Programs across the NCR are working to facilitate farm/ranch transfers from farmers who lack a family successor, or landowners who do not farm, to an unrelated farm seeker, who may be a beginning farmer. Our preliminary research suggests that these “linking” programs may lead to few matches, due in part to an imbalance: farm seekers inundate programs with interest while farmer/landowner participation is low. The ratio can be ten to one. This project will assess lessons learned during the 30-year experience of the NCR’s farm link services to identify Best Management Practices (BMPs) for supporting farm transfer between unrelated parties. The assessment will be enhanced by including other models for fostering collaboration between experienced and aspiring farmers. We will assess 44 programs, most of which SARE has funded, an investment of $1.8 million. Findings will be used to improve existing programs and develop frameworks for new programs. The project will monitor effects of project outreach on farm transfer program models and landowner participation. The project will interview program leaders and survey/interview participating farmers/ranchers and landowners. Recording case studies of four farms/ranches and StoryCorps interviews with 24 farmers will complete data collection. Outreach will publish findings in an Extension manual and academic journals; deliver conference presentations and a webinar; and broadcast farmers’ stories of successful transitions to new owners via radio and podcast. Findings will also inform frameworks for pilot program models in Kansas and Indiana, which have yet to launch a farm transfer venture. Outcomes include: NCR programs apply project findings, improving services. Kansas and Indiana initiate the planning of farm transfer programs. Farmers’ successful transition stories and models reach other farmers. A 25% increase in landowner participation in NCR farm transfer programs from current levels. 226+ farmers/ranchers will participate directly in the project and it will reach thousands more via radio/podcast outreach. Farmers, non-farming landowners, and aspiring farmers will learn about models for farm transitions. Farmers and farm seekers will benefit from improvements that programs make in response to project findings. The goal is for more families to be able to continue their farm by successfully transferring to a new farmer. Project partners: Indiana University (lead), Kansas Rural Center (Major Participant), Center for Rural Affairs (Nebraska), Purdue University Institute for Family Firms, Land For Good (New Hampshire). Outreach: StoryCorps, MOSES, Successful Farmer Radio Magazine, Earth Eats / Harvest Public Media, Farmer to Farmer Podcast.
- Farmers without a family successor
- Non-farming landowners
- Farm seekers
- Programs, policymakers, and investors supporting farm transfers
- Kansas and Indiana initiate the planning of farm transfer programs
- The NCR’s farm transfer programs apply Best Practices, improving services
- A 25% increase in landowner participation in NCR farm transfer programs
- Farmers’ successful transition stories reach project audiences
- Identify models for transferring farms alternative to seller/buyer matches (mentoring, land trusts, work-in partnerships, incubators)
System change outcomes
- More sustainable agricultural operations continue, or begin, on farms transitioned between unrelated parties
Research question: What are Best Practices among services in the North Central Region to facilitate farm/ranch transfer from owners without family successors to non-family members, and specifically to incoming farm seekers / beginning farmers/ranchers?
“For us it’s important to give a beginning farmer a chance, and not just make a big farmer bigger. It’s really a joy to help someone get started.”
– Farm owner participant in the Nebraska Beginning Farmer Tax Credit
(Nebraska Department of Agriculture, 2015)
Activities and rationale
This project combined a focus on incoming farmers and ranchers, and retiring agricultural landowners and their heirs. We looked at the land access opportunity that is presented when a family farm/ranch comes to the end of a family line, and transfers operations or ownership to a non-relative operator or owner. Land transactions across families, rather than within families, are common. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that most agricultural land is acquired from a non-relative (Ahearn, 2013), and that one quarter of transfers of agricultural land ownership are between non-relatives (USDA NASS, 2015). At the same time, most incoming farmers and ranchers need to look beyond their own families to secure land, either through rental or purchase. These entering farmers and ranchers are at a major disadvantage in competing for land with established farmers/ranchers and other established landowners (Bigelow, Borchers & Hubbs, 2016). However, it is clear that new farmers’ and ranchers’ participation in agriculture, whether they are from a multi-generational farming family or they are a first generation farmer (Carolan, 2018; Clark, Inwood & Sharp, 2012), is good for farms’ economic performance (Chiswell, 2014; Inwood & Sharp, 2012; Lobley & Baker, 2012; Zagata & Sutherland, 2015), rural community prosperity (Hamilton, 2010; Meuleners, 2013), and sustainable agriculture (USDA NASS, 2014). To facilitate their land access, several types of programs and policies have been launched since the 1990’s by private, state, and federal service providers to foster farm/ranch transfers to entering producers. This project examines the North Central Region’s land link and related programs and policies.
