This project studied 17 land link programs across the Northeast US to identify and assess program activities and outcomes. The study used in-depth interviews with key land link staff and a survey of farmland seekers and farmland owners who have participated in these programs to understand the perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Activities performed by programs include many services, although the study found that listing services, wherein seekers and/or owners submit an online listing of the farmland they want to farm or to offer for farming, is the most commonly offered and used service. All but four programs offer a managed listing service that participants can search; 87 percent of owners said they listed their available land, and 89 percent of seekers said they accessed a list of available land through a land link program. Further, 64 percent of seekers agreed or strongly agreed that because of the program, they are more aware of the land available for farming in their area. This indicates that listing services are effective at helping seekers learn about available land for farming.
However, other services are offered by many fewer programs, including matching (i.e., recommending a specific partner to a participant), print resources, networking to other resource providers, individualized consulting, workshops, meet-and-greet events, site assessments, partnership negotiation and financial assistance. Less than one-third of seekers or owners accessed any one of these services. At the same time, the study found that education and advising remain significant needs for both seekers and owners: only one-third of seekers said the program prepared them to make good land access decisions and only one-quarter said they are aware of the legal issues involved in land access. Similarly, less than half of owners said the program prepared them to interact effectively with a farmer on their land, and only one-quarter are aware of the legal issues involved in land access. These findings indicate there are still substantial service needs among both seekers and owners to prepare them for making sustainable land access and land use choices, and in the future, land link programs or other land access organizations should address this gap in services.
Increasingly, people are concerned about the need to help beginning farmers access farmland, to reverse the trend of a declining US farm population, to promote greater local food production, and to support aging farmers in developing farm transfer plans to the next generation of farmers. The first land link program was established in the US in 1990 to address such concerns, and by 2013 there were 48 land link programs in 30 states across the US. Land link programs focus on issues related to farmland access, transfer and/or succession for the current and coming generations of US farmers. They facilitate the connection of farmland seekers to land and land owners, and often connect participants to additional resources that will help them prepare to make good land access and land use decisions. There is a wide diversity of participants, who with diverse needs and goals, arrive at many different land access outcomes. “Farmland seekers” can include aspiring, beginning and/or established farmers (looking to move or expand a current operation). “Farmland owners” can include farming land owners, non-farming land owners and/or public or institutional land owners. The land access partnerships or transfers that people engage in can include short-term leases, long-term leases, farmland purchase and/or farm business transfer.
While there is strong interest in expanding current land link programs and establishing new programs in currently unserved areas, very little research has sought to identify what functions the programs serve, what outcomes they realize, or ultimately, what is working well and what is not. The only two known reports about land link programs were completed by Hammer (2008) and Hubbard (2006). This project sought to address this gap by focusing on the activities and outcomes of land link programs located in the Northeast US.
The three study objectives from the proposal are italicized below, with a brief report on accomplishments following each objective.
Objective 1. Gather relevant background information and organizational evolution of all land link programs in the Northeast region to understand and characterize land link activities and identify factors associated with organizational success or failure.
The initial proposal had identified 16 land linking programs in the Northeast region, but through contact with these programs and further web searching, a total of 19 programs were identified. Background information from web searches was collected on each of these programs, 14 web-based questionnaires were completed by 16 program staff, and 16 interviews of between one to one and a half hours were conducted with key informant staff people. Collection of this data was a few weeks behind the target timeline due to difficulties in connecting with interview participants and finding times when they were available to be interviewed, but the necessary interviews were ultimately completed.
Objective 2. Characterize and compare farmland seekers and owners within and across Northeast land link programs to assess and measure patterns of program participation, satisfaction, concerns, tenure outcomes and generational goals.
This objective was met through the completion of both a master’s thesis (Rural Sociology, Penn State University) and a 12-page outreach publication that presents selected results from the study. A challenge to meeting this objective was that programs are very diverse in the services they offer and how they work to meet their own program goals and objectives (which also vary). This made it difficult to identify any strong shared patterns across programs, other than a general need for greater individualized education and facilitation for both farmland seekers and owners to prepare for making good land access and land use decisions.
Objective 3. Develop evidence-based recommendations for promising practices and benchmarks for new or expanding land link programs so that programs can evaluate their own progress and demonstrate the contribution of their programs to communities, participants and funders.
This objective was met through the outreach report that was developed based on the study’s results. Data collected through the survey and shared with the programs include how many participants use each service, how helpful participants found each service, what services participants would like to see offered, overall satisfaction with their participation in the program, effectiveness at finding land through a land link program relative to other means, and agreement with a series of outcome statements related to farmland access and use.
