Conserved farmland access

Final Report for ONE14-212

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,796.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Amanda Littleton
Cheshire County Conservation District
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Project Information

Summary:

Access to sufficient farmland is a top challenge for beginning and existing farmers. This project is working to improve access to farmland and provide more secure land tenure for farm seekers in Cheshire County New Hampshire.  

 Our approach in this project has been to work with landowners of conserved properties to successfully bring or keep farmers on their land. The goals of this project were to: learn more about the interests, concerns and needs of owners of conserved farmland; educate and support farm seekers, including about farming on conserved land; and bring these two groups together to pursue mutually beneficial land tenure agreements.  Methodology included creating an advisory committee, offering two focus groups, surveying farmers and conservation landowners, providing two educational workshops, offering one-on-one technical assistance, and creating case studies to be used in outreach to farmers and conservation landowners.  

Overall themes in working with Landowners and Farmer-Seekers

Landowners –

  • A variety of desired uses for their land, with an overall desire for responsible long-term stewardship of it
  • Interest in and openness to a collaboration with the farmer(s), without necessarily having a sense of the details of all that needs to be done with/to/for the land
  • Potential willingness (and capacity) to fund/support more than a year-to-year relationship with the farmer(s)
  • Desire for a system and structure for connecting with potential farmers
  • Desire for a third party organization(s) willing to work with them on an on-going basis relative to this relationship

Farmers –

  • A variety of desired uses for the land they work, with an overall desire for responsible long-term stewardship of it
  • Interest in and openness to a collaboration with the landowner(s), without wanting them “in the weeds” relative to the details of the day-to-day farm operations
  • Desire for more than a year-to-year relationship to build personal equity
  • Desire for a system and structure for connecting with potential landowners
  • Desire for a third party organization(s) willing to work with them on an on-going basis relative to this relationship

The following are the tips that the landowners and farmers shared when they were interviewed for the case studies:

Tips for Landowners:

  • The search for a farmer takes time!  Don’t except to find the right match within a month or two.

  • Word-of-mouth works.  Tell everyone you know what you are looking for farmers and be willing to talk to a variety of prospective farmers.

  • Give up the need to micromanage.  If you are trying to manage the day-to-day activities, you should just hire a farm manager.

  • Owners should think beyond economic benefits of leasing land since in many cases there will be little, if any, financial gain from the arrangement.

  • Be open-minded and don’t be afraid to think big!

  • Constantly talk about what is working, what isn’t, and where you both see the direction of the farm going.  Keep an open dialogue, especially in the beginning of the relationship.

  • Understand the realities of farming—it’s dirty, smelly, and unpredictable!

Tips for Farmers:

  • Think about what the land can do for you, not what you can do for the land.

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of proximity and the availability of equipment and infrastructure.

  • It is helpful to find landowners who are realistic about the economic realities of farming (very slim margins).

  • Be open-minded and don’t be afraid to think big!

  • Constantly talk about what is working, what isn’t, and where you both see the direction of the farm going.  Keep an open dialogue, especially in the beginning of the relationship.

  • Farmers should remain true to their word and be ready to be flexible.

Outreach was accomplished through social media, websites and a presentation at an annual New Hampshire land conservation meeting.

 

Introduction:

Over the last several decades, active farmland in New Hampshire has decreased by an alarming 50%. At the same time, the National Young Farmers Coalition (2012) and American Farm Bureau Federation (2013) report that access to land is a top challenge for beginning farmers. Surging interest in increasing regional food system capacity has led groups such as New Hampshire’s Food System Planning Team and the regional Food Solutions New England to prioritize expanded production. This means more land and more farmers.

For this to occur, farmers need improved access to good farmland. In 2008, with USDA/NESARE support, Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) conducted interviews with farmers in Cheshire County, NH. Sixty-three percent of interviewees stated that a lack of sufficient access to land is a leading barrier to expanding production. Qualitative feedback from farmers in the region corroborates this. Many farmers—especially those starting out—can’t afford to buy a farm. For them, leasing is a desirable—and often the only—solution.

There are considerable challenges with bringing farmers and landowners together, and to building strong lease agreements between them. The challenge is as much about finding, preparing and supporting landowners as it is supporting farmers. In NH there are many private non-farming agricultural landowners. Some landowners do not know there is a need for their land, others are interested in making their property available for farming but lack the tools to do so effectively, and still more harbor misconceptions that prevent them from making their land available. In addition, where handshake or written agreements exist, they typically lack the strength and clarity needed to provide security and protection to both parties.

