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A Link to Farming’s Future

Agencies help aspiring growers find land, good advice

March 14, 2007 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Julie Hay/MLUI
  Californian Fred Hempel is one of many young farmers who was able to get started thanks to a state program matching new growers with affordable land and experienced farmers.

David Hufcut and his wife, Amy, rise at 5:30 each morning, their three children still snug in bed in their old farmhouse. David makes a mug of coffee and they head out to their milking barn, a vista of steep Pennsylvania mountains rising beyond their flat fields.

There they milk 45 cows, five at a time, in 15-minute sessions. The cows, used to the routine, move easily from where they bed down to the milking stalls when the Hufcuts arrive.

"They know it’s milking time," Mr. Hufcut said. "Sometimes you can call them and they will come up. They know my voice. They know my wife’s voice."

This life is a dream come true for Mr. Hufcut, who is 36; his family farmed for four generations in downstate New York. But it was a dream nearly dashed: In 1998, high taxes spurred by sprawling development from nearby New York City—and a nearly complete lack of help for farms in urbanizing areas—forced him to give up on taking over the family farm.

So, instead, Mr. Hufcut took a construction job while he searched in another state for another farm that he could afford. Finally, in 2000, after constantly bumping up against high land or cattle prices, he discovered Pennsylvania Farm Link, a nonprofit organization that, like about 25 similar programs in 19 states, connects beginning farmers to farmland that is available for lease or sale—as farmland, not as development property.

The Pennsylvania Farm Link program saved Mr. Hufcut’s dream, and he’s hardly the only one such programs have helped. In fact, similar programs are helping America find, encourage, and nurture its next generation of farmers.

Looking for Land
Driving the rise of farm link programs are growing concerns that, these days, few Americans are interested in farming. Low bulk commodity prices make it difficult for farmers to earn a living, while high land prices make it difficult to buy land: Together, those obstacles make young farmers a rarity. In fact, in the U.S., only about 6 percent of principal farm owners or partners are 35 years old or younger—a big falloff from just 25 years ago, when 16 percent were that young, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In fact, the farm population is aging rapidly. More than one in four principal partners or owners of farms are at least 65 years old; less than 30 years ago, it was one in six, according to the USDA. Only 40 percent of those older farmers say they have a succession plan in place; among all farmers, USDA says, it’s just 27 percent

But there are still plenty of people who really want to farm. The list includes children of long-time farming families, like Mr. Hufcut. But they also include non-farm families who have no chance of inheriting a farm, young people inspired by a growing desire among consumers to buy fresh food locally from people they know, and immigrants and migrant workers who already know all about farming and the hard work it requires.

In fact, according to the National Farm Transition Network, a national coalition of farm link programs, people who sign up with such programs to buy or lease farmland outnumber those who want to sell their land by 10 to 1. That explains why a Pennsylvania Farm Bureau survey of young farmers found that their biggest challenge was access to land.

A Farm ‘Dating Service’
Mr. Hufcut’s application to Pennsylvania Farm Link was one of six that the organization gave to George and Suzanne Lanborn, a 70s-ish couple who wanted a comfortable retirement and could have easily sold out to developers. But they wanted to see their land farmed by another generation. So Mr. Hufcut signed a five-year lease with the Lanborns with an option to purchase at the end—a purchase that became final just this last year.

"I compare them to a dating service," Mr. Hufcut said of Pennsylvania Farm Link. "You send in a questionnaire about yourself and they try to find a match. And they found a match for me. I didn’t think it would ever happen."

As with any "dating" service, a personal ad is just the beginning; lasting matches come through building relationships and being frank about needs, desires, and shared values. The Lanborns, for example, turned down one applicant when they learned that the farmer had lost a contract with a wholesale milk processor. This told the Lanborns that the farmer must not have run a clean operation—and they only wanted to sell to a farmer who knew how to manage a farm well.

In addition, there are many ways for older farmers to transfer a farm—from simple wills, trusts, tax incentives, and payment scenarios to business partnerships that allow young farmers to "work in" to ownership over time. And there are just as many ways to help young farmers who need mentoring and ways to build some income and equity before they can actually buy a farm.

As a result, many farm link programs have now become more than simple listing and matching services. They now offer a full range of programs, including estate and retirement planning assistance for older farmers and business planning assistance for young farmers. Many programs hold farm retirement and entry workshops, and provide or link farmers to resources such as retiring and beginning farmer handbooks, referrals to attorneys and other professionals knowledgeable about crafting farm retirement and land transfer options, and loan and marketing assistance for beginning farmers.

More Service, More Sales
When farm link programs expand their services to help out individual farmers, it makes a difference, said Ed Staehr, communications director for NY FarmLink. Until 2002 the program, housed at Cornell University, was a simple listing service. Then, the New York State Assembly invested $100,000 in the program to add a wider range of retirement and business services. Last year the program saw 31 business transfers to new-generation farmers and 18 additional new business partnerships. That compares to about five a year when Cornell had a simple listing service of buyers and sellers.

Iowa State University Extension also provides a range of services. Its Farm On-Beginning Farmer Center administrator, John Baker, likens it to chambers of commerce providing services for main street businesses.

"If we can keep these farms and move them to the next generation, it is rural economic development," he said.

California FarmLink, another ambitious program, has added the country’s first-ever farm-focused Individual Development Account program to its wide array of services. IDAs, which are more common in urban economic development programs, provide federal and local matching dollars to cash and equity-strapped entrepreneurs.

California FarmLink provides $300 for every $100 a month a beginning farmer saves over two years. The farmer, who’s also required to take part in training programs and networking with other farms for a collegial support system, end up with $9,600 that can go toward a down payment on land or to purchase equipment. Michigan State University has started a similar pilot IDA program for farms in two counties south of Grand Rapids. (The Michigan Farm Bureau has a farm link program that, so far, is mostly a listing service.)

Farm link programs are also helping to transfer farms to other family members, not just to strangers. In fact, many more farms would stay in farming if the families used such services more often, said Marion Bowlan, executive director of Pennsylvania Farm Link. Without serious advanced planning, she said, thorny family relationships and delayed or unclear communication can spell doom for keeping a farm in farming.

Ms. Bowlan said she sees heart-breaking letters from farmers in their 40s who helped their parents work the farm year after year with the understanding that they’d take over the farm someday, only to then have siblings with no interest in farming stake out claims for a financial inheritance when development prices soared.

"They’d been promised the farm all along, but they never had it in writing," she said.

What Really Matters
The Lanborns faced a possible similar challenge with their three adult children, none of whom is interested in farming. Fortunately, things turned out very well on that account.

"Other than selling it for development they wouldn’t have been interested in it at all, and we didn’t want it to go to development," Mrs. Lanborn said of her kids. "Both my husband and I can go back to the beginning of America with families that are farmers. If we don’t have agriculture, what are you going to eat? They came to realize it was the right thing for us to do."

The Lanborns could have earned substantially more money selling to developers, said Ms. Bowlan, but they now have just what they need: a comfortable retirement. They arranged their sale to the Hufcuts so that the new owners pay them monthly, providing them with a steady income rather than one lump sum payment.

"We do better doing this than we did when we were farming," Mrs. Lanborn said. "We have more money to spend now than we did than. We may go to Europe and Australia."

Nonetheless, David Hufcut calls the Lanborns "guardian angels" for being willing to sell to a young farmer like him.

"I couldn’t repay them in the next 100 years," he said. "I always said someone gets one break in life. They were our break. I hope I can someday return a favor like they did for us. That is all I can hope for."

Diane Conners coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference and Farm to Cafeteria projects. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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