The project’s methodology was motivated by findings of a previous SARE study, which recommended a review of best practices among farm link services in a region as highly agricultural as the NCR (GNE12-042). (To clarify terminology, linking, land link, or farm link programs provide a range of services, including listing, matching, beginning farmer/rancher state tax credits, and senior-junior farmer/rancher mentoring). Our pilot conversations with leaders of some NCR farm link services suggested a set of common problems. These problems formed the research questions for a program review. The problems included, first, a struggle with how a linking service defines success. Given that the ultimate goal is very long term (complete transfer of a farm/ranch to an unrelated successor), what are medium-term successes a farm link service can track to monitor effectiveness? This was a gap in knowledge. A second problem programs faced was often an imbalance between high demand for services from “seekers” looking for a farming/ranching opportunity, but low demand for services from farm/ranch owners whose land could potentially transfer to an unrelated beginning farmer successor. This combination of elusive success and low landowner participation had led programs to close. The study thus aimed to learn from leaders of programs that have ended as well as programs that are still active, to inform next best investments in support of these outcomes:
- Farm/ranch access for the next generation of producers;
- Secure, satisfying legacies for senior farmers and ranchers and other agricultural landowners; and
- Keeping land in agriculture.
To explore these problems, we conducted a two-phase assessment of the NCR’s farm link services. The program review first learned directly from service providers in the NCR that assist in some fashion with farm/ranch transfers between unrelated parties. A second phase of data collection learned directly from farm/ranch seekers and farm/ranch owners who might transfer out of family. A program assessment was an appropriate strategy to identify the lessons and best practices these programs as a group have discovered over their years of experience. Then learning directly from farm/ranch owners and farm/ranch seekers allowed the research to elicit their farm transfer needs.
The 30 assessed programs included 11 past NCR-SARE projects (an investment of $960,000) and 8 BFRDP projects ($2.8 million in BFRDP funding, including lead grantees and sub-contractors). Leaders estimated that the reviewed programs serve a total of 2,400 farm/ranch owners and 3,900 farm/ranch seekers, for a total of 6,300 owners and seekers. Most of the programs reviewed (63%) are headquartered at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with most of the rest located within Extension systems / land grant universities and state departments of agriculture.
We then asked the 22 assessed programs that are still active and 10 other programs in NCR states that have no farm link services to send an online survey to their networks of farm/ranch owners and farm/ranch seekers. Twenty-six of these programs confirmed they had sent out the survey, resulting in 516 responses. Of these, we have analyzed the 178 responses from farm/ranch seekers and 183 responses from farm/ranch owners whose real estate and other agricultural assets may transfer out of family and are continuing to analyze the 300+ owner responses.
The research uses social science research methods rather than natural science research methods. Methods include interviewing and surveying people about an area they know well, to then identify and report the patterns in what they say. The main materials that go into social science research are researchers’ time and skill in designing and following protocols to elicit knowledge of program leaders, farm owners and farm seekers, and then to analyze, interpret, and report on the data gathered. Interviews involved taking extensive notes and audio recording the content to later transcribe verbatim and analyze. Online surveys collected quantitative data, and statistical analysis followed.
Two teams of advisors reviewed the content of the data collection instruments before they were launched. All improvements and clarifications they suggested were incorporated. One team of 4 farmer-advisors includes two in Indiana, one in Kansas, and one in Nebraska. A team of professional advisors represented three NGO’s, the Center for Rural Affairs, Land for Good, and Kansas Rural Center, and Purdue University Extension Indiana Beginning Farmers and Purdue University Institute for Family Business.
- Qualitative data collection (phone interviews with service providers and farm/ranch owners who are likely to transfer out of family; case studies of farms transferring between unrelated parties)
- Quantitative data collection (online surveys of (a) service providers and (b) farm/ranch owners and seekers) – to quantify patterns of experience
The findings of our program review are issued in three formats. One, through a free, open access report in the journal Land Use Policy (Valliant, Ruhf, Gibson, Brooks & Farmer. 2019. Fostering farm transfers from owners to unrelated, new farmers. Land Use Policy 86: 438-447). Two, through the enclosed one-page briefs. Three, through a rapid report we prepared for participants in the review (enclosed). Findings we highlight in these products include:
Metrics to indicate farm link and beginning farmer/rancher success
Filling a previous gap in knowledge, our methods collected a menu of indicators that are in use by NCR farm linking services to track progress toward farm/ranch transfers and beginning farmer/rancher land access, persistence, and success (see Table 1). The metrics presented in Table 1 can be adopted by programs and suggested by funders for program evaluation.
