broadly, additional work on land access is critical, from education and support for farm seekers to working with lenders to improving linking and matching services (see, for example the new online farm property clearinghouse (www.newenglandfarmlandfinder.org). Greater promotion of secure leases, addressing affordable farmer and farm worker housing, positive models for investment in farmland, and engaging non-farming landowners to make more land available are all areas of work that Land For Good and others will continue to pursue.

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.