Organic Broadcaster

Facilitating Beginning Farmer Access to Farmland

By Jody Padgham and Jan Joannides 

 

A farmland access story: Singing Hills Farm   

Lynne Reeck grew up on a farm, and like many young women, left the farm for other pursuits. Following her graduate work, she established a successful career in the Twin Cities including work as a writer and producer at Twin Cities Public Television where she won a Daytime Emmy. Yet, like a good dream, farming tugged at her spirit. In 1996, after returning to work for local farms, Lynne purchased the land and buildings that became Singing Hills Farm – 25 acres of rolling hills and prairie grasslands near Northfield, Minnesota. In 2008, she launched Singing Hills Dairy, a farmstead creamery and cheesemaking business. Her incredibly fresh cheeses are a favorite of customers at the Minneapolis Mill City Farmers’ Market and customers of local CSAs. 

The farmland of Singing Hills Dairy shares a property line with Big Woods State Park, also a haven for birds and other wildlife. An aerial shot of the area shows the deep contrast between Singing Hills and neighboring farms, which are mostly raising corn and soybeans. 

While statistics tell us that the average age of farmers is on the rise, the data doesn’t often talk about how farmers retire, or “exit” farming. The truth is that no one likes to talk about this. For some families, a next generation has farmed alongside parents, and if everyone is on the same page, the farm can be transitioned to the next generation while elderly family members are cared for. However, this is no longer the norm. If there aren’t descendants, or if someone is farming alone, the trajectory becomes complicated. 

This brings us back to Lynne, who has been farming alone with an incredible determination to fulfill a bigger picture that includes land protection, human connection, and local food access. She has long realized that more people need a connection to each other, the land, to the ability to grow food and importantly to nature. Now her farm and business require the energy levels and physical stamina of the next generation of humans. The reality is that most farmers, especially those farming alone, do not have the depth of staff or potential workers to choose from for succession. Because of hefty debt few, if any, farmers have retirement accounts that would allow them to stay on their farm. Instead, the equity in their farm is often only able to provide a sustainable future by continuing the intensive labor. And for small farmers, that cost is finite. 

Lynne made the decision that she needs to retire from the physical labor of farming. In keeping with her dreams, and as someone with a heart of gold who values building community, she would like her farm to be transitioned to young farmers who have been historically ignored, prohibited, or discouraged from owning their own farm. If she could give her farm away, she would. That is an economic position few farmers hold. 

Up until now, Lynne’s exit options to align her hopes and values with her financial reality have been typical: try to find a buyer herself, sell the farm through a realtor, or sell her farm at auction. Pursuing those options became another full-time job for Lynne. Fortunately, she reached out to a network of individuals and organizations for help. One of these connections was Renewing the Countryside (RTC), which coordinates the Farmland Access Hub. Lynne’s situation is not unique, and RTC and other Farmland Access Hub partners have been grappling with how to help farmers who are ready to transition out of farming do so in a way that supports their own future while also helping new farmers.   

A serendipitous call between Jan Joannides at RTC and Alison Volk at American Farmland Trust (AFT) sparked a possibility – a way to pilot an innovative model (with a long history on the U.S. coasts) that could enable Lynne to retire from farming while making this land more affordable for the next farmer. Jan, Alison, and Farmland Access Navigator Jennifer Nelson, who works for MOSES, developed the following plan: 

 1)     American Farmland Trust purchases the land at market rate – thus enabling Lynne to exit farming in a way that enables her to pay off her farm loans, find a new place to live, and set off on her next chapter with a modest income. 

2)     Funds are raised to place an agricultural conservation easement on the property, which protects the farm from either being developed or being used for non-farming uses (i.e. sold to someone as a second home or rural estate). 

3)     The easement is placed on the property – and in doing so the “value” of the property for resale is decreased. * 

4)     Concurrently, a process starts to identify a good match between a new farm family and the farm business. 

5)     The new farm family works with AFT to either purchase or lease-to-own the farm from AFT at a significantly reduced cost. 

6)     RTC, AFT, and other orgs and farmers provide support to the new farm family to ensure they are positioned to succeed. 

Since the spring of 2021, efforts have been underway to see if this plan could be realized, and the answer is yes! But it is going to take a village.  

Placing an easement on the land requires that the value of the easement be “purchased.” The value of the easement for the Singing Hills property is $150,000. RTC and AFT have just started a fundraising campaign to raise this amount. “This is a big task and a bit daunting for an organization of our size, but this could be a game changer, providing a pathway to help get more sustainable farmers on the land, and at a time in history that only those with deep pockets, or with families with deep pockets, can afford to enter farming,” says RTC Executive Director, Jan Joannides. “Equally important is that this model provides older farmers a dignified pathway to retire from farming.” 

RTC and AFT are not the only ones excited about this model. Jackie Rolfs & David Servertson have been customers of Singing Hills Dairy for many years, regularly purchasing cheese at the Mill City Farmers Market. When they heard about Lynne’s desire to both protect the land for farming and transition the farm to a beginning farmer or farmer of color, they were intrigued. They began talking about what they might do to support the vision and after a conversation with RTC and AFT, committed to making a matching contribution of $10,000 towards the easement fund. 