Service providers noted the need for funds and capacity to monitor and evaluate their programming, and to promote and market it. Their satisfaction with their efforts and understanding of their effects are tied up in these two aspects of routine operations. While some service providers are explicitly frustrated by lower demand for their services from owners, compared to high demand from seekers, others view this ratio as almost necessary to introducing effective matches: “Of ten applicants, two are strong enough in expertise, experience, and desire to be part of that, that the older generation says, ‘Okay, why don’t you come out for a farm visit and we’ll go over things?’”
Services to complement a farm link service
Farm link service providers recommend adding in-person mixers as an effective way to introduce seekers and owners. Typically these are attached to a standing event, such as an annual conference, and follow a speed dating type of format. Providers also recommend setting up list servs or spaces on social media where seekers and owners can meet and build relationships on their own, with less need for staff oversight than a listing, linking, or matching service requires. These services could be added to a linking or listing service, or offered as an alternative to a linking service.
Educate farm owners’ advisors
As part of building a team to support succession and transfer, and to reach networks of landowners, service providers recommend tailoring some educational events to farm owners’ professional advisors, and to provide continuing education credits for these sessions. Priority categories of advisors with whom landowners are in regular conversation include tax preparers, lenders, accountants, financial planners, and attorneys. (This finding supports that of a previous SARE PDP, EW01-013).
Land Access Policy Incentives
Our study coincided with the launch of the Minnesota Beginning Farmer Tax Credit in 2017, which proved to be a watershed moment, as other state legislatures soon proposed (OH, OR), and in some cases passed (CO, KY, MD, PA) related policy mechanisms, joining the long-established beginning farmer tax credits of Nebraska and Iowa. These financial incentives essentially pay a landowner to select a qualifying beginning/farmer rancher as their farm’s next operator or owner, instead of a well established candidate. Service providers in states where these policies exist observe that not only do hundreds to thousands of landowners participate in them every year, but that the mere existence of a Beginning Farmer Tax Credit delivers a meaningful endorsement of next generation producers, and the value of supporting their success. We took the opportunity to incorporate these financial incentive mechanisms (and that of the federal USDA FSA CRP-TIP) into our research scope. We prepared an open access article (Valliant & Freedgood, 2020, Viewpoint: Land Access Policy Incentives: Emerging Approaches to Transitioning Farmland to a New Generation, Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, forthcoming) and a funding proposal to the USDA AFRI Small and Medium-Sized Farms program (Indiana University & American Farmland Trust, Incentivizing Land Access for Small, Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers: Research, Extension and Community of Practice). While the reviewers did not fund this proposal’s first submission in 2019, they ranked it highly and encouraged us to revise and resubmit in 2020. One achievement of the proposal development process was that we built a framework to establish a Community of Practice made up of policymakers and program managers who support Land Access Policy Incentives.
|Table 1. Menu of recommended medium-term metrics|
|Markers of progress in farm/ranch linking||General markers of beginning farmer/rancher land access, persistence, or success|
|% of farm/ranch seekers who:|
Comparison of NCR farm/ranch seekers and owners who might transfer out of family
Findings from the survey of farm/ranch seekers and owners are issued in two formats. One, an open access article in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (Valliant, Ruhf, Dickinson, Zhang, Golzarri-Arroyo & Farmer. 2020. Farm seeker needs versus farm owner offers: A comparison and analysis in the U.S. Midwest and Plains, JAFSCD, Forthcoming). Two, the enclosed briefs. The findings we emphasize are:
On-farm/ranch housing shortfall faces Next Generation producers
Farm/ranch seekers are looking for much more on-farm/ranch housing than owners are offering. Living on the farm/ranch is customary and efficient; about 74% of U.S. producers live on-farm. For aspiring farmers/ranchers, housing is a critical part of the land access equation, and often the most expensive piece. Among these respondents, about three times the housing is sought than is available.
