On Friday, I will be speaking at the 2014 Maryland Land Conservation Conference. Preparing for the talk: Helping the Next Generation of Farmers Get Access to Farmland, I began to think about how we got to a place where beginning farmers need help getting started.
When I first got involved in land preservation programs in the 1970s, I thought that preserving farming just required preserving farmland. It turns out that is not the case. While I was fortunate to oversee a very successful land preservation program in Calvert County, it took me a long time to notice that we were not doing a good job at helping farmers succeed.
This was not the fault of the farmers. They are generally hard working, resourceful, and dedicated people who know what they are doing. However, more farms were being sold for development and more farm families were leasing their land, rather than farming the land itself. What happened?
Two trends that rocked farming in the 20th century.
The first was specialization and capitalization of farms. As a result of research into fertilizers and pesticides and new and bigger equipment, the green revolution took off. Yields went through the roof and food prices plummeted. Commodity crop payments gave farmers more ability to invest and grow. On the other hand, small to mid-size diversified farms were not able to compete. Either they faded away or they began to specialize and lease land as well.
The second trend affected farming areas close to metropolitan areas the most. In those areas, farms offered for sale were purchased for residential development. Land values increased beyond the ability of farmers to compete for the land. Land preservation programs sprung up but farmers were still impacted by the first trend. A few months ago, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a report entitled Farmland Conservation 2.0: How Land Trusts Can Protect America’s Working Farms. In that report, the authors note that even preserved lands may not be working farms. They cite a survey of 233 land trusts, where 24% of the survey participants had seen protected farms taken out of production. Preserved properties near metropolitan areas tend to have farmland values which are much higher than farmers can afford.
Farmers who have remained in the business are justifiably proud of their efforts to reduce food costs and to feed the world, but many are saddened by the loss of diversity of farms, the loss of farm neighbors and their inability to successfully pass on their trade to a next generation of farmers.
Maryland is now blessed with a local food movement that is giving new life to farming in Maryland. It has produced new markets and agritourism opportunities which have allowed many farmers to retool and become more profitable. Agricultural Marketing Professionals are leading the way in many counties. However, the movement has not yet helped many beginning farmers who are actively seeking access to land.
Maryland has 46 land trusts, plus the Maryland Environmental Trust. Together they played a major role in the preservation of the nearly 800,000 acres of farmland in Maryland. At Friday’s meeting, I will be raising the concern that only 5% of all Maryland farm operators (2012 ag census) are 34 and younger. A recent survey by the American Farm Bureaus Federation reported that the biggest challenge for beginning farmers is gaining access to land. We will be talking about how to make that happen.
I will report on the results of the meeting!