The National Young Farmers Coalition recently hosted a full-day land trust training on a Sunday in sunny Sacramento. After several weeks of back-to-back travel, was I really ready to spend my precious weekend learning about preserving farmland? Everything I do in my work, everything I eat and much of what I wear relies on a farmer and the farmland to sustain it. With so much of my very being linked to farmland, I was destined and driven to attend this event.
I walked in the door with the foreknowledge that our farmers are old and getting older in the U.S.; some perhaps too old to keep farming. According to the 2012 Ag Census, the average American farmer is 58+ years old. I also knew tangentially that farmland is at risk of development, urban sprawl and rising land values. It’s increasingly difficult for those who want to farm to affordably gain access to the soil, the very earth that sustains us.
What I did not realize until I entered that portal is that there are a great many dedicated souls applying their skills and expertise to making access to land more available for young and beginning farmers. I walked into a room full of not only brilliant but passionate people.
A vivacious woman from Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, my birthplace, was thoroughly possessed with restoring real food to the Iowa landscape, not just corn for feed and fuel. There is a real crisis going on in my home state. Vast swaths of agriculture grace the landscape yet Iowans import more than 90% of the food they eat from out of state. More than half of Iowa farmland is owned by people over 65 and one-third is owned by people over 75. How will they keep this land producing real food for the next generations?
An earnest man from Vermont Land Trust was institutionally revered and committed to holding on to the heritage of small landholders, dairymen, vegetable farmers, orchardists and cheese-makers. His mission: preserving the traditions of those who have worked the land since time out of mind.
A group of sincere folks from the Bay Area Peninsula Open Space Trust was looking to protect and care for open space, farms and parkland in and around the Silicon Valley, a hotbed of development. Sure the views are beautiful and thus the land values have skyrocketed as more entrepreneurs amass new fortunes, but where will the farmers land? This group is seeking innovative approaches to bring organic agriculture to local schools as a way of reuniting children and their parents to the soil and their food.
I was delighted to discover there were even some organizations that the UNFI Foundation had played a small part in funding, such as California FarmLink and Pie Ranch. Even though I was a newbie, a neophyte, I played a small part in helping this community do their good work
I had driven this long distance through harrowing traffic to become a sponge, to learn, and unravel the acronyms of preserving farmland and helping new farmers gain affordable access to land. I was dedicated, from the roots of my Germanic farming heritage to become part of the solution. My grandparents had taught me that everyone is connected to the land and it is indeed paramount to living. Even if we didn’t have a full-fledged farm, our entire backyard was tilled, hoed cultivated and fertilized lovingly to grow food for the dinner table. Access to land meant you would never be hungry and your family would thrive from the living soil.
What Did I learn?
I discovered that farmland conservation can be orchestrated in a variety of ways to ensure that the land is farmed in perpetuity. If you want to conserve the land, you can create long-term leases where the farmer earns equity from their lease. The land owner or trust can also lease the building structures to the farmer so they can make improvements. You can build public access measures into the leases so there is more visibility and interactive involvement with the community.
To protect farmland you can stipulate resale price restrictions such as the option to purchase at agricultural value, or OPAV. This means the land is always valued at the current price of farmland, not development value should it be resold in the future. Conservation agreements can be written so there is an active farming requirement for a “qualified farmer” which is specifically defined. You can even stipulate that it must be farmed under organic certification!
I began to grasp the many opportunities and challenges for funding farm conservation easements. Money can come from traditional federal programs, from state and local land trusts or from local fundraising initiatives. For instance a community in Massachusetts yearning to save and maintain their local CSA fundraised over $200,000 to conserve and preserve their local farm and farmers. Indeed it often takes a village, a community to make it all happen.
What I gained from that weekend was indeed a new community, a community of hardworking, knowledgeable people dedicated to assuring that farmers can affordably farm the land that surrounds us. These folks are laboring to ensure that farmland stays in the farming community and is passed down elegantly and affordably from one farmer to another. Through these conservation programs they are helping us reclaim our connection to the soil, our nourishment and increase our culinary delights.
I walked away honored to be part of this community.