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New service helps beginning farmers access land to grow

By Kate Edwards, Renewing the Countryside

In a 2017 survey conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition, land access was cited as the number one challenge for beginning farmers. To help beginning farmers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota overcome this challenge, Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, has launched the Land Access Hub. With over 20 organizations steering the work, the hub is designed to assist beginning farmers in the often-difficult process of accessing land.

Farmland is increasingly more expensive and less available. In Wisconsin since 1990, the number of farms has decreased by 14%, a net loss of over 400 individual farms per year. (Source: USDA NASS). In Iowa, farmland is three times more expensive than it was in 1990, even after adjusting for inflation. (Source: Iowa State Farmland Values Survey). In Minnesota, farmland availability (number of parcels sold per year) is down 69% since 1990. (Source: MN Land Economics).

The Land Access Hub is funded with a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development grant. The service involves one-on-one coaching of farmers through land access issues and is free to beginning farmers. The hub also provides workshops, webinars, and a farmland access discussion group.

Land Access Hub work started last October with a kick off meeting of the steering committee of partner organizations, which includes representatives from MOSES, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Land Stewardship Project, The Main Street Project, and many other regional farming organizations. Four individuals have been hired to serve as “navigators,” coaching beginning farmers through the land access process. Each of the navigators has personal experience with land access and is uniquely suited to guide beginning farmers through the process. I am the navigator for Iowa; Brett Olson of Renewing the Countryside and Bob Kell are navigators for Minnesota; Lauren Langworthy of MOSES is the Wisconsin navigator.

While these navigators won’t “find you a farm,” they can guide you through the process, be a sounding board, help identify action items, educate on the land access process and be a technical resource.

Here are some tips for beginning farmers from the recent Land Access Boot Camp at the MOSES Conference.

Start with Your Community
Plug into a broader community. MOSES, Land Stewardship Project, Main Street Project, Practical Farmers of Iowa or whatever other broader farming community you are part of AND your local community are the most valuable resources you have to tap into to access land. Take advantage of the conferences, field days, and workshops these organizations offer to improve your farming skills. Don’t neglect learning to farm better while you look for land.

Get Prepared
Take time to be prepared, personally, financially, and technically. If you are a new farmer and are looking to buy right out of the gate, is that the right decision? Maybe. Or maybe leasing for a few years might be a good idea. If you have been farming for a while, you will know more what you need from a farm.

There is a process for finding land. Define what you want, make sure you are ready (technically, financially, and personally), make sure all the stakeholders involved in your life are on board with your vision (family, landowners, etc.), and then start looking for it. As you are preparing, research the financial part of running a farm. Make sure that once you get the land you will know what to do with your product. Find a mentor. Learn from those of have gone before you.

Define Your Farm
It is important to know the attributes of the land that you need—what is necessary, desirable, or optional. Think through the enterprises you are planning. What type of land base will you need? What type of facilities will you need?

It is important to define what you want in a farm at the outset so that when you find a farm to rent or buy you can assess its suitability. Different land is suitable for different enterprises. Knowing what you are looking for before you begin your search will help you avoid choosing land that doesn’t fit your farming needs.

After you have very clearly defined the farm you are looking for, start talking about it—with everyone. This is how connections are made. Then look for farmland in obvious places, but also be creative in your search.

Know Your Options for Land Tenure
The word “tenure” means to hold. There are two basic ways that farmers can own land. They can either own or not own the land. Under each of those options there are many methods of legal structure, but it is important to remember that in the world of so many options it comes down to these two.

According to Land for Good, a New England nonprofit that is a pioneer in land access, the farmland access process comes down to a few key issues. Farmland needs to be available, affordable, appropriate, and secure.

Research Financing Options
There are many options for land tenure. Land prices differ regionally, and in some areas it may be more affordable to rent rather than own. The vast majority of farmers have diverse land tenure situations. It is not uncommon to have a combination of rental and ownership.

Financing is available from many sources, including the Farm Service Agency (a governmental lending agency), Farm Credit (a non-governmental lending agency), banks, state financing (e.g., Iowa Finance Authority), non-traditional investor-lenders (e.g., Iroquois Valley), family or other alternative loans.

The Land Access Hub has technical advisors that are available free of charge to those working one-on-one with a Land Access Navigator. These technical advisors include legal counselors who can assist in the lease or contract process, and experienced farmers who can assist in the farm suitability process.

Kate Edwards has a vegetable CSA at Wild Woods Farm, near Iowa City, Iowa. She’s also the Iowa Land Access Navigator for the Land Access Hub.


From the March | April  2018 Issue

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