Innovative Ways to Save Land for Sustainable Agriculture

An increasing number of young or beginning farmers are seeking land so that they can really dig into sustainable agriculture. but access to land is perhaps the single biggest challenge facing new farmers today. Most young farmers don't have much money, though they are well equipped with energy, determination, and knowledge of sustainable practices. Within the next decade, the USDA predicts that half of all current farmers will retire, many due to aging, which means a lot of in use agricultural land will be up for grabs (some organic, some not so organic). The bad news, however, is that much of that land will be bought up by developers willing to pay a nice price. So what's the poor beginning farmer to do? While some are hopeful that a USDA grants, like the recently opened USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, will prove helpful in the years to come, others have taken a more innovative approach to getting new farmers farming the land. Here's a sampling:

The Living Land Agrarian Network in Nevada City, CA, started as a single farm, but has now grown into a non-profit that includes 4 farms spread over 10 acres on seven parcels of land. While the land is not owned by the farmers themselves, it is secured with unique partnerships with private landowners who are willing and eager to have their unused land transformed into responsibly and ecologically-managed farmland. The land owner reaps the benefits of having a sustainable farm on her property; the farmer benefits by having access to local land; the community benefits by having more local food and dedicated green space. In addition to matching land owners to land seeking farmers, Living Lands emphasizes educational programs, not only for beginning farmers though intensive internships, but also for community members interested in increasing their food security.

In some ways, Living Lands is similar to the initiatives at The Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, but on a smaller scale. The Intervale manages 350 acres of land, much of which is designated for sustainable agriculture, and prioritizes creating opportunities for new farmers. The Intervale leases land, farm equipment, irrigation, greenhouses, etc., to new farmers and currently hosts twelve farms on site, ranging from a chicken farm to CSAs to a berry farm. In addition the the leasing of the essentials, and a whole slew of community programs and other ventures, The Intervale Center works with new farmers to develop business plans and find stable markets for their products to make their farms financially sustainable.

More and more non-profits are finding ways to save farmland in their local communities and connect new farmers to them as well as "incubate" new farm businesses to ensure that they have a real shot at success. Another example  to check out are the Center for Land-Based Learning in Sacramento, CA and The Land Stewardship Program's Farm Beginnings in Minnesota. But there's also a more standard version of saving farmland for farmers that is growing and is just as important. Land stewardship programs through farmland trusts, land preservation groups, the Audubon, etc., procures land and puts it into the hands of farmers who agree to practice sustainable, organic agriculture. Well-managed agricultural land can help preserve and protect local watersheds, habitats, and aid air quality, all things that commercial or real estate development cannot usually offer.

While there are an increasing number of opportunites for new farmers seeking land, we still need to find ways to make land arrangements that are secure and give farmers more agency, as well as strategies for helping farmers with little credit to be able to borrow for land. Creating new avenues to land is one of the main platforms of the National Young Farmer's Coalition for the next Farm Bill in 2012. Promote the cause!