Farmers grow the food. But who’s helping new farmers put down roots?

Why We Wrote This

Many young people have big dreams for food and agriculture, but no money for a farm. Here’s one way entrepreneurs are finding a way back to the land. Part 1 of 3.

Thomas Newman
Jennifer T. Sharrock (l.) is a beginning producer in Palmer, Alaska, who needed land to expand. She was matched with Jan Newman (r.), a land owner, through a farm link program of the Alaska Farmland Trust.

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Jennifer T. Sharrock left an insurance career this year to pursue market farming and permaculture full time in Palmer, Alaska. The beginning farmer started teaching permaculture design three years ago, but her popular classes quickly outgrew her space. Buying more land wasn’t financially feasible.

So she placed an ad in Alaska Farmland Trust’s FarmLink program, a kind of “dating service” for land seekers and owners. That’s when Jan Newman, a neighbor with unfarmed land, answered her ad. “It’s a match made in heaven,” says Ms. Sharrock. She gets to expand her business, and Ms. Newman avoids the time and expense of maintaining the land herself as she faces retirement.  

As the average age of the U.S. farmer has climbed to 57.5, farmable land is poised for a dramatic change of hands. 

But along with access to capital, access to land is one of the greatest hurdles faced by beginning producers. Land-link pairings like the one in Palmer represent one possible step toward solving a nationwide puzzle – how to help experienced farmers exit agriculture while building an on-ramp for new producers.

Jan Newman became an accidental alpaca farmer. She took up knitting in the 1990s at home in Palmer, Alaska, to supply her first child with natural-fiber clothing, and one thing led to another. She innovated again in 2013 when she founded Grow Palmer, a public food program that plants edible gardens around town. These days, Ms. Newman is pondering retirement.

“It’s not an easy transition to consider selling the farm,” she says. 

Jennifer T. Sharrock is just starting out. She left an insurance career this year to pursue market farming and permaculture full time through her Seeds and Soil Farm. The beginning farmer began teaching permaculture design three years ago, but her popular classes quickly outgrew her space. Buying more land wasn’t financially feasible.

So she placed an ad in Alaska Farmland Trust’s FarmLink program, a kind of “dating service” for land seekers and owners. When Ms. Sharrock received an answer to her ad, her heart skipped a beat. She saw it was from Ms. Newman, whom she’d met through Grow Palmer. They also turned out to be neighbors.

“It’s a match made in heaven,” said Ms. Sharrock, who has started on four acres of Ms. Newman’s property. 

It’s a win-win for both women. Ms. Sharrock gets to regenerate land through permaculture design that could eventually yield a rainbow’s array of produce. As a trade, Ms. Newman gets to take classes with Ms. Sharrock, and avoids the time and expense of maintaining the land herself.

“There’s actually no money changing hands,” says Ms. Newman, who calls the younger farmer’s regenerative agriculture plan “the best stewardship possible.”

“Anything that Jennifer and her cohorts develop over there is only going to improve my property,” she says.

Land-link pairings like the one in Palmer represent one possible step toward solving a nationwide puzzle – how to help experienced farmers exit out of agriculture while building an on-ramp for new producers. 

In the past two decades, the United States has lost about 8% of its farms and the only operations that have bucked that trend are the very largest (2,000 acres or more) and the very smallest (less than 50 acres). That persistence of small farms is significant, because the majority of those operations are run by beginning farmers. And from the prairie states to Alaska and Maine, some are finding creative ways to succeed.

“I get a sense there are more young people who don’t necessarily have farm backgrounds, who are taking agriculture entrepreneur courses, and they are starting to jump into farming,” says Jim MacDonald, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Along with access to capital, access to land is one of the greatest hurdles faced by beginning producers in the United States. One sign of the barriers to entry: The average U.S. farmer’s age has taken a long-term climb over the past several decades, now reaching 57.5, according to the USDA’s latest census figures. While there has been some increase in the number of producers under age 35 – partly due to how the census now defines them – this group remains vastly outnumbered.

But while farmable land is poised for a dramatic change of hands over the next few years, some agriculture experts see fertile soil for American ingenuity through shared resources and wisdom.

“As someone retires, that’s an opportunity for two or three other young people. There’s no shortage of people that want to farm,” says Michael Langemeier, an agricultural economics professor at Purdue University in Indiana.

