Trends in Land Access for Beginning Farmers
My name is Bo Dennis, and I am the beginning farmer program specialist at MOFGA. I am also the farmer at Dandy Ram Farm, a flower farm based in Penobscot territory of Monroe, Maine. I participated in the Journeyperson Program through MOFGA 10 years ago, at which time I was leasing land from another farm. Through my job at MOFGA I have the joy of visiting around 40 farms a year, mostly growers who are in their first few years of business. I am excited to share some of the trends I see on these farms each year and especially want to address this reflection to all the beginning farmers, and farmers that have some extra land out there!
Land Access as a Barrier
Land access continues to be the number one barrier for prospective beginning farmers entering agriculture. With development pressures across Maine’s open lands and significantly increased market prices during COVID-19, barriers to land access for beginning farmers without wealth privilege have only increased. The stressor for land access is increased for farmers of marginalized identities, especially farmers of color and LGBTQ+ farmers who may not feel as safe in rural areas where more farmland is available. The barriers to access farmland have led beginning farmers to get creative of where and how they seek land leasing opportunities to follow their passions.
Here in Maine we farmers are blessed with an incredibly supportive and interconnected community of growers, who are collaborative and excited to lift each other up. This mentality extends to how some farmers are now sharing resources, including land and infrastructure, with one another. Over the past few years, MOFGA has seen an increase in beginning farmers accessing land through relationships with other farmers. Currently around half of our Journeyperson farmers are in relationships like this, leasing land to and from other farmers. Beginning farmers often don’t need a large swath of land so it is easier to “incubate” on another farmer’s smaller underutilized parcel of land. While non-farming landowners are certainly a crucial piece in transitioning land to more agricultural production in the state, current or retiring farmers understand the needs of beginning farmers more holistically. I am hopeful that this pattern continues with more beginning farmers viewing it as an option and farmers with land tenure beyond the current needs of their business seeing this as an opportunity to support the next generation of Maine agrarians.
Things to Consider
If you are a beginning farmer looking to lease land or a farmer that has extra land or resources (think infrastructure, tractor hours or tools) here are some important things to consider when entering these relationships! While these elements also apply to non-farming landowners wishing to support beginning farmers, there may be more steps along the way to familiarize yourself with the needs and realities of a farmer leasing your land.
From the very beginning of this relationship, sharing your values, goals and vision can help ensure a good relationship. What does the land-owning farmer/farmer with secure land tenure have to offer? What are the beginning farmer’s needs? Just land? Land and tools? Tractor hours? Land and tools plus a mentor/mentee relationship? Having clear expectations on all sides and remaining open to modifications will set your relationship up for success. Making a plan to check in about these goals and expectations each year is critical.
- Leases — Have it in Writing!
Please write and sign a lease! Leases are important tools to protect both the landowner and the leasing farmer from damage. As farmers we are all busy and smooth communication seems to be the first thing to dissolve in times of high stress. A handshake agreement about the land and resource sharing is not enough. When conflicts arise in mid-August, a strong written lease that includes conflict resolution procedures can help in working through conflicts and resentments, while supporting the beginning farmer in self advocacy. For a beginning farmer, knowing they will have secure land access for the duration of the growing season will aid them in building and investing in their business. In this lease be sure to outline land management practices such as organic certification, shared uses of the land, utilities management, and a clear process for renewing or terminating the lease.
- Infrastructure and Utilities: Who Pays for What?
If the agreement between an experienced farmer and a beginning farmer includes infrastructure such as space in a seedling greenhouse, barn or a hoophouse, all of these details will need to be included in the lease. The farmer will also specify what infrastructure they own and will be taking with them if/when they transition off that land. It is also important to consider utilities. For example, consider how you will track electric usage for the wash/pack station or gas for the irrigation pump from the farm pond. This tracking specificity will be important for both co-existing businesses to understand these numbers for their individual financial management purposes. Create organization systems for tracking so even if the usage isn’t reconciled until the end of the year, the in-season record keeping is still happening.
- Power Dynamics
Land access determines who is able to follow their farm dreams, who has resources and power, and who is able to get established within the Maine agriculture community. A beginning farmer without long-term land tenure is less resilient in their business, and it is important for all parties to acknowledge this. If you are an experienced farmer, consider how you can use your existing relationships in the Maine farming community to support the beginning farmer in their goals. Something as simple as introducing them to peers can help that newer farmer along in their journey.
Resources to Support You Along the Way!
Land For Good, a New England-based organization, provides comprehensive support for all things land access including assisting in land searches and writing leases. They have resources for both the land-seeking farmer and people wanting to lease their land to beginning farmers. To check out their offering of resources head to landforgood.org or email the Maine field agent for Land For Good, Eliza Baker-Wacks, at [email protected].
No relationship is ever perfect. If you run into conflict or sticking points that would be helpful to involve a third party for support, the Maine Agriculture Mediation Program can be incredibly helpful in moving conversations forward.
If you would like to get in touch about MOFGA’s support for beginning farmers, please email me at [email protected].
This article originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.