- Education and Training: study circle, technical assistance
- Sustainable Communities: social networks
“You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land.”
Wendell Berry 1998
At a 2008 Northeast beginning farmer conference, 50 workshop participants were asked about their biggest challenge. In response to education, training, credit, and market access, several raised their hands. When asked about access to land, nearly every hand went up.
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 new farmer education and assistance programs don’t focus adequately on the land issue. In fact most farm business planning courses assume that land and housing have already been acquired… somehow. Other programs recognize land acquisition as a critical piece of the puzzle, but find it impossible to go into depth on this topic within the standard curriculum. Few service providers have deep knowledge about land tenure issues. Missing is exposure to the range of legal and financial options regarding land tenure, and how to assess a property and how it fits in the financial picture. Beginning and growing farmers cannot find the information, tools, guidance and support they need to learn about their options and figure out a farm acquisition strategy to meet their unique circumstance.
For new farmers to become viable, sustainable (and sustaining) community members, they need to make sound land decisions – what kind of tenure, how to finance acquisition, how to assess a property, how to link the land with suitable housing, and how to work with landowners through a transfer or lease agreement. They need to integrate land acquisition into their financial planning and enterprise development. They need to explore alternative tenure options such as longer-term leasing, affordability provisions and work-in situations. And while they may have taken a business planning class, they are still lacking in “financial readiness” specifically related to purchasing or renting a farm, farmland and/or housing.
Why is this important to communities and community economic development? For a community’s agriculture to thrive into the future, new farmers must launch successful enterprises. Successful enterprises depend on sound decisions about land and the uses of capital. At the same time, a community’s farmland can be abandoned, developed or misused if there is no concerted effort to facilitate its appropriate use and stewardship by a next generation of producers. Therefore, communities need to do more to help people not yet on land as well as those already farming, but not in a tenure situation, to meet their land needs for the long term.
In our experience, many communities – including those that pride themselves on being “farm friendly” –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.
Project objectives from proposal:
This project will address the issue by: a) developing a curriculum module focused specifically on land access; and b) engaging community partners in farm access issues. We will develop an innovative approach and materials to help farm seekers understand their land access options, and become more prepared (“ready”) to make sound choices for their particular circumstance. The approach and materials can be used by beginning farmers directly as well as by service providers for ready integration into their programs for beginning and other farmers.
The curriculum will address:
a) Tenure education (what is land tenure, what are the options and their advantages and disadvantages);
b) Farm acquisition readiness counseling (“Farm Access Finance 101”)
c) Legal and acquisition finance issues;
d) Housing; finding and assessing a farm property;
e) Landowners and sales agreements
f) Landlords and leases;
g) Easements and conservation properties; and
h) Individualized, structured action planning and built-in support.
The project will make land acquisition issues less onerous and complicated, searches more productive. We will create useful tools and approaches that stand alone so farm seekers can make better decisions (and avoid bad ones) on their own. The resulting module will be designed also for integration into other curricula (e.g., NxLevel’s Tilling the Soil of Opportunity, Maine’s Farms for the Future, MOFGA’s journeyperson program, NESFI’s Exploring the Small Farm Dream, Vermont’s Farm Viability Program, Connecticut Farm Link, Maine FarmLink and Maine Farmland Trust’s Buy/Protect/Sell services, college and university sustainable agriculture courses) so that the land issue is more adequately addressed across the spectrum of farmer programs in New England.
We will feature new and innovative tenure approaches, particularly those that help providers and communities see the connection between farmland and farm housing (for example, the Dartmouth, Massachusetts model in which a deed rider links preserved farmland with an affordable house for a farm family, and farmland-with-farmhouse lease arrangements).
Community partners will be involved in the development and use of the curriculum module. We expect that our community partners will vary from place to place, depending on the networks that are established there. For example, one community might have an attorney with a special interest in farmland solutions, while another might have a creative and dedicated land trust staff. We will use our extensive network to reach out to a broad group and find the right partners.
We will interview agriculture and conservation commissions, planners, economic development entities, lenders, affordable housing counselors, attorneys, and conservation groups in our pilot communities about farm access, the role of community, and the most critical educational needs. We will integrate community partner participation in the educational setting, creating a learning community of land-seeking farmers, educators, and community leaders. In this way, community partners will be exposed to the issues and the people dealing with them and in turn, the seekers will learn from these experts and forge important community connections.
The result will be farmers more prepared to pursue sound farm acquisition strategies and communities more prepared to welcome and work with them. This innovative approach connects communities with farmers around the farmland issue which both groups see as critically important. In these ways, this project fosters successful farm development in partnership with receptive and informed communities