No Land to Lease

Even before they began looking for land, Cara Fraver and Luke Deikis had a name picked out for their farm. Quincy Farm, they imagined, would be within 200 miles of New York City and would grow organic vegetables, which they would sell at farmers' markets and to members of a community-supported agriculture group. They didn't know much about farming, but they were accomplished gardeners eager to work a plot larger than their Brooklyn backyard.

Like many new farmers, Fraver and Deikis were drawn to agriculture by activist calls to reform the country's food system. They saw an opportunity to start a business that tapped into urban food markets for locally grown organic food. Between 2000 and 2008, sales of organic food have almost quadrupled according to industry sources, and by the end of that period, 4.1 million acres of U.S. farmland were growing USDA-certified organic crops. While the proportion of beginning farmers among all farm operators has declined more than 10 percent since the United States Department of Agriculture began keeping track in 1982, a growing group of purposeful newcomers is showing up at farm conferences, interning on farms, and looking to get in on the local-food wave.

For many of these beginners, the biggest hurdle is the first: finding land and figuring out how to pay for it. It took Fraver and Deikis about five years to purchase land. They started trying to leave Brooklyn in 2007, but they soon realized it would be too expensive to buy a plot; at the time, they couldn't justify the financial risk. In 2008, they began apprenticing on farms while drafting a business plan and saving money. But even after they again began looking seriously for land, it took about two more years before they closed on a deal this spring.

Farmland in the United States has been disappearing since World War II, and in the past 50 years, commercial and residential developers have come to control over 20 percent of U.S. farmland. The takeover began slowly at 75 million acres in the first 25 years and ballooned to another 171 million in the second half. What land remains has grown more expensive. Between 2000 and 2008, the real-estate value of farmland more than doubled.

The areas where many beginning farmers want to settle -- close to cities like New York City, Atlanta, or San Francisco -- are places with robust markets for the sustainably grown crops these farmers want to raise. But such locations also have the most expensive land. Property can sell at $6,000, $10,000 an acre, adding up to far greater sums than farmers can expect to repay selling vegetables. When a farmer named Erica Frenay and her husband were seeking land near Ithaca, New York, to raise chickens, turkeys, and pigs for sale (along with vegetables for their family), they resorted to driving around to look for promising tracts and then sending the owners polite letters asking if they would consider selling.

State policies are adjusting to bring the supply of land in line with this new demand. Since the 1970s, one of the most powerful tools for keeping farmland from being developed by other commercial interests has been a conservation easement, which decreases the value of land by stripping it of development rights. In these arrangements, the seller still receives the full assessed value of the land: Nonprofit groups, usually independent land trusts or government conservation programs, chip in to purchase the development rights, and the farmer pays the rest.

When Fraver and Deikis finally did find a farm, just north of the Hudson Valley in Schaghticoke, New York, they used an easement to bring down the land's price. Two conservancy groups, the Open Space Institute and the Agricultural Stewardship Association, pitched in to cover one-third of the land's appraised value.

"It was possible for us to own land because of these land conservancies," Fraver says. "It's still a huge investment" -- hundreds of thousands of dollars, when the average yearly farm income is forecasted to be just $11,174 in 2011. She and Deikis planted their first crops this spring. For now, they are both working off-farm jobs to supplant their farming income but hope to be farming full time by their third year on the land.

While easements preserve land from commercial development, however, Fraver and Deikis have been less successful at guarding against high prices: Retirees or city-dwellers looking for a second home can outbid a capital-poor farmer. Wealthy landowners and ranchers often use conservation easements to decrease their tax burden.

Some land groups and a couple of states are addressing this problem with easement clauses that guarantee affordability. These generally require that the land be used for farming in perpetuity and define farming in a way that excludes wealthy weekend farmers, who may plot a small farm on their vacation home, from eligibility. Massachusetts forbids any activity that would take away from the agricultural viability of the farms in its agricultural preservation program. Since 2004, the Vermont Housing and Consolidation Board has included in its easements an affordability option, which gives the agency the right to purchase the protected farm at its agricultural value should it be sold to a non-farmer.

But Fraver and Deikis and their easement partners were wary of this approach. If a regular conservation easement drops the resale value of the land, an affordability clause drops it even further and is designed to keep it low. Even though the option Fraver and Deikis chose made their land more expensive at the time of purchase, they wanted some confidence that they would get a return on their investment when and if they decided to sell the land. "It's scary to invest so much money into a piece of property and to think that it would be worth the same, or even less, in 30 years," Fraver said.

Increasingly, farmers' advocates are wondering whether it's wise for beginners to buy land at all, when simply leasing land can mean starting a business more quickly and without as much debt. Leasing has always been an option, particularly for beginning farmers. But only about one-third of farmers lease some or all of their land, and it's more common in places like the Midwest, where large-scale farming dominates. Groups such as Land for Good in New England and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture are developing programs that encourage small, beginning farmers to lease land and that are making that process easier.

Right now it's difficult for landowners and potential farming tenants to find each other and tricky to make those relationships work once they're established. Nine out of 10 farm landlords are not farmers. These relationships fall apart for all sorts of reasons -- different expectations, personality clashes, disagreements over issues large (who pays to rewire the barn) and small (how to muck out a pig stall).

Beginning farmers analogize these relationships to romantic entanglements or weird familial situations. Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds began working an older farmer's land in Georgia after he invited them to take it over, and he and his wife were still living on the property. "The analogy I used was: It was a bit like getting married," Winfrey says. "We married the farm, and we moved in with our in-laws. ... It was really awkward."

On the other hand, some landowners have little idea about even farmers' most basic needs. Winfrey has talked to a few local landowners who want their land farmed. "I ask them two questions: Is there a water source, and is the land cleared?" she says. Those are two land conditions farming requires. The answer, to both questions, has usually been no.

Groups like Land for Good hope that educating landowners ahead of time can help avert problems later on. At the very least, it can help set their expectations, which can tend toward the romantic and bucolic, rather than the realistic. "If they're not prepared, more often than not, things can fall apart, and both parties can get really discouraged," says Land for Good's Kathy Ruhf.