In my last post, I noted that we do not have enough young and beginning farmers to replace those who will retiring or otherwise changing control or ownership of their farms. In this post, I will cover why they have trouble getting access to land.
It is ironic that young farmers who grew up on a farm listed their top challenge is securing adequate access to land, according to an American Farm Bureau Federation survey in 2014. However, if your parents are raising a thousand acres of corn or running a 300-acre dairy, they need all of that land in order to make a living.
For those who did not grow up on a farm, getting started in Maryland is more daunting. Maryland’s farmland values are roughly three times the national average, and much higher around the lucrative urban centers. It simply does not make financial sense to buy the property to farm unless one has other income sources and can consider the land as an investment to resell.
Leasing is not necessarily the go-to solution either. Farm families who no longer can farm their properties tend to reach out to other farmers that they know to lease their land. There is comfort in knowing another farmer’s history and trustworthiness and commodity farmers impose the least conditions on use of the land. They do not require fencing or irrigation to water their corn, soybeans or wheat. Since they do not need to make major investments in the land, they will accept shorter lease terms. However, most young farmers and beginning farmers (who did not grow up on a farm) cannot afford the huge tractors, combines and tractor trailers needed to produce commodity crops.
Despite all of these challenges, some young farmers and beginning farmers are finding properties to farm. The reason is what I call the “affection factor.” That is, the young and beginning farmers’ affection for farming that overcomes obstacles and/or the farmland owners’ affection for these young or beginning farmers, such that make accommodations for them despite the reasons stated above. In Maryland, 603 farmers under 35 were farming as of the 2012 census, which is great, but only a fraction of the number needed to manage the Maryland farms as the older generations retire.
Some of the beginning farmers are farming properties that are not suited to large-scale agriculture, such as a three-acre lot with a field and a house, but may be perfect for a young or beginning farmer wanting to try market vegetable farming. Others have found generous farmers who have a few acres to spare. At Maryland FarmLINK, we are working with land owners and realtors throughout the state to identify those properties and post them on the Property Exchange, a free service. We provide free online resources about zoning, land preservation easements, leasing documents, etc. But as a society, we need to do more. We need to improve communication between young and beginning farmers and farm owners who have retired or who bought a farm but do not farm it. If you have suggestions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-274-1922 ext. 1.
Meanwhile, if they find land to purchase or lease, will young and beginning farmers have the needed infrastructure to succeed? We will cover that in the next post.