Farmland Transitions Part 1
The year is 2020 and while there has never been more access to information for young farmers seeking to learn, it seems as though acquiring the land and capital to start an agricultural enterprise has never been more difficult. As this newest generation of agrarians face the mounting pressures of student debt, finding land with good access to markets, systemic racism in land ownership, and the inherent risks of starting a low margin business, the public demand for naturally grown foods continues to grow. Below are insights from 9 farmers who are tackling these issues and more in their communities today. To continue on to Part 2 of this series, visit Farmland Transitions Part 2.
When it comes to land agreements, there are so many different ways that farmers can gain access to space to grow on. Whether the land is purchased, inherited, leased, borrowed, or owned by a community or nonprofit, farmers are being innovative with their strategies for getting their seeds in fertile soil.
“We recently purchased the 5.8-acre property in July of 2018, the property was fallow and in need of serious soil and habitat restoration. I think one of the toughest challenges was acquiring the necessary funding sources for our on-farm development and improvements. Starting from scratch can be a bit overwhelming- We started with taking out an FSA Small Farm Loan for implements (tractors, irrigation, etc.) Then graduated to an Akiptan Tribal Loan for our 100' greenhouse and have received multiple small farm grants and go-fund me project-based fundraisers. Thankfully, as we start our third growing season, we are finally able to farm at 100% this year.” - Spring Alaska Schreiner of Sakari Farm LLC in Bend, Oregon
“We moved to our property in July of 2017 from Charlottesville, VA. Originally my wife and I are from Texas so we wanted to live in a place that was in the middle of San Antonio TX (my home town) and Richardson TX (where Kathryn is from). I always wanted at least an acre of land with a water source. Knowing that I would be starting a market garden in the location we found. My thought was to grow mainly 10-15 crops and have an orchard as well. I also thought if I could live in an urban area where I could do this would be great due to location and proximity to customers. Well, in the big city of Waco Texas, it was going to be very expensive to find that dream property.
At the time, there was a boom happening where properties were going faster than hot cakes. After so much disappointment I ended up finding a property 20 minutes outside of Waco in China Spring, TX. The market farm is located in an unincorporated area with no fresh produce within 25 miles. I thought to myself, could this really work? Would people in this community support a small market farmer? Could I even grow in the black gumbo clay? With hard work and perseverance, it has worked. The fruits of our labor are starting to pay off.” - Brian Emadi of Little Bexar Farm in China Spring, TX
“At Golden Russet Farm, we grow about 10 acres of certified organic vegetables and cut flowers in Shoreham, Vermont. My parents bought the main farm in 1984 and since then have added on two neighboring plots, one of which now provides housing for one employee. We’re currently working with a consultant from the nonprofit Land for Good to come up with a plan to successfully transition the ownership of the farm and land to me.” - Pauline Stevens of Golden Russett Farm in Shoreham, Vermont
“Sundance Harvest is a year-round urban farm. Having that year-round piece was key for me especially since the work I do is rooted in food justice and advocating for resilient urban food systems. The greenhouse I grow in is leased. I feel very lucky to be able to grow food in a greenhouse. Growing in the winter is very hard, you cannot control the lack of light and the humidity which are too things that hurt my crop yields this year.
Having a greenhouse space as a full-time farmer was crucial for me as I wanted to create an example of how much food could also be produced in the winter. The second location of Sundance Harvest is an earth-based plot a bit north of the greenhouse, which is the location that root crops, beans, peas and other earth loving vegetables. With the earth-based plot it’s on an agreement on property owned by a local university.” - Cheyenne Sundance of Sundance Harvest in Toronto, Ontario
“We are on leased land, which can limit what we can do on the land, especially in terms of infrastructure, but we're lucky that it's so close to Boston.” - Sara Rostampour of Brookwood Community Farm in Canton, Massachusetts
"I am the fifth farm business to lease the land from a 67-member Co-housing community called East Lake Commons that purchased the land in 1998, which is in a densely populated residential neighborhood in metro Atlanta. They began the farm the same year and began to lease it to a farmer in 2003. I have leased their farm, Gaia Gardens, since 2011. I have a written lease agreement with a nominal rent fee, but clearly detailed obligations written into the lease. For example, we must have USDA organic certification, grow a diverse variety of veggies, have a CSA, make compost, and meet with a representation of the community members monthly, etc. I also cannot alter the land in any way without their permission.
