Farmland access refers to the various methods – and challenges – by which farmers can acquire land to farm. Access to farmland is typically achieved through purchase or lease. Groups like Land For Good work to promote traditional and innovative ways for farmers to access farmland.
Tenure means “to hold.” It describes the relationships among people or entities with respect to land and related resources. Rules of tenure define how property rights to land are allocated. The two main modes of holding rights to land in the U.S. are ownership or tenancy.
Farm transfer refers to passing a farm business and/or farmland from one generation or owner to another. Other related terms that are often used interchangeably are “farm succession” and “farm transition.” 92% of farmland in New England is owned by people over the age of 45, and 70% of New England farmland is expected to change hands in the next two decades.
Farm succession implies the transfer of the farm business (as opposed to the farm real estate assets). The use of the term often suggests the transfer of the farm within the family. Two-thirds of retiring farmers in one national survey did not have an identified successor.
Farm transfer planning refers to the process of developing a plan to transfer a farm operation and its assets, including land. The plan includes several components such as a retirement and estate plan, land use plan, business plan, and management transfer plan. The foundation of a good plan is goal setting and communications. One study found that 75% of farmers do not have a farm transfer plan. The Gaining Insights study by American Farmland Trust and Land For Good found that nearly 30% of New England’s farmers are likely to exit farming in the next 10+ years, and 9 out of 10 of them are farming without a young farmer alongside. While this does not mean that these farmers don’t have plans to transfer their farms, it suggests that the future of many of these farms is uncertain.
The future of farming and food security depends on farmers being able to start and grow their farm operations. Land held by retiring farmers, non-farming landowners and institutional and public entities must be made available, affordable and secure for new and established farmers.
Farm seekers are new and beginning farmers who want to access land for the first time or scale up their operations, as well as established farmers who want to expand or relocate their farms. Access to farmland is a top obstacle for new and beginning farmers, according to surveys by the National Young Farmers Coalition (2011) and the American Farm Bureau (2013). The traditional pattern of farm succession (i.e., younger male farmers inheriting a farm) no longer holds. The most common method of land acquisition for beginning and established farmers is from a non-relative (USDA, 2013). Immigrant, minority, women and other socially disadvantaged farmer populations face additional challenges in accessing land to farm.
“Farm link” programs have been around since the late 1980s. Originally, they were intended to help retiring farmers find someone to take over the farm. Recently, “linking” programs have proliferated. These days, the land holding side of the linking equation is not limited to retiring farmers with farms. All kinds of landowners are served.
What do farm link programs do? It depends, but all have the basic intention of helping farmers and farmland find each other. One way to describe the differences among farm linking programs is by the services they provide. “Listing” services are simply that — a list of available farm properties for rent or purchase. Sometimes there is a list of farm seekers as well. The New England Farmland Finder website is an example of a regional farm property clearinghouse that allows landowners to post available farm properties. This service is not a real estate listing, although real estate agents (and others representing landowners) are welcome to post farm properties. “Linking” services typically screen seekers and landowners and provide contact information to the parties based on the screening criteria. Think of a traditional or online dating service. “Matching” services go one step further by actively facilitating connections, negotiations and agreements. Some programs also offer educational materials, training and networking events, and more extensive direct advising.
Whether they offer listing, linking or matching services, the bottom line for all farm link programs is to help beginning farmers, other farm seekers, and farmland owners connect with each other and related resources.
More about farm linking in our region
- How To Link To Land in Vermont’s Local Banquet
- Rhode Island Land Linking Program: Background Research and Policy Analysis A report by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic
- Land Link Programs in the Northeast US: A program assessment and lessons learned
Farm linking programs – New England
- New England Farmland Finder
- Connecticut FarmLink
- Maine FarmLink
- New Entry Sustainable Farming Project Farmland Matching Service (Eastern MA)
- Vermont FarmLink
Farm linking programs – beyond New England
Ownership of land can be thought of as a bundle of rights. Many rights are associated with ownership of land, such as rights to use, rent and sell it, cut down trees, build structures, extract minerals, hunt, and so on. However, limits are placed on that bundle of rights. Laws and regulations, as well as any easements attached to a deed, can limit the landowner’s rights to the land. Tenancy is defined as the right to use property for a specified amount of time, as granted by the owner. Tenancy rights mean that you do not need to own the property in order to use, care for, and benefit from it. (To learn more about ownership, tenancy, and leases, see the “Farmland Tenure” and “Leasing Farmland” lessons in our Acquiring Your Farm online tutorial, and the resources in our Farm Seeker Toolbox.)
The restriction of the development rights, also called “conservation easements,” “agricultural conservation easements,” or “conservation restrictions,” can have a significant influence on the final purchase price of a farm property. By removing forever the right to develop the property for anything but agriculture, a conservation easement can reduce the selling price of a farm by as much as half from the “fair market value.” In most of New England, a farm for sale on the open market will not be listed at its agricultural value unless there is a conservation easement in place. The farm property will be listed for sale at its “highest use,” which in most cases is for commercial, residential or industrial development. This means that the asking price for a farm will generally be higher than what a farmer living solely on farm income can afford. (To learn more about conservation easements, check out the “Financial Assessment” and “Community Partners” Lessons in our Acquiring Your Farm online tutorial.)