Conserved farmland access

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Education and Training: focus group, workshop, technical assistance
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, partnerships, community development

    Proposal abstract:

    Access to sufficient farmland is a top challenge for beginning and existing farmers. This project proposes to improve access to farmland and provide more secure land tenure for farm seekers in Cheshire County New Hampshire. Leasing land is often a desirable solution for beginning, and established, farmers that cannot afford to buy a farm. 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. 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.

    Our unique approach in this proposed project is to work with landowners of conserved properties to 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. Methodology will include creating an advisory committee, offering two focus groups, surveying farmers and conservation landowners, providing educational workshops, offering one-on-one technical assistance, as well as creating case studies to be used in outreach to farmers and conservation landowners.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Background

    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 Methods

    First we will establish an Advisory Committee comprised of 3 farmers and 3 non-farming conservation landowners to offer guidance and direction for the project. Farmers will include some who have successfully leased land on conserved properties as well as others that seek, but have not yet had, that experience. These advisors will help the project team design the elements of the project described below, and ground truth our approaches and findings. They will be asked to weigh in at specific benchmarks, and also in bi-monthly calls. (April-May 2014) We will hold two focus groups—one for landowners and one for farmers. We will hire a trained facilitator, David Chase, to run the groups. We will develop a set of questions for each. We will record and transcribe the sessions to maximize retention and analysis of the information participants share. Our lines of inquiry will focus 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. (June-July 2014) With information from the focus groups, we will survey approximately fifty landowners in the CCCD and MC databases. MC conducts regular surveys of all its owners of easement-conserved land as part of the stewardship relationship, with strong return rates, meaning these surveys will not be seen as out of the ordinary. Our questions—derived in part from what we learn in the focus groups—will be incorporated into this survey. (September-November 2014)

    We will also survey 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 will give us valuable data about farmers’ awareness of and concerns about farming on conserved land. We have expertise in survey design on our project team, and we will vet the survey instrument with our advisors. We will collate, analyze and write up the findings. (September-November 2014) Based on the substantial information and data gathered from focus groups and surveys, we will design and offer 2-4 educational workshops. The number of workshops will depend on timing and geography. It might make the most sense to do two very local workshops instead of one more regional one. The target audience will be landowners and farmers. Mixing these audiences will give both a chance to hear from the each other. There will be a section on content: farming on conserved land, crafting strong lease agreements, etc. as well as meet-and-greet opportunities for interested lessees and lessors. (January – March 2015) As we identify landowners and farmers who are—or want to be—in lease arrangements, we will offer one-on-one support for structuring or improving lease agreements. LFG’s considerable expertise in this area will be applied to the work with landowners and farmers, and will also build the capacity of the land trust and the conservation district about crafting good lease agreements (March-November 2015) In tandem with this technical assistance on tenure, we will promote the creation and implementation of farmland management plans on conserved land through Conservation District/NRCS programs. This will be an excellent opportunity to showcase how farmland tenure and land conservation goals and practices can be effectively linked. We will also address issues that are frequently raised as concerns, such as monitoring and shared financing of conservation activities on leased land.

    (March-November 2015) We will conclude the project with a written guide to farming on conserved land. To our knowledge, and from our background search, we do not know of any materials that specifically address this topic and audiences. While there is good information for landowners about “sustainable farm leasing” and conservation practices on leased land (see, for example, Drake University’s (IA) Sustainable Farm Lease), the particulars about farming on conserved land are not addressed there. For the guide, we will draw from our research and write up three case studies of successful lease arrangements from the MC landowners with whom we work. The guide will be available as a PDF on our websites. (January-November 2015) A press campaign will be conducted with farmers and conservation landowners in the fall of 2015. Press releases will be written and distributed through traditional print and radio media outlets. There will also be a digital campaign through social media and email news blasts from partner organizations. The goal of this press push will be to reach, and bring into the conversation more interested parties, both farmers and conservation landowners, and to make them aware of the resources available. (November-December 2015) Administration and project management will be provided by the CCCD throughout the length of project. At the close of the project in January 2016 a final report will be prepared and submitted to USDA Northeast SARE. (January 2016) The work outlined in this proposal will help farmers by getting more agricultural land into production with strong lease agreements that benefit both the farmers and conservation landowners. This will address the challenge of affordable access to good farmland. This will be done through research, education, and one-on-one technical assistance.

    Timeline

    Establish Advisory Committee (April-May 2014) – CCCD, LFG, MC, UNHCE will collaborate to identify farmers and conservation landowners to sit on the advisory committee. Meetings will be held to design project elements and ground truth approaches and findings. Hold Two Focus Groups (June – July 2014) – Dave Chase, facilitation consultant, will prepare for and conduct two focus groups with the input provided by the Advisory Committee and partners. Advisory Committee Check-ins (July 2014 – December 2015) – LFG and MC will conduct Advisory Committee check-ins on a bi-monthly basis, allowing space for the Advisory Committee to weigh in on project progress and offer guidance on next steps. Survey of Conservation Landowners (September – November 2014) – MC will conduct this survey to conservation landowners as well as collate, analyze and write up the findings. LFG will consult on survey design and analysis. Survey of Farmers (September – November 2014) – CCCD will conduct this survey to farmers as well as collate, analyze and write up the findings. LFG will consult on survey design and analysis. Offer Educational Workshops (January – March 2014) – LFG, MC, and UNHCE will conduct these workshops. Offer One-on-One Support for Structuring Lease Agreements (March-November 2015) – LFG will provide this technical assistance. Offer One-on-One Support for Conservation Planning (March- November 2015) – CCCD will provide this technical assistance in coordination with partners at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Walpole Service Center. Create Three Case Studies (March – November 2015) – LFG will work with the MC to create these case studies. Press Campaign (November-December 2015) – LFG and MC will take the lead on creating publicity and outreach materials. LFG, MC, CCCD, and UNHCE will work with media outlets in the region and state as well as their own networks. Administration and Project Management (April 2014-January 2016) – The CCCD will work with project partners and the Advisory Committee to ensure adequate and timely completion of the proposed work plan. Final Report Submission (January 2016) – The CCCD will prepare the report based on input from partner organizations and the Advisory Committee.

    Outreach

    We have three specific audiences for sharing our project results, they include 1. Farmers, including established farmers and beginning farmers seeking land; 2. Land Trusts, Conservation Districts, and other easement holding entities; and 3. The general public, particularly non-farming landowners of agricultural land who may be interested in learning more. The CCCD has a strong network of farms in the County that will be utilized to share project results. Beyond the County’s political border the CCCD will work the NH Association of Conservation Districts to distribute resources to farmers around the state. The Monadnock Conservancy is a founding board member of the NH Land Trust Coalition, through which it will share results and lessons learned to the NH land trust community, and perhaps nationally via the Land Trust Alliance. The Monadnock Conservancy will also share results with all its non-farming conservation landowners. LFG will conduct extensive promotion through its website, newsletter, email blasts, and at least ten relevant list serves in the region and nationally. We will share our guide with farm link and beginning farmers programs and our extensive database of farmland access and transfer advisors throughout New England. We will feature or include our findings and examples in at least four workshops for farmers in our region. UNH Cooperative Extension will also utilize their extensive statewide network of farmers and landowners to share the results of this project. This will be done through workshops, social media, and one-on-one site visits. Traditional print media, as well as social media, will be utilized in distributing resources and results to the general public. All partners maintain an extensive list of media contacts locally and statewide. Results will be shared on the websites of the CCCD, MC, and LFG.

    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.