Comparing products and land needs of entering versus outgoing producers
Among these respondents, many incoming farmers and ranchers aim to produce row crops, beef, and hay. Their numbers are equal to those of offering owners who produce these products. However, many more incoming seekers desire to produce specialty crops, dairy, and hogs or poultry (outdoor or indoor) than offering owners whose farms currently produce these products. As far as their land needs, more seekers are looking for agricultural land than owners are offering, in every sector of agriculture. While the survey of owners and seekers finds no difference between land parcel sizes desired and offered, many service providers observe something different: that seeker demand greatly outpaces owners’ offers of the smallest (under 40 acres and under 10 acres) and largest (over 500 acres) tracts of land.
Our inquiry into the services that support agricultural landowners in transferring operations or real estate to incoming, Next Generation producers yields the following major conclusions and recommendations.
Consensus is that landowners can use a great deal of support in transferring to the next generation, particularly when that transfer goes to a new family. Owners’ advisors need to be identified, networked, and educated on the basics of succession and transfer, and on the various ways a landowner can transfer to an unrelated seeker, when a landowner or an heir would prefer to help a beginner get started or secure a known future for their land’s management. Selling on the free market, oftentimes at auction, has become customary, and provides a clear, immediate and complete financial transaction. However, our advisors at the Purdue University Initiative for Family Business find from surveying hundreds of farm businesses around the Midwest that 40% of the landowners who expect their farms to liquidate would prefer to avoid liquidation. These owners could be targeted for a potentially more deliberate transfer to a Next Generation producer.
Other forms of targeted support indicated for the North Central Region include:
- Support for existing specialty crop, dairy, hog and poultry (whether indoor or outdoor) farms to transfer to incoming seekers (the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship provides one such example)
- To meet the demand from entering farmers and ranchers for land, owners of tracts under 100 acres, under 40 acres, under 10 acres, and over 500 acres deserve dedicated land transfer support
- Support for accessing affordable on-farm/ranch housing
- In-person “land and labor” mixers like those the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and Kansas Rural Center have presented, to introduce and stimulate conversation between landowners and farm/ranch seekers in a geographic area.
- More operational support for succession and transfer services, including funds to promote and publicize the services and monitor and evaluate them.
Lastly, the region’s (and the country’s) various Land Access Policy Incentives, of the state and federal levels, should be immediately assessed to better understand their reach, effects, and patterns of participation and implementation, as their popularity and participation numbers are growing quickly and investments by states and USDA are large.
Multimedia dissemination of farm transfer success stories
As one data collection method, this project gathered stories from pairs of farm/ranch owners and unrelated, “beginning” farm/ranch seekers who are actively transferring operations, real estate, and/or other agricultural assets from one to the other – such that their agreement creates land access for the incoming seeker and a satisfying, secure legacy for the owner. This phase began late in year two of the project, and continues on beyond the close of year 3. Radio and podcast partners are broadcasting stories of successful non-family farm/ranch transfers to regional and national audiences, starting with Earth Eats, Harvest Public Media and Farm to Fork (the current incarnation of Successful Farmer Radio Magazine). We are building an online StoryMap to tell the stories and have posted some of their passages to SoundCloud. We are preparing to propose this material as a book to a publisher successful in reaching farmer/rancher readers.
A second educational approach focuses on the home states of the project’s lead institutions, Kansas and Indiana. Our states are two of very few that have no formal programs to assist with farm/ranch transfers between unrelated parties. Organizations small and large in nearly every other state have started these, to help beginners onto the land, to keep land in agriculture, and to help existing agricultural operations to continue. An aim of the project is to collect lessons learned by established programs in the region to inform next conversations in our states about how to support these same objectives of helping beginners onto the land, keeping land in agriculture, and helping existing agricultural operations to continue. To initiate program planning in Kansas and Indiana, we convened one-day meetings and follow-on conversations among state stakeholders in non-family farm transfer, and a series of presentations in each state. We have presented annually or more on the subject in our states. The Purdue Initiative for Family Business will publish our findings in their spring 2020 newsletter. We participate in the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Beginning Farmer/Rancher / Land Access / Transitioning Subcommittee (revived in 2019). The meetings have suggested next steps for program development, led to the development of (so far unsuccessful) federal funding proposals in each state, such that project personnel are continuing to foster needed conversations.