One landowner category that we believe is most amenable to making their land available for farming, or to improving farming tenure, is owners of land encumbered by conservation easements. As a group, these landowners have demonstrated an appreciation for the public benefits of their properties’ natural resources, and they are not planning future development. By working with land trusts (typically the easement holder), they have demonstrated openness to partnership and collaboration. Because conservation easements are still seen as unconventional, these landowners are frequently innovators. Yet, much of this conserved and agriculturally capable land is not in active agriculture. For example, the Monadnock Conservancy holds approximately 45 conservation easements on land with agricultural potential, ranging from properties with prime soil suitable for crops to open fields suitable for livestock pasture, yet less than one quarter of these properties is used for active agricultural, either by the owner or by a lessee. 

This presents an enormous opportunity to make more land more available and secure for farming in NH by improving current lease agreements as well as working with these landowners on building interest and capacity to bring more conserved agricultural land into production. The implications from lessons learned in doing this well are far-reaching, as the issues of increased agricultural capacity, food system resilience, and farmland access are being actively engaged in every New England state, and beyond.

The challenge of affordable access to good farmland for established and beginning farmers is complex. It requires an innovative, systems-focused team of collaborating organizations reaching out to farm seekers and landowners. CCCD will partner with the Monadnock Conservancy (MC), a private non-profit land trust that works to conserve land in Cheshire County, and Land For Good (LFG), a New England-wide organization specializing in farmland access. LFG is headquartered in Keene, Cheshire County’s largest city and county seat. MC’s emerging top priority to conserve agricultural lands and viable local food systems has led it to strengthen its partnership with CCCD. CCCD focuses on the conservation and responsible use of natural resources and working landscapes.

This project will build from LFG’s Land Access Project, which identified and educated non-farming landowners. We learned that many—particularly those with conservation values—could be engaged with adequate information and support. Our unique approach in this proposed project is to work with landowners of conserved properties. We are not aware of any initiative that specifically helps this audience successfully bring or keep farmers on their land. The goals of this project are to: learn more about the interests, concerns and needs of owners of conserved farmland; educate and support farm seekers, including about farming on conserved land; and bring these two groups together to pursue mutually beneficial land tenure agreements.

By gathering information from landowners with conservation easements we will get greater understanding of their awareness, concerns and questions around the issue of making land available to farmers. This information will have wide relevance for the land conservation and farming communities. We will bring technical assistance and support to at least 20 owners of eased properties, and to farm seekers.

We will work with farm seekers to identify opportunities on conserved land in the region and offer educational resources on what it means to farm on conserved land as well as demystify conservation easements. The landowners will be provided with resources and education on making their land available for farming.  They will be exposed to benefits such as land management that meets their stewardship goals, a regular stream of revenue, increased local food production, providing an opportunity to a new farmer or farm family, and keeping their working landscape open and in production. 

Participating farmers and landowners will have an increased understanding of lease options, how to develop strong leases and other tenure agreements. All involved will also gain a better understanding of the stewardship opportunities offered by management plans through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. CCCD will work one-on-one with individuals to sign them up for appropriate programs that will help them achieve their land management and production goals. 

Overall this innovative project will make the region more productive and attractive for established and start-up farmers. In addition, we anticipate acquiring data and learning techniques that may in the future help other land trusts make their conserved properties more available to farming, as the Monadnock Conservancy is now seeking to do.

 

Project Objectives:

The goals of this project were to: learn more about the interests, concerns and needs of owners of conserved farmland; educate and support farm seekers, including about farming on conserved land; and bring these two groups together to pursue mutually beneficial land tenure agreements. By gathering information from landowners with conservation easements we will get greater understanding of their awareness, concerns and questions around the issue of making land available to farmers. 

Our goal was to bring technical assistance and support to at least 20 owners of eased properties, and to farm seekers. We worked with farm seekers to identify opportunities on conserved land in the region and offer educational resources on what it means to farm on conserved land as well as demystify conservation easements. The landowners were provided with resources and education on making their land available for farming. They were exposed to benefits such as land management that meets their stewardship goals, a regular stream of revenue, increased local food production, providing an opportunity to a new farmer or farm family, and keeping their working landscape open and in production.