This project was a mixed-methods applied social science study that involved primary research in the form of key informant interviews and a survey. Phone interviews with 16 land link staff people who have primary responsibility for the land link program in their organization were completed between November 2012 and February 2013. Each interview lasted approximately one to one and a half hours. Interviews were then transcribed, which resulted in approximately 350 pages of transcription text. In addition to the interviews, the staff people completed short questionnaires through Survey Monkey, an online survey platform. The questionnaire asked for quantitative information, including numbers of participants, budget size and staff hours spent on the program, in addition to a few open-ended questions.
Using the data collected during the interview phase, a survey for land link program participants was developed using Qualtrics, an online survey platform. The survey instrument contained a total of 71 questions. However, skip logic meant that respondents saw somewhat different questions, and no respondent saw all 71. Skipping happened at two points, so that seekers who have not found land received 38 questions, seekers who found land received 45 questions, owners who have not found a farmer received 33 questions and owners who found a farmer received 33 questions.
A recruitment protocol for the seeker/landowner surveys was then developed following Dillman et al. (2009), who recommend contacting participants multiple times to remind them to participate and thereby increase response rates. Ten land link programs agreed to facilitate contact with their participants to ask them to complete the survey. Because staff were unwilling to provide direct contact information for their participants (except at one program), a protocol was developed wherein I wrote the recruitment language for each contact email and asked each program staff person to send the first email on day 0, the second on day 7 and the final request on day 21. Survey development and distribution was designed to accommodate the seasonal nature of farming, so the survey went live on February 18, 2013 and was closed six weeks later, on March 31, 2013. Three programs sent the emails as part of larger e-newsletters they sent out, six programs sent the emails as stand-alone messages, and I sent emails directly to participants of one program through Qualtrics. No differences in response rates are apparent between these three methods of contact, other than one program that only sent the recruitment email as part of a larger newsletter and only included it one time. This survey distribution design may have negatively impacted the overall response rate, and was an unavoidable limitation of the study, given the nature of the population. The overall survey response rate was 24 percent among seekers and 22 percent among owners. The other limitation to this design was that the survey did not reach any participants who do not have email. However, since most programs maintain an Internet-based farmland listing service and typically distribute other program information by email, it was assumed that this represented a very small portion of program participants. Differences between those who have email addresses and those who do not were unknown.
Key results from the study are highlighted in the attached Northeast Land Link publication. The overall conclusion from this research is that land link programs in the Northeast are successfully helping seekers and owners locate one another through listing services, but are less successful or consistent at providing other needed support services for both seekers and owners, such as land access education, personal advising or relationship building (Northeast Land Links, page 8). The human and financial resources needed for offering such additional services are lacking for many land link programs (Northeast Land Links, page 4-6), which is a significant challenge for program effectiveness.
Other results outlined in the attached publication include respondent characteristics (page 6), services that seekers and owners would most like to see offered by land link programs (page 10) and a summary of the type of land and other resources that owners are offering through land link programs (page 7).
August-September 2012: Background information was collected on all the land linking programs in the Northeast region. A semi-structured interview guide was developed for conducting interviews with key informants at the programs. A short web-based questionnaire was also developed for collecting basic data about the programs, such as staffing and budget sizes. IRB approval of both of these instruments was obtained.
October 2012: Recruitment emails were sent to each program. Once program contacts agreed to participate, they were each sent a link to the web questionnaire.
November 2012-February 2013: Interviews were completed, and transcripts were made from completed interviews. Sixteen interviews representing 17 programs were completed in all (one staff person represented two separate programs). It had been planned that interviews would be finished by Thanksgiving, but this proved to be too short of a timeline. Program staff were very busy running their programs, and it was challenging to connect with each person and then find a time when they were available. By the conclusion of the study, almost every program contacted very graciously contributed time to this study. Only two known Northeast programs did not contribute to the study, in both cases due to staff time constraints.
December 2012-February 2013: Web survey questions for program participants were drafted and piloted with the Center for Rural Affairs Land Link program.
February-April 2013: The web survey was distributed to participants. It was open for six weeks, after which the data were cleaned and transferred to SPSS, the statistical software program used in the study.
April-June 2013: The open source software RQDA (Huang 2012) was used to code the interview transcripts. Coding followed two of the coding types outlined by Saldaña (2009). The first round of coding employed descriptive coding, which uses code terms to describe the primary topic of a section, in order to begin to index the data (Saldaña 2009). Descriptive codes were applied to sections of text ranging from one line to two paragraphs in length. The second round of coding used attribute coding, which highlights the descriptive information about the case itself (Saldaña 2009). SPSS was used to run statistical analyses on the survey data, which included frequencies and independent-samples t-tests. The independent samples t-tests were used to compare goals, motives and outcomes of farming versus non-farming land owners and people who established a partnership versus those who did not.