I have added some infrastructure and equipment, but most of these facilities and tools are owned by the homeowners who supply me with an annual budget for the maintenance of those items. My farm business, Love is Love Farm, LLC, generates all of our payroll costs, cost of supplies, and business operation costs through sales of certified organic produce and garden plants. I think this system clearly outlines the expectations on both sides. On the challenging side, it is hard to generate substantial equity in the business as most of the physical resources are owned by the community." - Joe Reynolds of Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens in Atlanta, Georgia
“I am currently in year two of a three-year incubator Farm program for Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color. I have access to an eighth of an acre of land where I am growing my farm practice and honing in my skills. I am also privileged in that I own my home in Portland that I was able to purchase using a VA Loan. My home Farm is what we call the “micro farm” where we raise rabbits and hens and we also have native plant guilds and herbs that we grow for value added products and a garden in our front yard that we share produce with our neighbors.
This is where I am building my farm business, Flying Dogheart Farm so named after my name, Chichitonyolotli, my given name which means, Dogheart. I am hoping to expand on more land, I am working on building relationships in the community to earn that privilege.” - Letty Chichitonyoloti Martinez of Flying Dogheart Farm in Chinook Territory also known as Portland, Oregon
A Little Bit of Column A, A Little Bit of Column B
"We are currently farming on three separate parcels of land. We own 2.75 acres, of which only .5 acre is farmable. We have a verbal agreement with my church to use a .5 acre area to farm. Lastly, we use our neighbors .125(1/8)acre market garden for production. Working with neighbors and the community allows for access and flexibility." - Howard Allen of Faithfull Farms in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
“Our current land situation is in flux! For the past three seasons I've grown on a 1/4-acre side lot next to our house in town and a 1/2 acre of land in a friend's backyard. Our town friends have been generous in letting us use their backyard rent-free, but the soil is very boggy and not great for flowers, not to mention that their land is a 10-minute drive across town. My spouse Scott and I had been looking for our own small farm for about five years, and about two years ago, a couple from our church offered to sell us an acre off their 40-acre parcel with access to grow on their adjacent land if we need more room.
We purchased the acre about a year ago, are finishing building our house on the back half of the lot, and plan to have our first full growing season on our new farm this year. We really lucked out with our situation, as the folks we purchased from were hoping to find a young farming couple as neighbors and have been very glad to work with us to make our farming dreams happen.” - Kate Friesen of Singletree Farm LCC in Goshen, Indiana
Farming is a challenging professional all on its own. Your profits are based on the balancing of so many factors including many that are outside of your control. Beyond the hardships of weather extremes in our changing climate and the ever changing marketplace, farmers face a myriad of hurtles when accessing land and resources and building a business that makes enough profit to provide for a healthy, stable livelihood.
