Gaining Ground in Maine

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: demonstration, workshop, technical assistance
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, community-supported agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, partnerships, public participation, public policy, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Today, the typical price of a farm is far higher than a family farmer can afford. While conservation easements are widely used to bring down the value of land by removing the development rights, “gentleman farmers” seeking rural ambience are now competing for farms with conservation easements, driving the price of farms out of the reach of working farmers. Most conservation easements do nothing to insure that the farm is agriculturally productive or to protect the affordability of the farmhouse and barns. The impact of this on farmers is that: A) Many farmers are working rented land. An Equity Trust survey (‘01) showed that 50% of the land worked by CSA farmers is rented. Since CSA farmers sell shares of their harvest to individuals within the community who become “members” of the farm, CSA farmers take a great risk when they build this membership base around a farm that they do not own themselves. Further, when a farmer owns his land, farmhouse, or barns, he has the opportunity to gain equity, but rented land does not afford the farmer this opportunity. And for farmers using sustainable farming methods, often the most serious issue with rented land is this: Although they need to build the fertility of their farm’s soil, they have no way of taking this valuable asset with them should the land be sold out from under them, or their lease terminated for any reason. B) Family farmers who own their land face a constant financial struggle to hold onto their land. Increasingly, as the cost of land continues to rise, more and more farmers have had to take second jobs working off the farm to pay the bills, especially the mortgage and land taxes for the farm. The USDA has found that for farms with sales under $100,000, the income from these off-farm jobs (and the related benefits such as health insurance) is critical. C) When farmers retire, it is a challenge to make the farm accessible to younger farmers. A generation of farmers is now retiring, as over 25% of U.S. farmers are over 65. Retiring farmers often have their retirement income tied up in the equity of their farm and are unable to sell at a price that is affordable to a young farmer when non-farmers are able to pay much more. Retiring farmers are forced to choose between their own need for retirement income and their wish to see the land that they have stewarded continue to be farmed. A healthy working farm is made up of three critical pieces: the agricultural soils, the infrastructure (house, barns, greenhouses, fencing, etc.) and, most importantly, the farmer. Traditional conservation easements only protect one of these three pieces: the agricultural soils. They do not bring the price of farms down low enough for farmers to afford or protect the infrastructure.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    During the past ten years, Equity Trust has focused on “whole farm” protection, developing and testing a unique model that protects farm affordability and ensures active farming. We’ve created the legal documents for this two model (posted for free on our website with commentary at and have tested our model with a variety of CSA farms. We have now successfully completed 13 “whole farm” protection projects with small and medium-sized CSA farms, and have provided technical assistance to many more farms still working to gain security. Working with the Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine Farmland Trust, we are undertaking a project called “Gaining Ground in Maine”, which will make our two models accessible and comprehensible to farmers and land trusts in Maine. We will use our experiences working in Maine to replicate this targeted training in other states.

    Here’s how our model works: People who rely on the farm’s produce help carry out a one-time fundraising campaign that raises the money to permanently remove the farm from the real estate market. Their local land trust either acquires an agricultural conservation easement for the farm, or it acquires title to the farm's land and provides the farmer with a lifetime, inheritable lease. In each case, the farmer retains ownership of the farmhouse, barns, and the farm business. Positive covenants are always placed on the land requiring that it continue to be actively farmed, and restrictions are placed limiting the price for which the house and barns can be sold. This ensures that the farm will remain affordable to future generations of farmers.

    Our model will:

    • Provide working farmers with secure access to land, enabling them to confidently invest in the farm’s soil fertility, infrastructure, and business;

    • Limit the purchase price of the improvements to their appraised agricultural value, so the farmer only assumes the amount of debt that she can comfortably service earning her income by farming that particular piece of land;

    • Keep the farm’s infrastructure connected to the farm’s land, and prohibit selling the farmhouse away to someone who doesn’t farm;

    • Provide farmers with the opportunity to build equity through their ownership of the farmhouse, barns, and other infrastructure on the farm;

    • Protect the community’s need for access to locally-grown food;

    • Enable generation after generation of older farmers to retire, passing their farm’s land, house, and barns on to younger farmers at a price that is affordable.

    We ask “What are the farmer’s needs now and for the future?” and “What are the community’s needs now and for the future?” Our model focuses on fairly allocating rights and responsibilities between these parties, and creating an ownership structure for the farm that protects the needs of both farmers and eaters. The models we use address the core relationship between farms, farmers, and their communities. Our goal for the “Gaining Ground in Maine” project is to provide farmers with secure, long-term land tenure, and the opportunity to gain equity. Further our goal is to keep farmland actively producing food.

    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.