I recently had the opportunity to attend the national conference on land tenure and land access, Changing Lands, Changing Hands, hosted by Land for Good in the mile high city of Denver, CO. As an agricultural educator who provides services to beginning farmers, this was the place to be! Land access and affordability continues to be among the top challenges beginning farmers face, and increasingly so, as we see more non-heir farmers taking root in the countryside.
Daniel Bigelow, Research Agricultural Economist with the USDA Economic Research Service shared some important, and a bit alarming, statistics with us from the 2014 Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) survey, which are important in understanding the barrier farmers are up against. For instance, the survey found that of 911 million acres of farmland in the U.S., 39 percent are owned by non-operators. In 2014, more than 2 million landowners rented out 353.8 million acres of land for agricultural use. Of these landowners, 87 percent were non-farm operators, and the remaining 13 percent were farmers and ranchers.
So, a lot of land that is not owned by farmers, is being rented out to farmers. These numbers suggest two important trends that are important to beginning farmers. First, over half of farm operator renters need to rent from multiple landlords in order to meet their land needs. Second, of the non-operator land rental arrangements with farmers, many of these agreements and leases continue for multiple years (some 10 years or longer).
For smaller scale, diversified beginning farmers the existing rental barriers are very real. If you cannot afford to buy farmland yet, or if you prefer to lease land before buying it, you may find yourself negotiating with multiple landlords, or simply having a hard time breaking the existing tenant/landlord relations that are trending towards longer term arrangements. These statistics shed some light on the larger land issue, but not necessarily a bright one.
While all of this may be frustrating to a beginning farmer trying to gain land and start a sustainable business, with a clear vision, a plan in place, and the right guidance and support, there can be a path forward. Nearly every land tenure and land access expert at the table had the same advice to share.
First, what are your goals? Not just your farm goals, but your personal life goals? What matters most to you? What are your income goals? Have you sat down to think about this before? Often, we get so caught up in the dream that we don’t think through the logistics of that dream. Sitting down with your family and business partners, and drafting a clear vision for your life and business are absolute keys to success. Without that lighthouse to guide you, it may be easy to get lost at sea.
Second, once you understand your goals and your vision, you need to understand the financial implications of those goals. Without financial stability, both in your personal and professional farming life, there will be no way to support your ultimate vision. If you are fresh out of college, or entering farming as a second career with no previous experience, no land, and no capital, then buying the 500 acre farm in a rural town, 75 miles from a big city, to start a diversified vegetable operation may not be the best place to start. Know what you can afford, but also know what kind of investment the enterprises you want to have will cost you over the long haul.
You may be saying to yourself, “This all sounds great, but I don’t have the time or knowledge to do any of this.” OEFFA has designed several educational opportunities to help support you in this process, whether you are an aspiring farmer still planning out the dream farm, or whether you are an early career farmer looking to solidify your farm plan.
The Farm Vision workshop, held in Columbus on Sunday, October 15, is a 4 hour course designed to help you clarify your goals and assess your strengths and weaknesses in preparing for your farm business. This workshop is for aspiring farmers in the very early stages of starting or thinking about starting a farm.
The Heartland Farm Beginnings® program, designed for early career farmers with some experience, is a 10 part intensive winter course (October 2017-February 2018), which provides 60 hours of learning to help guide you in whole farm planning from a holistic management perspective. In addition to the 10 classroom sessions, fees include a two day registration to the 2018 OEFFA Conference, business plan development, creation of a Growing Season Learning Plan, and mentoring opportunities with experienced farmers. This is a field-tested, farmer-led training program with proven results: 71 percent of Farm Beginnings® graduates were still farming in 2016.
For those looking for land, or trying to sell or lease land, OEFFA can also help assist by connecting you to our landowner and land seeker listing. By completing a landowner survey, or land seeker survey, you’ll be connected to dozens of others in your region, and you might find a match. OEFFA also holds a Farmland of Opportunity networking event at our annual conference.
The bottom line is that there are resources and support systems in place to help you succeed in the development or expansion of your farm business, and you simply need to learn where they are and how to use them. If you want to learn more about our Begin Farming offerings, or have questions, please email me or give me a call at (614) 421-2022. We are here for you, farmers!