The Barrier of Cost
“Cost. Land is expensive around here!” - Sara Rostampour of Brookwood Community Farm in Canton, Massachusetts
“I think one of the more concerning challenges for new farmers or young farmers is being able to afford the land and those often-costly startup costs. Unless you come from family money, you are basically trapped into the (loan/grant/fundraising) uphill battle. I started farming by doing "handshake" leases on smaller acreage properties here in Deschutes County. It's a great way to get farming under your belt and work out the kinks a bit before jumping right into purchasing land.” - Spring Alaska Schreiner of Sakari Farm LLC in Bend, Oregon
“One of the biggest challenges I see in transitioning land, specifically from an older generation to a younger generation, is the cost of buying land. Although neither Scott nor I come from farming families, we had financial help with family loans to purchase our farm. We're also lucky to live in a small community that supports several kinds of small farms, and while there are good resources for finding short-term farming options (like neighbor's backyards or community gardens,) finding something larger and more permanent was difficult, and took more time to find.”-Kate Friesen of Singletree Farm LCC in Goshen, Indiana
"Biggest challenges when transitioning land to farmers today are lack of money, lack of transparency with located available land and lack of generational foresight, the unwillingness of older farmers to pass on land to younger farmers." - Howard Allen of Faithfull Farms in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
“Cost and location seem to be the biggest factors when it comes to attaining land. I feel as though in the five years that I have been looking for land the cost has skyrocketed in the central Texas area. On top of that if you want to find a decent location close to a city, you’re going to have to pay a premium. I feel as though if you don’t have a second income to pay for a piece of land at first it is going to be very difficult. Unless you're lucky and your family has money, or you inherit their land.”-Brian Emadi of Little Bexar Farm in China Spring, TX
Reconciling Systemic Oppression
“I find our biggest challenge is also our biggest opportunity. We live in occupied lands and many farmers are starting to wake up from this agricultural homogeneity of mono-cropping, realizing that it's not sustainable nor is it equitable. How do we reconcile stolen land? How do we get back into balance and get right in our relationship with the land and the people who were first here? I am indigenous to these lands but not to the part in which I live. I'm a guest here. My family was displaced from the lands they stewarded three and four generations ago.
We were severed from our lands, language and traditions. And so, my biggest challenge is, when I get to steward land, how do I also make reconciliation with the first peoples of the lands I'm a guest on? How do we collectively shift our way of thinking, our current culture, from being landowners to land stewards? How do we shift from owning land, to belonging to the land?” -Letty Chichitonyoloti Martinez of Flying Dogheart Farm in Chinook Territory also known as Portland, Oregon
The End of the Honeymoon Phase
"I think one of the greatest challenges to transitioning land to farmers today are creating a system of relational engagement between landowners and landless farmers. All of these relationships require a "honeymoon" stage but they also must ultimately grow into written agreements with clear enough understanding between parties and some form of periodic check-in to provide a forum for information exchange and resolution of problems, etc. Another challenge is maturing a new farm business through the myriad of challenges it faces in the first 5 years. First, farming, in general, is a low profit margin enterprise. In addition to production and business planning, accounting, data management, managing labor, and creating a "realistic" work schedule are big obstacles. It is also hard to plan for expected and unexpected life changes, like health issues, sore bodies, or having children to name a few." - Joe Reynolds of Love is Love Farm at Gaia Gardens in Atlanta, Georgia
“Over the last decade, we’ve noticed that we’ve been having more frequent climate change related extreme weather events. We’ve had to invest in additional equipment to be able to farm on the same land that we always have. As these events become more and more common, we will need to constantly adjust some of the methods we’re using and potentially even explore finding land that is more reliable.” - Pauline Stevens of Golden Russett Farm in Shoreham, Vermont
“I’m thinking of moving out rurally part time and keeping Sundance Harvest also in the city. Regarding land, the work I do is extremely rare to find rurally and people who look like me farming are really only found rurally in the context of Canada’s exploitative migrant worker programs. I could say what I see the challenge for me would be finding a community of people rurally doing similar work and that community could aid in my finding of farmland
My journey with land and starting this urban farm came from a place of justice so finding similar year-round or almost year-round operations has been difficult. One of the folks that did inspire me was Soul Fire Farm. But the blueprint of Sundance Harvest truly came from me thinking back a few years ago about what I wanted in the food system as someone who dealt with food injustice her entire life.” - Cheyenne Sundance of Sundance Harvest in Toronto, Ontario
Location and Access to Markets
“Another challenge is that many of my peers who are farmers but don't have land access are interested in an organic, smaller-scale farming that caters to a direct market instead of a grain elevator. Finding a farm or place to grow with a decent proximity to markets and good soil can be a headache.” - Kate Friesen of Singletree Farm LCC in Goshen, Indiana
To continue on to Part 2 of this series, visit Farmland Transitions Part 2.