Looking for land

USDA defines beginning farmers and ranchers as having no more than a decade of experience. This group makes up 27% of the country’s 3.4 million producers, and with an average age of 46, they aren’t that young. In Alaska, 46% of the state’s producers are beginners – the largest share of any state. Amy Pettit, executive director of Alaska Farmland Trust, says the demand for more locally grown food is one of the factors pulling new farmers north.

“If you want to grow something here, there’s somebody to buy it,” says Ms. Pettit. “If you had some sense of wanting to be a farmer, this is a great place to do it.”

But buying land for many new farmers remains out of reach. A National Young Farmers Coalition survey reported land access was the No. 1 challenge faced by aspiring farmers and those who’ve left farming. Farmland real estate values, which includes land and the structures on it, have risen sharply since 2000. Prohibitive costs have meant beginners often rent land before they try to buy. Cropland rent averaged $138 per acre in 2018 with wide regional variance; California has the highest average cropland rent at $340. 

Land availability is another concern. A study by American Farmland Trust found that between 1992 and 2012, the U.S. converted almost 31 million acres of agricultural land to development – a loss the size of New York state. Foreign investors hold around 30 million acres of farmland.

“There is a sense of urgency,” says Tim Biello, who coordinates the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network in New York. “The history of our use of agricultural lands suggests that we’re not getting more.”

Securing soil for the next generation

Land-link programs first launched after the wide-scale farm bust of the 1980s. Kathy Ruhf, a land access expert and senior adviser at Land for Good, says they formed in response to a lack of family successors for aging farmers.

Around 50 land-link programs are still at work across the country. Unlike Ms. Sharrock and Ms. Newman’s arrangement, most land links involve a financial transaction like a sale or lease. While these programs vary in scope and success – offering a variety of services led by nonprofits, land trusts, universities, and state governments – the most effective models prioritize the transfer of knowledge and long-term business and retirement planning. When land links involve person-to-person resources, experts say, all parties involved are better equipped to address the challenges of growing the next generation of American farmers.

“The definition of a farm link program needs to be broader than an online database that results in matches,” says Ms. Ruhf, noting that matches are rare. “Most farm link programs have some kind of educational component and technical assistance.”

Launched by the American Farmland Trust, Hudson Valley Farmlink Network is among the most active, with 175 matches since 2014. Mr. Biello, the network’s coordinator, attributes the success to individual attention and relying on the localized expertise of 17 partner organizations. Before a user’s profile is activated on the farmland finder site, the individual must have a phone call with a staff member to review their profile and discuss their farming plans. 

Mr. Biello says that matches shouldn’t be the only metric for measuring a land-link program’s impact. He points instead to the trainings, events, and one-on-one assistance that have reached more than 10,000 farmers and farmland owners. 

“Those are really important data points, because they show that by having this group of partners who can do this work together, focus in the same direction – it really allows for pretty big impact,” said Mr. Biello. 

California FarmLink, another well-established program active since 1999, requires land seekers to have two or more years of experience along with a current decision-making role on a farm or ranch.  

“By the time they’ve gotten to us with that first 10-acre lease or $10,000 loan, they’ve got sort of a track record under their belt,” says Reggie Knox, California FarmLink’s executive director. He says good planning is key to “make sure everything’s clear about who pays for what when the pump breaks down in the well.”

Land-link programs can help farmers secure necessary funds, too – often a first step before even beginning an operation. 

“Any lender wants to see a copy of your lease to make sure you have the land security during the period of the loan,” says Mr. Knox. California FarmLink helps facilitate around 50 loans a year, in addition to around 45 leases or land purchases. As a community development financial institution, California FarmLink especially strives to reach low-income farmers through loans for small and mid-sized farms.

In Palmer, Alaska, Ms. Sharrock recently covered the four-acre field with large silage tarps to kill off unwanted growth for a year. She is banking on a diversified income stream that includes farm and seed sales, permaculture classes, and garden coaching.

Ms. Newman hopes the new farmer will remain on the land long term. 

“I just can’t wait to see this evolve,” says Ms. Newman. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened on the property since our alpacas left.”

Monitor staff writer Laurent Belsie contributed to this report.

This series focuses on solutions to challenges faced by beginning farmers. The other installments include Part 1: What if aspiring farmers have no money for a farm? Part 2: How a Maine network is helping beginning farmers stay in the business. Part 3: Entrepreneurial approaches breathe new life into the family farm.

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