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How Farmland Conservation is Failing New Farmers

October 2, 2013

The National Young Farmers Coalition, an NSAC member,  released a report this week that reveals how current farmland conservation practices are failing working farmers and new farming opportunity.

Farmland Conservation 2.0: How Land Trusts Can Protect America’s Working Farms surveyed 200 land trust leaders from across the United States and found that one-quarter of land trusts have seen protected farmland move out of production.  Land is leaving agriculture as non-farmers purchase farms at prices beyond what farmers can afford.  As a result, farmers are being pushed hundreds of miles from urban markets as they look for land to buy.

Photo credit: Hearty Roots Farm

“Land access is one of the top challenges for young farmers,” says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Director of the Coalition.  “There are innovative farmland conservation models that can help, but they must be scaled up with new leadership from the land trust community.  We ask land trusts to partner with the next generation of farmers and set a new bar for farmland conservation – one that includes the farmer as an essential component of a successful farm.  Without the farmer, the farm cannot survive.”

Report findings include:

  • 24 percent of land trust respondents said that they have had farmland protected with conservation easements taken out of production.
  • Non-farmers are the #1 threat to the continued use of protected farmland.  Traditional conservation easements are designed to protect farmland from residential and commercial development, but they do not prevent non-farmers from purchasing protected farms as rural estate properties.  Land transitioning away from farmer ownership contributes to the trend of farms being underutilized or taken out of production altogether.
  • Very few land trusts are making use of new tools that ensure farms are owned and managed by qualified farmers and therefore stay in production.  More than two-thirds of land trusts reported that they are not using these tools.
  • Young farmers represent valuable partners for land trusts seeking to protect working farms, but only 18 percent of land trusts reported that they are helping to transition working farmland to the next generation of farmers.
  • Bringing farmland affordability strategies to scale will require incentives from public and private sector funders of the land conservation community, professional development training, and strategies to minimize perceived risks for land trust boards.

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) was founded by three farmers in the Hudson Valley who were struggling to find affordable land.  Located within 150 miles of New York City, the Hudson Valley has a long and important history of growing food for urban residents.  In recent decades, however, agriculture in the valley has been threatened.  With development pressure and interest in establishing rural estates by non-farmers, the farmland that once supported vibrant family farms is being taken out of active food production.

The food sheds surrounding many American cities share the same challenges as the Hudson Valley.  In these urban-influenced regions that now grow 91 percent of the nation’s fruits, tree nuts and berries and 78 percent of its vegetables and melons, land is increasingly out of the reach of working farmers.

In order to guarantee our nation’s food security, farmland within broad urban ‘foodsheds’ must be made permanently accessible to, and therefore permanently affordable to, working farmers.  When non-farmers own the land base, farmers lack the security and equity they require to build successful and profitable farm businesses.  By owning land, farmers are more likely to invest in conservation projects, and employ long-term stewardship strategies to build soil and lessen any harmful impacts of farming.

Farm Bill Opportunity

The Senate version of the farm bill currently being debated in Congress includes provisions that would focus federal conservation easement program dollars to easements that protect farm viability for future generations.  As Congress works to fashion a new farm bill, there is a great opportunity to not only adopt the Senate-passed language, but to more vigorously shift the focus of the program to better respond to the needs of beginning farmers and ensure that federal funding is directed to national priorities — such as growing a new generation of farmers and ensuring the productive capacity of our nation’s farmland.  With 70 percent of the nation’s farmland expected to transition in the next two decades, now is the time to permanently protect affordable farmland for farmers.

Click here to download a copy of the report, and click here to read a related op-ed in the New York Times, “Keep Farmland for Farmers” written by Lindsey Lusher-Shute and Benjamin Shute, farmers and co-founders of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

This post was reprinted with modifications with permission from the National Young Farmers Coalition. 

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

One response to “How Farmland Conservation is Failing New Farmers”

  1. […] Young Farmers Coalition, the organization that released the op-ed, is an NSAC member). So, I wanted share what they had to say with […]