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Farmland connections

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Northwest Nichigan's Get Farming! program offers business training, mentors, farmland connections, and more for aspiring and transitioning farmers.

The average age of Michigan farmers is 54. Most of their children have left farming and won’t be back. Getting farmers on that land means working creatively and aggressively to connect aspiring farmers from very different backgrounds with existing farms or other arable land.

The first step is surprising: Drop the idea that farming means owning a chunk of land. In the emerging urban-to-rural, regional food system, the farmland is often small areas of vacant, city-owned land.

Philadelphia’s Somerton Tank Farms, for example, generated more than $68,000 in gross sales in its fourth year of growing high-value vegetables on a half-acre plot next to two city water towers, according to the Farm Credit Council’s forthcoming report on regional food systems, Growing Opportunity. The farm practiced Small Plot Intensive, or SPIN, farming, which is catching on as a low-cost way to “get farming.” More at www.spinfarming.com.

Another example: A recent Washington Post article describes a Sacramento couple who appealed to neighbors for lawn space for market gardening. The couple received 40 offers, selected three larger plots close together, and now produces weekly boxes of vegetables for 30 customers, plus five free boxes for low-income families.

Regular farmland, of course, remains a core need. One option is linking land seekers with owners for lease-to-purchase and apprenticeship arrangements.

A number of groups around the country are working on this farm transition issue. Many offer farm business training and peer group network building. National leaders include California Farm Link and the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project. Approaches include “speed dating” sessions between aspiring and retiring farmers and working donated conservation easements into a sale, which lowers the retiring farm’s tax liability while reducing the purchase price for the new farmer. More at http://www.farmtransition.org/.

Several groups in Michigan have laid the groundwork for such matching programs, including Get Farming! workshops as well as online listings of farmland owners and seekers through northwest Michigan’s Taste the Local Difference project.

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