“We’ve always made donations to organizations and causes we believe in, but we’re at a point in our lives where we feel like we can do more, and this really resonates with our values,” says Jackie. “Our kids are grown and established in their own careers, so we’re at a place where we can make a larger contribution. We talked to our kids about this, and they were supportive, just requesting that they get to visit at some point and meet the goats!” 

How you can help 

Renewing the Countryside is looking for more people like Jackie and David willing to make a contribution toward the Singing Hills endowment. “Reaching our financial goal will ensure that Lynne can leave her beloved farm feeling secure about her future, while also helping a new farm family get a great start,” says Jan. “Please email (jan@rtcinfo.org) or call me (612-251-7304) if you’d like to contribute, learn more, or help with the campaign.” 

Renewing the Countryside and American Farmland Trust only see this as the beginning. They have begun discussions about how to further develop this model in the Midwest, to make this possibility of conservation easement purchase and the resulting reduced purchase price, available to other new farmers. If you would like more information or to contribute to this effort, visit https://www.renewingthecountryside.org/easement 

The bigger farmland access story 

Singing Hills is one exciting highlight in the realm of farmland access, which evolved out of the broader, collective effort of the Midwest Farmland Access Hub – a growing collective of over twenty organizations working together to help beginning farmers secure improved access to land. Renewing the Countryside has served as the convener of the collective, and the work has been supported by the Bush Foundation, the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), Lakewinds Food Co-op, and Compeer Financial. A new, three-year BFRDP grant will launch a new configuration where each state will have its own lead.  

Whereas twenty organizations were involved in the first iteration, the goal is to double that number in the next two years and to add more support service providers (attorneys, accountants, realtors) as members of the Hub. Renewing the Countryside, MOSES and PFI will each play a role in developing this diverse group of partners into three state Hubs. The diagram below provides our plan for the structure. (Partners in Illinois are following our model and also collaborating with our work. All members of the Hub will participate in a Farmland Access Summit in 2022) 

What’s at the Core? 

The core of the Farmland Access Hub’s success has been the work of the Farmland Access Navigators. Eight navigators have worked with 284 farmer clients, assisting them in developing farmland access plans, answering questions, connecting them to resources, and offering information and support. As a result 64 beginning farmer clients have either purchased farmland or secured stable leases.  

Under our new funding the current navigators will continue their work and we will also bring on new navigators with a goal of helping more BIPOC farmers access land. Our plan is to train new navigators who are from, or have deep connections to, BIPOC communities, and have them focus their efforts on assisting farmers from their communities.   

As a result of this work, we envision a multitude of thriving small and mid-scale farms supporting generations of farmers and their communities across the upper Midwest, advancing resilient and sustainable farming practices, establishing racial and ethnic equity in land access, and reversing persistent patterns of land loss and rural decline. Please join us in this important work!  

 *For more information on farmland easements, see Land trusts, easements improve land access for new farmers by Erin Schneider, May-June 2021 Organic Broadcaster. 

Ways to get involved:  Farmers wanting to rent or buy land visit www.renewingthecountryside.org/farmlandaccess.

You can check out our Farmland Access Navigator team, and fill out an intake form. A Navigator will contact you to discuss how we can help, including: 

  • Clarifying your goals.
  • Identifying priorities for suitable farmland.
  • Fostering and building networks to help in the search.
  • Develop basic literacy about types of financing available.
  • Reviewing personal financial readiness. 
  • Assessing technical and practical farming skills readiness.
  • Studying elements of good and equitable farmland leases.
  • Reviewing suitability of specific farms.
  • Providing specialized knowledge, expertise, and connections to professionals for further assistance.

Attorneys, realtors, lenders, land surveyors, or other professionals interested in helping beginning farmers get on the land contact jody@rtcinfo.org to participate in our Farmland Access Hub and receive resources and training on how to best help new and beginning farmers.   

Owners of farmland they’d like to sell or rent – contact us! While the Farmland Access Hub is not a listing place for farmland, (see those resources listed here renewingthecountryside.org/farmlandaccessresources) we do find it helpful to hear about farmland. Our Navigators refer to the listings on the resource pages often. We will also be offering some meetup opportunities between landowners and farmland owners over the next few years. 

Current Farmland Access Partners:

Minnesota 

Big River Farms/The Food Group 

Compeer Financial 

Farmers’ Legal Action Group 

Hmong American Farmers Association 

Kilimo MN 

Lakewinds Food Co-op 

Land Stewardship Project 

Latino Economic Development Center 

Minnesota Department of Agriculture 

Minnesota Farmers Union 

MN Institute for Sustainable Agriculture 

MN Central Chapter – NYFC 

Northern Plains Sustainable Ag 

Renewing the Countryside 

SE MN Agrarian Commons 

Sustainable Farming Association 

Twin Cities Community Ag Land Trust 

University of Minnesota Extension 

  

Wisconsin 

American Farmland Trust 

MOSES 

University of Wisconsin Extension 

Wisconsin Farmers Union 

  

Iowa 

Iowa Valley RC&D 

Lutheran Services in Iowa 

Practical Farmers of Iowa 

Sustainable Iowa Land Trust 

  

Illinois 

Liberty Prairie Foundation 

The Conservation Fund 

The Land Connection 

 

 National 

Iroquois Valley Farms 

Land for Good 

National Young Farmers Coalition 

 

Jan Joannides is the Executive Director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside where Jody Padgham is a writer and administrator. 

 

From the November | December 2021 Issue

 

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