Participating farmers and landowners were to have an increased understanding of lease options, how to develop strong leases and other tenure agreements. All involved would also gain a better understanding of the stewardship opportunities offered by management plans through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. CCCD woried work one-on-one with individuals to sign them up for appropriate programs that would help them achieve their land management and production goals.

Overall this innovative project is aimed at making the region more productive and attractive for established and start-up farmers. In addition, we anticipated acquiring data and learning techniques that may in the future help other land trusts make their conserved properties more available to farming, as the Monadnock Conservancy is now seeking to do.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Melissa Blindow
  • Ray Conner
  • Bill Fosher
  • Carl Majewski
  • Ryan Owens
  • Kathy Ruhf

Research

Materials and methods:

First we established an Advisory Committee comprised of  farmers and non-farming conservation landowners to offer guidance and direction for the project. These advisors are working with the project team to design the elements of the project that include the focus groups, survey and education as well as ground truth our approaches and findings.

Secondly we held two focus groups—one for landowners and one for farmers. We hired a trained facilitator, David Chase, to run the groups.  The Advisory Committee with Chase developed a set of questions for each focus group. We recorded and transcribed the sessions to maximize retention and analysis of the information participants share. Our lines of inquiry focused on social and quality of life parameters, including: land conservation motives; land management goals; experiences with active farming on their conserved land; interests and concerns about farm leasing; and information and support needs.

 With information from the focus groups, we surveyed approximately fifty landowners in the MC databases. We also surveyed farmers about their land-related interests and needs, with a particular focus on their understanding of agricultural conservation easements and their willingness to consider farming on conserved land. This has given us valuable feedback about farmers’ awareness of and concerns about farming on conserved land. 

 Based on the information and data gathered from focus groups and surveys, we have designed 2 educational workshops. The target audience was landowners and farmers. Mixing these audiences will give both a chance to hear from the each other. There was content for farming on conserved land, crafting strong lease agreements, etc. as well as meet-and-greet opportunities for interested lessees and lessors.

One-on-one support for structuring or improving lease agreements was offered through LFG.  In tandem with this technical assistance on tenure, we promoted the creation and implementation of farmland management plans on conserved land through Conservation District/NRCS programs. The Monadnock Conservancy also offered one on one support to address issues that are frequently raised as concerns, such as monitoring and shared financing of conservation activities on leased land.

The project was concluded with the creation of a case study guide to farming on conserved land. For the guide, we drew from our research and wrote up three case studies of successful lease arrangements from the MC landowners with whom we work. The guide is now available as a PDF on our website. 

A press campaign was conducted with farmers and conservation landowners.    Reporters were contacted about work that was done and there is a story to be written and printed in July 2016 in the Union Leader.  There is  also a digital campaign through social media and email news blasts from partner organizations. 

The attached materials were created to execute the work plan and reach the performance targets.  

Advisory Board:

USDA SARE Farm Access Project – Advisory Committee Members Role

Access to sufficient farmland is a top challenge for beginning and established farmers. This project proposes to improve access to conserved farmland and provide more secure land tenure for farm seekers in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. The goals of this project are to: learn more about the interests, concerns and needs of owners of conserved farmland; educate and support farm seekers, including about farming on conserved land; and bring these two groups together to pursue mutually beneficial land tenure agreements.

 The goal of the Advisory Committee is to offer guidance and direction for the project.  These advisors will help the project team design the elements of the work plan by providing feedback on the approaches and findings. They will be asked to weigh in at specific benchmarks, such as the questions for a farmer and landowner survey.   We are looking for farmers, farm seekers, and conservation landowners.  The time commitment we are looking for is two meetings, one each year, involvement in one focus group session, and feedback by phone and email during the two year grant period.

Advisory Commitee Member Role

July 24, 2014 Agenda for Farmer Focus Group:

SARE focus group guide - farmers

July 24, 2014 Agenda for Landowner Focus Group:

SARE focus group guide - landowners   

NF Land Owner_invitation letter_sample

Workshops:

Feedback form on event:

Mixer Evaluation

Agenda for mixer event:

Agenda

Questions to ask Landowner or Farmer to determine lease agreement Exercise:

Small Group Exercise

Flyer announcement for land lease workshops

SARE flyer_revised

Given questions to Panelists (Land Owners/Farmer leasers):

march 2015 farmland access night - panelist questions

Research results and discussion:

To research this issue, the team surveyed landowners and farmers, conducted focus group sessions, and offered farmer-landowner mixers where each group could ‘meet and greet’ and get technical assistance. While there is still much to be learned about this complex issue, the research led to the following findings:

¨ Participating landowners have a strong conservation ethic and want to see their land farmed. In cases where the land was already being farmed, landowners wanted to see that use expanded and increased.

