Going, Going . . . Farmland in the Balance

by Jane Black

 Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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Walk through a farmers market at this time of year and all seems right in the world of sustainable agriculture. Young, fashionably scruffy 20-somethings have rhubarb, spring garlic and greenhouse tomatoes, and plenty of advice on how to use it. But the vibrancy on display masks a grim reality: The number of U.S. farmers continues to shrink; the U.S. farm population shrunk 4 percent over five years, according to the 2012 agricultural census. Today, there are twice as many farmers over 60 as under 40. What’s worse: When those older farmers go, their land may disappear with them.

It’s what Andrew McElwaine, the president of the American Farmland Trust, calls a “quiet crisis.” Nationwide, America has lost 72 million acres of farmland since 1982, about one-third of it to development. That trend is likely to accelerate as farmers die and retire. In Iowa, people over the age of 65 own 56 percent of the farmland, and 30 percent is owned by those over 75. In Maine, some 400,000 acres—one-third of the state’s agricultural land—is expected to change hands over the next decade.

The global consequences of losing that land are frightening. First, American farmland is the most productive on earth. According to McElwaine, for every acre we take out of production, we will need 1.5 to 2 acres somewhere else. Already we lose 49.5 million acres of cropland globally each year due to soil erosion or salinization, or 1.3 percent the world’s cropland. These losses are accelerating deforestation and disappearing wetlands. Moreover, the world’s population is growing, with 9.6 billion people on the planet by 2050. Feeding everyone with less land won’t be easy.

Closer to home, it poses a real threat to the dream of renewing and revitalizing American agriculture. You see, you can teach new people to farm in programs like Stone Barns Center’s apprenticeships, but new farmers can’t farm without land. If we don’t act now, it will soon be too late.

Why is this problem so hard to solve? At the macro level, it’s simple. In many areas of the country, farmland prices are at record highs, and many farmers want to sell and retire comfortably. In rural areas, big farms that want to grow bigger can afford to pay more than a small upstart farmer. In suburban and exurban areas, developers are ready to pounce. (This is a particular shame because this is where new farmers want to be—within striking distance of cities where local food can be sold at a premium.) Small farmers must have access to affordable capital in order to compete.

It’s not only about economics, though. Passing down land to family or new farmers can be head-wreckingly complicated. To understand why, you need only read the fascinating story of one Iowa couple trying to figure out how to pass on 980 acres to three sons. The father doesn’t want to talk about succession (i.e. dying). One son has worked the land for 25 years and technically deserves more. Should the sons form a corporation? What about the taxes? There are no easy answers. No wonder many farmers decide to just take the money and run.

There is (thank goodness) some hope that America can preserve its farmland. Driven by the declining number of new farmers—there were 20 percent fewer new farmers in 2012 than 2007—the U.S. Department of Agriculture has gotten serious about the issue as well. Its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program provides $19.2 million a year to help get new farmers started. That includes facilitating land transfers. Agricultural easements, which pay farmers in return for removing the development rights from their land, are helping some get the money they need for retirement and keep family or new farmers farming. Land trusts and other non-profits have become more aggressive at matching old and new farmers. Where there used to just be ads for young farmers to answer, now there are conferences that run through legal strategies and tax implications. The Center for Rural Affairs Land Link program in Nebraska has been particularly successful at demonstrating the tax advantages of selling land to beginning farmers; this may be one reason that the state is one of the few that is seeing its percentage of young farmers increase.

Others are experimenting with creative solutions to the problem. Several organizations offer “speed-linking” events—think of them as speed dating for land—to help bring prospective buyers, leasers and sellers together. To raise awareness, Practical Farmers of Iowa even commissioned a one-woman play, written by the state poet laureate, that charts the misery, joy and drama of passing on the farm.

It will take all of these programs, plus patience, to protect America’s farmland. If we are lucky, they will persuade a generation of older farmers to think strategically about their land, as Tom and Irene Frantzen have done. The Iowa couple have a 300-acre organic farm in New Hampton, Iowa. After their deaths, they wanted to see it remain a “profitable, diversified family farm that was healthy, pleasant and stable.”  Their son James, who farms with them, could not afford to buy the land without taking on burdensome debt. So the Frantzens decided to leave the farm to Practical Farmers of Iowa with the stipulation that James and family descendants are the preferred tenants.

“I am excited that my brother will be able to follow his dreams of farming our land without the fate of land prices cornering him into selling to the highest bidder,” the Frantzen’s daughter Jolene said at a press conference. “The preservation of our farm legacy is all the inheritance that I could ask for.”