June 2013-December 2013: Results were written up in both a master’s thesis and a 12-page report. The report outlines many of the results from the study, and is available as an information product with this final SARE report. These results were also presented at the annual meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society and the Rural Sociological Society, and a departmental seminar at Penn State University. More details about outreach are included in the Outreach section, below.
This study highlights what land link programs are doing well, as well as areas for future improvement. Listing services are frequently offered and used across programs, and both seekers and owners rated this service highly for its helping them find a match (Northeast Land Links, page 9). However, fewer programs offer services that support seekers and owners to make land access and use decisions that meet their needs and goals (Northeast Land Links, page 9). Development of these services is an important future direction for land link programs to consider. Furthermore, very few programs have evaluation plans in place for measuring the effectiveness of their programming (Northeast Land Links, page 7). This project is a first step toward developing better evaluation practices. Using this study as a starting point, it is hoped that programs will evaluate their own range of services and seek ways to incorporate more and better educational and technical assistance services to address needs and preferences identified among both farmland seekers and owners.
A secondary impact of the results is within groups or organizations that are considering whether and how to establish a land link program in their region. Through the course of this research, at least six people have contacted me because they want to start a land link program in their area, and are looking for recommendations on how to develop it. The outreach publication highlights key lessons learned from existing programs that can help these new programs as they develop.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Results from this study were presented at the 2013 Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society Annual Meeting, the 2013 Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting in a presentation titled “Kind of like eFarmony”: Linking beginning farmers with farmland owners across the Northeast U.S.” and as a joint departmental presentation with SARE-funded graduate student researcher Kathleen Wood on the Penn State Campus. The presentation was titled “From Old Agricultural Ladders to New Land Access Springboards: An Examination of Land Link Programs in the Northeast U.S.”. Approximately 30 to 40 people attended the presentation at Penn State, including students, faculty and farmers. The poster presented at the AFHVS meeting received first place in the student poster competition. The presentation given on the Penn State campus received news publicity through the Penn State Newswire (http://tinyurl.com/pvszjtm), The Valley, an agricultural newspaper serving Mifflin County and the surrounding area, the American Agriculturalist website (www.farmprogress.com) and the PSU Sustainable Ag News winter 2014 edition (http://extension.psu.edu/plants/sustainable/news).
The study also contributed to my Master’s thesis in Rural Sociology, entitled “From Old Agricultural Ladders to New Land Access Springboards: An Assessment of Land Link Programs in the Northeast US.” The thesis is available at https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/. The MS degree was awarded in December 2013.
A 12-page publication was also prepared, which presents selected results from the study. The target audience of this report is primarily current and prospective land link programs, although it may also interest people interested in new and beginning farmers, farmland transition and human dimensions of Northeast sustainable agriculture. The outreach publication is housed at the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development Website (http://tinyurl.com/landlink). It is also being sent to each contributing land link program, including the Center for Rural Affairs, which collaborated on the project by piloting the interview guide and survey instrument. All programs are welcome to post a link to the publication from their website. The Northeast Beginning Farmers Project also expressed interest in posting a link to the publication on their website.
Finally, a list of all known land link programs across the US will also be distributed to the programs who receive the publication. While lists do exist on several websites, I have not found any list that is as comprehensive as the one I have organized through this project. This can be a helpful resource to farmland seekers and owners who would like to find a program in their area.
While the publication has not yet been sent to the land link programs, two staff people provided feedback to a draft version. They expressed very positive feedback that also indicates it will be useful to programs and shared widely. One staff person shared, “Really interesting, very accurate, and very insightful. Great job! When it’s done, I know of several people that I would very much like to send it to, if I can, so let me know when that happens.” Another staff person said he sees it as “useful to programs when they are seeking grants or other funding sources in order to provide those desired and helpful services.” Several people have also contacted me throughout the course of this project because they are considering starting a land link program in their local area, so it is anticipated that the report will be useful to them as they develop their programs.
Economic analysis was not a direct outcome of this project. It did measure land access security in terms of type of land access that farmland seekers are obtaining. The survey showed that across programs, 65% of seekers have not yet secured land, 7% secured land through a land link program and 29% secured land through some other means. Of the 90 seekers who have secured land, 44% are leasing, 49% purchased land and 7% have some other arrangement. Of the 39 seekers who are leasing their land, 60% have short-term leases (3 years or fewer), 29% have longer term leases (4 years or more) and 11% have an alternate arrangement (such as lease to own). Furthermore, almost 80% of the leases are cash leases. Among owners, 71% have not found a farmer, 10% found a farmer through a land link program and 19% found a farmer through other means.
