The farmland clearinghouse ads read a bit like listings on a dating site, but way more practical:
Ernst Weissing is seeking to rent 20+ acres of tillable farmland in southeastern Minnesota. Land with a barn or pole shed and access to water is preferred; no house is required.
Kelly Schaefer is seeking to rent 20 acres of farmland in Minnesota, Arkansas, Oklahoma or Kentucky. Land with pasture, fencing, water, power, outbuildings and a house is preferred.
Landowners post, too, advertising farmland for rent or sale:
Ellen Parker has for sale 9.2 acres of farmland in east-central Minnesota’s McLeod County. The land consists of 3 pasture acres, 3 tillable acres and 3 forest acres.
The listings demonstrate, in part, a rapid occurrence of land transition across the United States. The National Young Farmers Coalition estimates that more than two-thirds of America’s farmland will change hands in the next two decades. But as the older generation ages out of the industry, young farmers struggle to access affordable farmland.
America’s farmers are getting older, fast. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, and has trended consistently upwards over the last three decades. More than 33 percent of farmers are 65 or older.
Between them, these farmers manage 320 million acres, approximately one-third, of United States farmland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 500,000 farmers will retire in the next 20 years.
The aging of the American farmer raises some big questions: Who will grow our food when these farmers are gone? And what will happen to the farmland currently managed by elderly farmers? Unless America’s fertile fields wind up in the hands of a new generation of independent farmers, they’re likely to become housing developments, fracking sites, or simply gobbled up by big agribusiness.
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The primary reason young farmers can’t enter the industry is land: High land costs effectively price them out, whether or not they come from a farming background. Between 2004 and 2018, farmland inflation rates increased by approximately 150 percent. While the national average was $3,040 per acre, some states had averages well over $10,000. Rhode Island has the highest average cost per acre at $13,800.
“Regardless of geographic area, land access is the top challenge for young farmers who are currently farming and the biggest barrier preventing aspiring farmers from entering the industry … And it’s the number one reason that young farmers are quitting,” says Holly Rippon-Butler, a third generation farmer and the Land Access Program Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. (Full disclosure: I once served as NYFC’s Arizona organizer.)
The issue of land access is a problem I’ve seen up close. Five years ago, as a “beginning farmer” — defined by the USDA as those in their first 10 years of farming — I dreamed of raising our children on the farm and providing decades of food to our community. We planted trees that I imagined would still be there when we died.
But our land payments, mortgage and equipment debt, and operational expenses felt crushing, and I could not imagine saving for emergencies or sending my children to college on my farm income — so several years in, I left the farm.
Many of my longtime friends are still farming, so my social media feeds are filled with documentation of their energy and tribulations: the glow of a field at sunset, the freak hail that annihilated a greenhouse, pigs foraging in the woods, a goat birth captured on video.
But there are also rollercoaster stories of land access. Two friends worked for three years to transition newly-purchased acreage to organic certification, only to be told during their first full season that eminent domain would mandate a gas line eventually be installed through the middle of their farm. A friend in the Midwest has been forced to relocate her entire farm several times due to leasing issues. There are stories of bad landlords, broken leases, interest rates that are way too high, the only affordable acreage too far from a local market to support it, apprenticeships gone sour, dreams quashed, and sweat equity wasted.
The issue of land access is also intertwined with America’s student debt crisis, as school debt can prevent a young farmer from affording land payments or qualifying for loans. In 2017, NYFC surveyed approximately 3,500 farmers under the age of 40. Respondents were 60 percent female, and included a “proportion of people of color and indigenous farmers… roughly twice that of the 2012 Census of Agriculture.” Student loan debt was the second-most cited challenge expressed by young farmers, after land access. 61 percent of respondents reported needing another job to make ends meet.
Third generation Georgia farmer Chad Hunter, whose story is featured as an NYFC case study, says federal student loan debt has prevented him from accessing additional credit to add goats and sheep to his cattle operation. “Farming is difficult,” Hunter said, “Physically, the work is demanding and unrelenting. Financially, it is hard because farmers need credit to operate until they can make a harvest. Credit is difficult to obtain with student loan debt and that makes operating difficult.”
A 2014 NYFC survey on student loan debt found that the approximately 700 respondents had an average of $35,000 in student loan debt. Of those, “ percent of respondents were farming but struggled to make their monthly loan payments, and 30% of respondents said they were not farming or had delayed farming because of their student loans.”
Young farmers who are priced out of owning farmland must rely on leasing acreage — often through annual rental agreements — owned by landlords, 97 percent of whom are white. “Leasing can be a great thing when farmers are just getting started, but it’s hard to make long-term investments, like amending the soil or building infrastructure, when you don’t have the security of owning land,” says Rippon-Butler. Leasing also means farmers have less collateral when applying for farm loans, which can limit the size or scope of their operation.
And relationships between landowners and farmers run the gamut from hands-off arrangements, strong partnerships, to those fraught with conflict. Inherently, though, there’s a power imbalance — one party owns the land, and the other doesn’t — which places leasing farmers at the whims of the landowner.
Some steps have certainly been taken to try to address this crisis. The most recent farm bill, passed in December, included permanent funding for beginning and disadvantaged farmer programs. Important improvements were also made to the federal loan program that supports direct farm purchases, doubling the loan limit from $300,000 to $600,000 to reflect the real estate market.
In Minnesota, where just 4 percent of farmers are under the age of 35, NYFC’s Central Minnesota chapter organized successfully for a new law that provides a state income tax credit to landowners who sell or lease land, livestock, or farm equipment to a beginning farmer. As part of the program, the beginning farmer must enroll in a farm management class, also covered by a tax credit.
Also in 2017, Colorado farmers were given a boost by a state law that reimburses farms up to 50 percent of the cost of hiring an apprentice. The program helps farmers afford the labor they need to run their businesses, and it provides paid opportunities for new farmers to gain access to land and mentorship.
Last year in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Working Farm Protection Act into law, after it passed through the state legislature with unanimous support. It strengthened existing farmland protection laws, making state funding permanently available for programs that help keep farmland in the hands of farmers.
But more can be done. For instance, in 2015, NYFC worked with coalition partners to introduce the Young Farmer Success Act into the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2017, it was reintroduced with bipartisan support. If passed, the law would amend the 1965 Higher Education Act to include full-time farm or ranch managers or employees as public service jobs, eligible for the public loan forgiveness program. After 10 years of “income-driven student loan payments,” the loan balance would be forgiven.
“We have this huge natural resource in our farmland and in the knowledge of the farmers who have been the stewards of that land. And as our climate is changing and our world is changing, it’s so important that we protect our ability as a nation to produce food,” says Rippon-Butler. “There is just so much at stake here.”