¨ There can be a disconnect between a landowner’s interest in seeing the land farmed and the realities of a working farm (the dirt, smells, and unpredictability inherent in farming). Defining expectations from both parties and establishing good communication early is key.

¨ Economics were not a major consideration for most landowners. Most understood that farming has slim margins and making money from a lease is usually not realistic.

¨ Farmers desired longer-term, more secure arrangements (which would give them the confidence to invest in the land). Some landowners wished for this as well, but others did not want to ‘tie up their land.’

¨ Both landowners and farmers agreed that the conservation easement did not inhibit farming.

¨ Both landowners and farmers wanted more opportunities to connect with each other and desired technical assistance (such as help drafting leases).

¨ The biggest challenge for both group seemed to be how to connect with one another. Many arrangements seem to happen through ’word of mouth.’ There was a desire for a local land linking program to help bring the two groups together more easily.

 

The following are the results from the Focus Group:

Land Owners SARE Focus Group summary

Summary Theme Analysis of SARE Land Owners’ Focus Group:

Goals for conserving their land:

  • Minimize expense of having others maintain it (mow, etc.)…
  • Maintain open space…
  • Make it agriculturally and economically productive…
  • Improve the overall condition of the land itself…
  • Combine resources of landowner (capital, land, equipment) and farmer (know-how, time, effort)…
  • Wildlife habitat improvement…
  • Public recreation…

Key learnings from experiences they have had with others farming their land:

  • Need for on-going collaboration and compromise between landowner and farmer…
  • Knowledge that a lease can work to the benefit of both parties…
  • Appreciation that the approach needs to be sustainable for the farmer as well as the farm…
  • Importance of landowners with adequate financial and land resources supporting this…
  • Awareness not to micromanage the farmer…
  • Understanding that farming is not always an aesthetic experience…
  • Desire for collaborative clarity on what both the farmers’ and landowners’ goals are…

What they want from someone working their land – and their concerns in that regard:

  • A continuum of desired involvement and commitment – some land owners just want someone to come in and keep their fields open – others are seeking a mutual, long-term relationship with farmer, including housing – and are willing to make a life investment with the agreement of land being left to the farmer…
  • Someone knowledgeable about what to do and how to do it relative to their land…
  • The willingness to work mutually on a contract of what is and is not acceptable…
  • Avoidance of longer-term, longer-impact farming activities (orchards, etc.) that would revert to being a landowner’s responsibility if the farmer left…
  • Clarity around and insurance policies for liabilities for both parties…
  • A genuine partnership with the farmer – a sense of a shared venture…

Resources, systems, and structures that they feel might be helpful…

  • Connections with agricultural schools…
  • Connections with existing farmers in their region…
  • Open meeting for landowners and farmers to make their needs known to one another …
  • Some sort of probationary period to see how a given agreement will work out…
  • Database of potential landowners seeking farmers and vice-versa…
  • Agency(ies) or organization(s) that could mutually connect and advise both parties…

 

Farmers SARE Focus Group summary

Summary Theme Analysis of SARE Farmers’ Focus Group:

Goals for farming their land:

  • Vary widely, but include common elements of land stewardship and a desire for a long term relationship with the land…

Key learnings from experiences farming on/leasing land that is conserved, what they want from working such land, and their concerns in that regard:

  • Goal should be to create a system that encourages the development of an infrastructure that supports the land, land owner, and farmer over time…
  • Create contracts that encourage the development of a farmer-land owner relationship over time and that make the collaboration more secure for both parties as the relationship develops…
  • Need to negotiate a lease that both frames the terms of land use and the respective roles of farmers and land owners and still allows for flexibility on both parties’ parts….
  • Specific easement language is important to consider. Looser lease language leaves enough room for interpretation, but it is still strict enough to conserve the land. People are going to have to learn to how to write conservation easements that work for farmers…
  • Need to check with land owner before doing certain things, whether or not they seem to be spelled out in a lease…
  • Get some sort of organization or agency involved over time to guide all involved through the process and relationship…
  • Make sure the land owner understands the reality of working farm aesthetics…

Resources, systems, and structures that they feel might be helpful:

  • In NH there is not currently a good clearing house for farmers looking for conserved land. Having one would be a big help...

