August 10, 2017

Organization works to put farmer, farmland together

Farmers across New England are faced with new challenges every day, including the issue of finding the right piece of land to farm. As a part of its undertaking to help farmers overcome these challenges, the Department of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont continues its efforts with the Land Access Project to help transition farmers, landowners, conservation organizations, service providers, communities and policymakers throughout New England.

The Land Access Project is entering its final year of a three-year timeline. This project builds from the first phase of Land Access, which took place from 2010 to 2013, and focused on improving and coordinating access to resources and services available for farmland. This current phase is structured around land access and transfer networking.

“The project was designed to make it easy for farmers to get a look at farms that are available throughout New England, and also to direct farmers and landowners to the whole array of services and resources to help them make that successful match,” said Ben Waterman, land access coordinator of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Waterman, based at UVM, works with colleagues in the New England Farm Link Collaborative in all six new England states. The collaborative includes 40 collaborating organizations such as Connecticut Farm Link, Maine Farm Link, Land For Good, and Vermont Land Link. All programs work to connect those seeking farmland and farmland holders.

“There are a lot of challenges that farmers face and we are the task force on the project to address some of the issues,” Waterman said. “Some of the issues we are helping farmers overcome are the time it takes to find farmland; it takes more time than a lot of farmers expect to find good land that’s a good fit for them. We are working to connect some of the farmers entering the trade with some of the farmers exiting. In addition to the transition of businesses from tax planning, legal structuring, creating a concrete exit strategy for retirement, and the list goes on.”

According to statistics released by American Farmland Trust, it has never been more important to protect New England’s threatened farms and farmland. Farming has an enduring presence in the six-state region — from the dairy farms and maple sugarhouses of Vermont, to the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts, and blueberry fields of Maine. Farmland in New England spans four million acres, and helps sustain a population of approximately 15 million people in the region; 16 million acres of farmland is needed, with approximately three billion farm products sold in New England in 2012, and that number continues to rise.

“With all the collabs, we are chipping away at several issues with innovative ways to increase service providers’ services,” said Kathryn Ruhf, senior program director at Land For Good, a Keene, New Hampshire, nonprofit that was involved in the first phase of Land Access. “The project supports land access and transfer networking in each state, while developing and improving farm link programs. It will develop an innovative curriculum for succession and transfer assistance through teams of service providers and attorneys. In addition to tenure innovations, as it is difficult to sustain and renew and attain tenure. The project will build a stronger service provider network through pushing public programs to get on land more securely, educate the public, and improve public policies.”

Farmer, landowner and “agronomy” outreach professional at the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil and Pasture — UVM Extension-Middlebury, Rico Balzano, and his family, sold their 40-acre farm, Little Lake Orchard, in Wells this past February. The family relocated Little Lake Orchard to expand their heritage pigs and non-genetically modified grains on a farm in Pawlet. Their farm in Wells included a house, barn and fruit orchard.

“We feel very fortunate to have sold our property so fast. It can be challenging today to find the right piece of land and make a profit. Due to this challenge, several farmers today are either leasing land, apprenticing, or working for someone else,” Balzano said.

Balzano explained that there is a disconnect between landowners and land seekers. An even larger issue: he stressed that today’s market poses greater financial barriers for first-time farmers.

“Getting into farming today has required more and more capital. There is a large capital outlay. Land seekers really have to get out there today and do some footwork to find the right piece of land that’s a good fit for them. The project provides the physical outreach required to get them connected and in the loop,” Balzano said.

The UVM Extension Land Access Project helps new and existing farmers find the land they need to sustainably grow crops and raise livestock while building financially viable businesses.

The Land Access Project is almost exclusively supported by external resources for funding. The $640,000 project was funded through a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, in addition to the organizations, agencies and firms across the region matched funds totaling $160,000, according to Ruhf.

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