By Jen Miller
We walked twenty yards from where the beds were prepped, waiting patiently for the first seeding of the season, when suddenly the ground felt softer. Looking down we noticed sedges and other species indicative of poorly drained soils. The change was just as dramatic as when you are walking through a lush pasture and your foot suddenly meets an outcropping of ledge. No stubbed toes or loss of balance here but when you are a farmer looking for land, either one of these changes is important to notice – and to determine whether they will be problematic in your planned production systems before you sign that lease or purchase agreement.
A group of us were walking around Sunrise Farm in White River Junction at a Land Access workshop for farmseekers coordinated by Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL). Presented by Mike Ghia from Land for Good, our group included current apprentices who dream of having their own farm someday, current farmers with tenuous land arrangements looking for something more stable, farmers in their early twenties, farmers in their mid-fifties, vegetable farmers, livestock farmers, people who were poised to make a purchase as soon as they found land, others who were just trying to determine their financial limitations. This group reflects the current population of beginning farmers, at many different stages for many different reasons.
It will remain to be seen how each of these driven individuals gains access to land, or to more land, or to different land. I won’t launch into the plethora of options that exist for farmers looking for land in Vermont; suffice it to say farmseekers can be as traditional or creative as they choose in their land acquisition processes. One workshop participant who was not a farm seeker but a landowner got me thinking again about one particular fairly common option for gaining access to land- landowners who have open land they are not using leasing their land to farmers.
If structured correctly, the arrangement is one that is mutually beneficial for all involved. Landowners have their land kept open (and open land is worth more than forested land), can receive a per acre payment to help offset ownership costs, and may qualify for the Current Use program and those associated tax benefits. The farmer has a place from which to operate their business. And, though much focus is around owning property, there are also many benefits for farmers when leasing. I personally experienced many of these benefits which included minimizing start-up costs, low debt load, and the flexibility to test the business model, market, and be agile enough to change both. That said, clearly there are trade-offs for the farmer and that landowners should put some energy into envision the “what if” realities of different types of enterprises on your land.
So, how does a landowner go about leasing to a farmer? Some of the best farmer-tenant relationships I know have blossomed from word-of- mouth and personal connections, but those are not the only options for a good farmer-tenant relationship. It is important (and much appreciated) for a landowner to do some due diligence so that they can clearly state what they are offering before starting to connect with farmers. Land linking is a type of matchmaking with the careful intention that should be put into the process to help ensure success. Two web-based services exist on which available properties can be posted – Vermont Land Link and New England Farmland Finder. However, just as with on-line dating, looks may be deceiving – think an old photo of what is now thickly overgrown pasture or a very personable farmer without a business plan who may run into cash flow issues- and services are available to help facilitate the process and draw attention to details neither party, in their sheer excitement of the potential match, may have thought of. And when that landowner and farmer match is made and a mutually beneficial relationship ensues, the working landscape of Vermont is preserved, the local economy strengthened, and someone, maybe even one of the farmseekers at the workshop, gets a chance to make their farm dream a reality.
Jen Miller is RAFFL’s Farm Business Advisor and manages the Farm Business Development program, providing technical services and land access services to emerging and established farmers in the State of Vermont. Jen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in the Rutland Herald on May 17, 2016.
Land Access Services & Landowner Resources for Southern Vermont
Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL)
Land for Good
Vermont Land Link
New England Farmland Finder