By Cheryl Herrick
In Vermont and across New England, prime farmland is both scarce and expensive. Many farmers are at or approaching retirement age. Young farmers face daunting challenges as they try to establish their agricultural enterprises.
One critical, and complicated, part of these challenges is finding ways to successfully transfer farmland from those who own it to those who seek to farm on it. Ben Waterman of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture serves as Land Access Coordinator, and in that capacity, helps to support both farm-seekers and landowners in Vermont.
He’s based at UVM to serve Vermont’s farming community, but he and his colleagues in the New England Farm Link Collaborative are working together as part of a three-year “Land Access Project” across the region. Serving Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, the group is comprised of each state’s “farm link” programs that work to connect those seeking farmland in order to begin or grow their farming operation with landowners with farmland to lease or to sell.
“A regional approach makes sense,” says Waterman. “Farmers will move across state lines to access the right property. Knowing that, we did this to make it easy for farmers to get a look at what’s available throughout New England, and also to direct farmers and landowners to the whole array of services and resources to help them make that successful match.”
This is important because there’s much more to a successful arrangement than just helping farmers and landowners find each other, says Waterman.
“Every situation is different and can require different expertise and advice than every other one, but partners in the Collaborative have the right accumulated experience and knowledge. Our purpose is to facilitate good communication between the farmer and the other support services,” he says. “We can help bankers understand a farm business plan. We can help lawyers understand the agricultural provisions of a farm lease arrangement. We can help real estate agents to understand the specific information that a prospective buyer or tenant needs to determine whether a land is suitable for their goals. We can help everyone navigate USDA resources and requirements. Farm link programs are the hub.”
A significant focus of the Collaborative has been the creation and improvement of the New England Farmland Finder website (http://newenglandfarmlandfinder.org). The site provides detailed and regularly updated farm property postings, as well as information and guidance about farmland transactions, such as land assessment worksheets and fact sheets on lease rates.
“We’re excited about the way the website can get more listings in front of people, but it’s equally important to us to get all of the site’s visitors connected with the staff and resources from local programs to help access land and use it productively,” says Waterman.
Andrew Smith, a new vegetable farmer who is now raising vegetables on leased land in Rhode Island, used NEFF so that he could see as much as possible of what was available.
“I was searching for that dream opportunity. We were new, and were looking for land to farm all over New England,” says Smith, who made contact with the owners of properties across the region, but ended up leasing property near where his family home in Newport is, an unexpected but happy outcome of his search.
Sue Lanpher of Maine Farmland Trust recalls her recent work with Eric and Alison Rector, Maine landowners and homesteaders who were seeking to bring young farmers onto their land as they prepared for retirement.
“The Rectors were wonderful to work with. As farmers themselves, they knew what would work for the farm, and what would fit in their succession plan, so they were mindful in their screenings with interested seekers,” she says. “They had set a lot of things in motion already for the farm’s future and I think that aided them in their positive link with the young farmers now on their land.”
The Land Access Project is supported by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, #2015-70017-23900. The collaboration is one outcome from Land For Good’s Land Access Project, funded by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The New England Farm Link Collaborative includes Connecticut Farm Link, Maine Farm Link, Land For Good and Vermont Land Link. Each member provides a range of services all aimed at one common goal: to help New England’s farm seekers and landowners connect.
About UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Land Access is one program of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Established in 1994, the Center provides timely information to Vermont communities and the UVM campus. Center staff conduct innovative research, support the development of promising practices, cultivate partnership, and inform policy to advance sustainable food and farming systems.
-Cheryl Herrick manages communications and the office at the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and lives, writes, and cooks in Burlington.