 

Overall Themes

Landowners –

  • A variety of desired uses for their land, with an overall desire for responsible long-term stewardship of it
  • Interest in and openness to a collaboration with the farmer(s), without necessarily having a sense of the details of all that needs to be done with/to/for the land
  • Potential willingness (and capacity) to fund/support more than a year-to-year relationship with the farmer(s)
  • Desire for a system and structure for connecting with potential farmers
  • Desire for a third party organization(s) willing to work with them on an on-going basis relative to this relationship

Farmers –

  • A variety of desired uses for the land they work, with an overall desire for responsible long-term stewardship of it
  • Interest in and openness to a collaboration with the landowner(s), without wanting them “in the weeds” relative to the details of the day-to-day farm operations
  • Desire for more than a year-to-year relationship to build personal equity
  • Desire for a system and structure for connecting with potential landowners
  • Desire for a third party organization(s) willing to work with them on an on-going basis relative to this relationship

The following are the results of the surveys conducted:

Two surveys were designed. One targeted Monadnock Conservancy's conservation  landowners while the other targeted farmers.  These surveys were informed from what we learned at the focus group with a goal of learning more about how to reach out, educate and connect landowners and farmers.    The following was learned from the Landowner Survey:

  • 66% of conservation farmland owners placed the easement on their property (as opposed to it being done before their ownership)
  • 55% of conservation farmland owners do not currently rent or lease their property
  • Of the landowners that do lease their property 85% do not have a written lease agreement
  • The bulk of the current land in farming was producing hay or raising livestock. Thought 53% surveyed said they would consider growing crops on the land. 
  • Only one of seven conservation landowners charged farmers rent for their use of the land
  • All seven conservation landowners with lease arrangements reported being very satisfied (4) or somewhat satisfied (3) with the lease arrangement. 
  • Seven conservation landowners of 10 that did not currently lease to farmers said they would consider leasing to a farmer in the future. 
  • 100% of conservation landowners felt their easement was very friendly (21%), supportive (36%) and neutral (43%) to farming. None felt it was too restrictive. 

The following was learned from the Farmer survey:

  • 37% of the farmers surveyed are interested in leasing more farmland
  • 53% would consider leasing conserved land
  • Those respondents not interested in leasing conserved land stated the following reasons: too many restrictions, management practices potentially too restrictive, and bureaucracy of permissions
  • Farmers would find the following support helpful: information on leasing, lease examples, legal assistance, assistance in finding farmland, negotiating the agreement, and determining the rent.

Monadnock Landowner Study

Cheshire County Farmer Study Results 12-15-14

The following is the Case Study Booklet that was created: 

Case Study Booklet

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

One avenue we utilized to share about this project was to offer a presentation at the Saving Special Places Conference on April 9, 2016.  Saving Special Places is New Hampshire's annual land conservation conference organized by UNH Cooperative Extension.    At this conference project partner Stacy Gambrel of the Monadnock Conservancy teamed up with representatives from Land For Good and the Southeast Land Trust to offer a workshop titlted Keeping Farmland Affordable & Accessible for Farmers.  This workshop focused on how access to land impacts the future of farming and discussed mechanisms to ensure farmland access for both beginning and established farmers. 

Beyond this workshop project partners have posted materials about the project on websites and social media outlets as well as utilized e-newsletters and e-blasts to share project announcements and updates.   Outreach has gone to farmers, farmland owners, non-profit and government service providers, land trusts, and municipalities.    

Case Study Booklet

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

The project team concluded that the following is further work needed in this focus area: 

-          Going beyond conservation landowners to work with all landowners with underutilized land

-          Understanding  more about agriculture friendly easements.   Assessing if local experiences differ from region to region      depending on the land trust that is active in an area.  

- Assessing the viability and effectiveness of farm linking programs – Land For Good is actively pursuing this

-          Need for more recognition and solidarity of farm landlords to share best practices.   Identification of what resources and information is needed to support them.   

Information Products

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.