As Farmers Face Retirement, Study Examines Effectiveness of Land Access Tools for the Next Generation

As established farmers age and transition out of farm ownership, a vast amount of agricultural land in the United States will change hands in the coming years. As a result, beginning farmers are likely to continue to face numerous obstacles as they try to find and purchase property.

land access tools

Courtesy Photo/Vermont Department of Tourism & Marketing

The average age of principal farm operators in the United States is 58 years old, and in the next 20 years, about 25 percent of the nation’s farmers will retire. Seventy percent of the private agricultural land will likely change hands.

It’s timely then for two researchers from the University of Montana to publish a new study, “Cultivating Opportunity: Do Land Transfer Tools Improve Land Access for Beginning Farmers?”

The study, co-authored by Sam Plotkin and Neva Hassanein, examines the effectiveness of Conservation Buyer Programs (CBPs) and the option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV). The study also highlights the Vermont Land Trust, which successfully combines both the CBPs and OPAV land access tools.

We connected with Plotkin, who holds an MS Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, about the research. He works as a project manager for The Trust for Public Land in Seattle.

What prompted you to conduct this research?

After finishing my undergraduate degree at Michigan State University, I spent the better part of the next couple years working on small farms. I’d wanted to start my own farm business, but when I crunched the numbers—factoring land, labor, and capital—the figures didn’t come out in my favor, especially given that I was working for a stipend between $200 and $600 per month as a farm apprentice. I wanted to learn more about work underway to improve beginning farmers’ access to land, which is often the chief barrier to starting a farm business.

It was in reading material published by the National Young Farmers Coalition that I learned about land trusts and these organizations’ efforts to use conservation easements to improve working farmers’ access to land. Not only did this pique my interest, but research in this area was limited, so I took it to task.

My co-author, Neva Hassanein, is a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, a food systems scholar, and expert on agricultural land conservation. When Neva and I began working together on land transfer tools research, her wealth of knowledge in the field of conservation helped me to see the intersection of access and land protection, broadening the scope of our research, and enhancing the complexity of our analysis.

What was the most surprising finding?

The most surprising finding to come out of this study was the fact that on-farm incomes alone, when paired with a reduced purchase price by way of a conservation easement’s sale, was often not enough to get these beginning farmers on the land. Many of the farmers interviewed needed to supplement their incomes with off-farm financial support. This came in the form of a spouse’s income, inheritance, or family members undersigning a loan. What this told us was that land is not only expensive, but that farm incomes alone are not sufficient in many cases to cover the costs associated with land acquisition even in these unique cases. A Wall Street Journal article on this subject was just published and I have it in my queue to read.

What kind of change/impact would you like your study to have on farmland access— and what kind of conversation do you want it to spark?

We need farmers on the land to grow our food. If they can’t afford to get on the land in the first place, we’re stuck. What’s more, if there aren’t farmers on agricultural land, it’s more likely we’re going to lose that land to development. Entities using land transfer tools are doing important work to this end. I hope our study encourages them to take a closer look at how their tools are working and how they can be improved. Furthermore, I’d like for our study to catalyze new conversations about what the public sector can do about farmland conservation and access.

What is the biggest barrier for farmland access?

That depends on who you ask and where you’re looking. For example, those farmers we interviewed who had the benefit of bringing family money to the purchase of their farm property may suggest that the availability of farmland is the greatest barrier—where’s the best piece of ground for the business they’re trying to launch? On the other hand, for those farmers who are looking to find the sweet spot— the affordability gap, bridging the divide between what they can afford and what land costs —it will likely be price.

You write that the Vermont Land Trust’s approach to combine the option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV) with its Conservation Buyer Programs (CBPs) has been particularly effective. Should this approach be a model for other states or regions?

We can say with certainty that a one size fits all approach isn’t going to work. Vermont Land Trust’s approach does, however, address both ends of the land access challenge: identifying viable farm properties for beginning farmers while substantially bringing down the fair market value of that land. Other entities working in this arena should seek to do the same, whether with CBP and OPAV or other tools.

According to the study, only the Vermont Land Trust and Massachusetts Department of Agriculture are known to include the option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV) in all conservation easements on agricultural land. Why aren’t more states using this approach?

The use of OPAV use is limited for several reasons. First, it’s expensive. Some entities may not even consider using the tool because it can substantially increase the cost of a conservation easement beyond what the entities can afford. Furthermore, to have the cash on hand to exercise the option to purchase, if that time comes, may be a cost-prohibitive risk entities don’t want to assume. Finding an eligible buyer at a given time may be a difficult ask as well. Additionally, it’s possible that OPAV may not be a viable provision for some entities due to state statute. This includes the rule against perpetuities, which prohibits interests in real property that do not vest. OPAV may violate these rules as it exists as an interest in real property held by the entity that holds the conservation easement that simply rides on the title to the property forever.

You conclude your study by asking: Can conservation and commercial, sustainable agriculture co-exist? What do you think?

Unequivocally, yes. We must concern ourselves with how the agriculture is done. It should be done in a way that is not harmful to the land. We need to ensure, however, that conservation activities are accessible to as wide a working lands community as possible. Without the land, we have nothing.

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