Lastly, we accepted an opportunity to present performances of the excellent play about farm succession and transfer, Map of My Kingdom, in four Indiana and Ohio towns in 2017. These were accompanied by succession/transfer and Legacy Letter workshops led by the playwright, Mary Swander.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The above activities are described above under Project Activities, and include four published press articles / newsletters:
- IU press release about the grant
- KRC news story announcing the grant – winter 2016
- IU article about the project and the play https://news.iu.edu/stories/2017/11/iub/inside/06-land-transfer.html
- Mary Swander radio appearance: http://wgnradio.com/2017/11/29/the-opening-bell-11-29-17-moving-agriculture-forward-through-the-arts/
Culminating outreach underway in 2020 includes:
Workshops and presentations
- Webinar presenting findings
- Purdue Initiative for Family Business newsletter article about project findings
- Two articles forthcoming in JAFSCD
- One book query submitted to Chelsea Green
- Two journal manuscripts in development, one reporting further findings of farm owner survey, the other reporting on farm owner phone interviews
- Revision and resubmission of USDA AFRI Small & Medium-Sized Farms integrated extension and research proposal
- Various podcasters
- Analysis of data related to this project for the National Young Farmers Coalition
- Advisory role in the American Farmland Trust 2020 BFRDP proposal, “Transitioning land to a new generation: Preparing trainers to help beginners navigate farmland succession”
- Farmers' successful transition stories reach project audiences
- Incorporate models for transferring farms other than seller/buyer matches (mentoring, land trusts, work-in partnerships, incubators)
- Options for financial incentives to transfer to a beginning farmer/rancher
- How entering farmers' and ranchers' needs compare to landowners' offers
- Access to affordable on-farm/ranch housing is a critical piece of land access
Two of our project's action outcomes have to do with programs adopting Best Practices, rather than individual farmers/ranchers. The first outcome for programs is "to apply Best Practices, improving services."
The second is for Indiana and Kansas to initiate the planning of farm transfer programs. Because of this project, both states are doing this.
One of our project's outcomes reflects farmers/ranchers changing practices. This is increased landowner participation in NCR farm transfer programs. According to service providers, landowner participation has increased by 45%. This change is mainly attributable to the Minnesota Beginning Farmer Tax Credit coming online in this time period.
From a Purdue Extension Educator after participating in the Indiana Non-Kin Farm Transfer Stakeholder Meeting 11/2017: “Julia, Good program today… I really did not know what to expect in advance but I am pleased with the cross-section of attendees as well as their willingness to speak their minds and I have high hopes for some positive outcomes… This is an area of rapidly growing need and I am a bit embarrassed by Indiana’s reluctance to address it more proactively. I always appreciate the work that you and James do and the opportunity to work with/ support you.”
From a farm owner and ag lawyer after participating in the Indiana Non-Kin Farm Transfer Stakeholder Meeting 11/15/2017: “Thank you again for the informative session and collaboration opportunities afforded yesterday. It is an exciting opportunity to serve our clients while protecting the agricultural DNA of the state of Indiana.”
From a news article: “‘James and Julia are helping make Indiana a place where young farmers want to live and farm,’ said [the leader of] the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition. ‘If we want more access to local food or more sustainable care of our farm land, we need to connect and strengthen our community of young farmers. More people will join that community — they will come home to Indiana to farm or decide to start farming here — if we have a way for them to find and access farmland.’ Farmer and Valliant are the lead researchers on a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project’s goal is for farms to continue functioning as farms, rather than being sold in pieces at auction or to a developer, said Valliant, a research associate at the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU Bloomington. She said this can also help new farmers access land, which can be a challenge.” – https://news.iu.edu/stories/2017/11/iub/inside/06-land-transfer.html
From an Ohio farmer 2/18/2019: “Thank you again for co-presenting such an informative session. My experience was similar to so many in that it was assumed I would take over the farm (I’m an only child), but we never talked about how that would actually happen. It was quite chaotic and emotional when the day came because my mom (my dad had passed away by that point) knew she couldn’t take care of 185 acres on her own, but still was nervous about turning the reins over to me, even though I was raised on that farm and knew it inside and out. I don’t want to make that mistake, and my husband and I are actively talking about who we know that has the same mindset toward the land that we do.”
We’ve been very grateful the R&E reviewers chose our proposal in 2016. It’s been satisfying for our team to delve into the areas of land access and farm/ranch transfers for the first time. These are rich dynamics happening in the background of agriculture continuously that make a big difference for the prospect of rebuilding food and farm systems. Because of this project, our group has built very solid working relationships with our advisors and collaborators the American Farmland Trust, Land For Good, Center for Rural Affairs, Kansas Rural Center, National Young Farmers Coalition, and Purdue Initiative for Family Business; plus the many service providers we have studied and the individuals whose stories we have gathered and are continuing to disseminate. We will stay in touch about products from this project as they are released. Very many thanks to you, Beth and team.