Several programs operate in peri-urban areas where land prices are particularly high. Some staff people in these areas expressed the hope that farmland seekers in their area will gain more farm management experience and equity through short-term land lease arrangements, and that this increased experience and equity will enable them to purchase land or obtain a long-term lease in another part of the state (where land prices are lower) in the long-term. This is a long-term impact that will require many more years of study.
Farmer adoption was not a primary goal of this project. Rather, the goal was to assess the effectiveness of land link programs at supporting farmers who are looking for land and facilitating sustainable land access relationships. Several farmland seekers did provide their own feedback on their experiences in a land link program. As comments, they should not be read as representative of the whole population of seekers, but they are still important to understanding the many educational and networking needs that seekers may have and providing guidance for future land link program directions. Two examples of these comments are included here.
Farm Seeker survey comment: “We have joined many land linking organizations but have found ourselves hesitant to contact landowners because there is never as much detail about them as we are asked to provide about ourselves. It is a huge undertaking to create a new relationship with a landowner, and if they aren’t close by enough, it involves a lot of travel. I think most land link programs would be more effective on a small, regional scale.”
Farm Seeker survey comment: “No one ever contacted me after I filled out paperwork about the type of farm that I wanted. I did attend one seminar that lasted for a couple hours on Saturday morning. I learned a few basics, but I need guidance and never received any.”
Some owners also submitted comments in the online survey. Owners expressed somewhat mixed views about the programs. Several said they need more educational support to make good decisions about their land. Others said they are pleased with the opportunity to network with area farmers and do not necessarily feel they need further educational support. This was also supported in the survey, where only approximately half of land owners said they feel prepared to communicate their goals or expectations to a farmer, or to interact with a farmer on their land. Three examples of owner comments are included here.
Farm Owner survey comment: “[The program] has been very helpful networking my land to buyers, who have an interest in keeping the land in farming. I am glad that a portion of my property is now going to be used for farming. I am now focused on selling my remaining 54 acres. A local real estate is now involved. The exposure through the [program] has been very helpful, and I will continue to work with them. They have always been available to answer any and all of my questions. “
Farm Owner survey comment: “The service is helpful but we have received few inquiries and am not sure why. Farming is a fairly independent enterprise but the land connection services could benefit by a higher degree of organization and collaboration—meetings to discuss plans and challenges and try to figure out ways to get more good people farming more land in our area.”
Farm Owner survey comment: “The communication needs to be a little clearer following land owner/farmer meet and greets. It was not clear what happened after the meet and greet. Who would contact who and also follow-up has been a little unclear. I understand that there is a lot of interest in this part of the [program’s] programming so maybe they need a little more help on that side of it in terms of man/woman power.”
Areas needing additional study
Several areas for need additional study exist. While this study focused primarily on the activities and outcomes of land link programs, several contextual issues can also impact the sustainability of farmers’ access to farmland. For example, future research should identify strategies for increasing long-term lease security and farmland affordability for farmers. The majority (60%) of matches secured by farmland seekers who completed the survey were short-term leases. Several staff people also noted the need to identify ways to motivate owners to offer longer term leases.
Almost every staff person noted the challenges to using the number of matches made through the program as the primary metric for success. The publication developed as part of this project offers several potential evaluation measures that programs could consider using, and establishes some baseline data about participant-oriented outcomes such as participants’ knowledge and skill gain as a result of receiving program services. Further study is needed to develop strong qualitative evaluation measures, as well as realistic measurement and reporting techniques, for land link programs. For example, one staff person shared via email communication with me that, “I’m curious to hear what the qualitative outcomes are that other programs are telling funders that they’ll achieve, if their proposals are accepted and if they get funded.” Because staff people often have insufficient time to focus on developing new methods for evaluating their programs, applied research on this topic would be helpful.
Finally, the study found that the majority of work done by Northeast land link programs does not involve farm succession or transfer. Instead, programs primarily focus on farmland access, where an existing farm business is not involved. Considering that the average age of farmers in the US in 2012 is 58, it is anticipated that there is a need for greater focus on farm succession and transfer both within and beyond the Northeast. Future research should focus on land link program work in other areas of the US, such as the Midwest, to increase our understanding of this important issue.
Dillman, Don A., Jolene Smyth, and Leah Melani Christian. 2009. Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley & Sons.
Hammer, J. 2008. “Growing Opportunity: An Examination of Existing Farm Link Programs and Their Applicability to Oregon.” (http://www.pdx.edu/sites/www.pdx.edu.cupa/files/media_assets/growreport.pdf).
Hubbard, P. 2006. “A Land Link for Western Montana: Keeping Land in Agriculture from One Generation to the Next.” Master’s professional paper, The University of Montana. (http://etd.lib.umt.edu/theses/available/etd-12212006-162006/).
Saldaña, Johnny. 2009. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.