IN SEARCH OF LAND
It’s a chilly November evening, and snow from the surprise Halloween storm lingers on the grass. Up a narrow flight of stairs in the Groton Grange, a white-shingled building that resembles an old New England church, wooden pews line up in neat rows. About 15 minutes before the event’s scheduled beginning, people start filing in.
The meeting, sponsored by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Land for Good and the Groton Grange, is intended to introduce locals to the idea of leasing land on their property to new farmers.
Leasing can be an attractive option for local entry-level farmers, despite the persistent belief, says Kathy Ruhf, project director of the agriculture nonprofit Land for Good, that “culturally you’re not really a farmer unless you own your own land.”
But farmland in New England costs about five to 10 times the national average, according to recent study called Building a Future with Farmers. Massachusetts competes for most expensive farmland in the United States along with other New England states, but the average, according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, is more than $12,000 an acre for agricultural land. And that land can command significantly higher prices if it’s not dedicated to agriculture.
Farmer Lydia Sisson, 27, had her heart set on a dream 30 acres near her home in Lowell, but the property recently sold for $1.3 million.
Sisson has been involved in farming for nearly a decade, working the land as a student at Vassar College, as a volunteer in Italy and as an employee at a teen farming project in Lowell called Fresh Roots. She apprenticed at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton on the North Shore. And then finally, in 2008, Sisson decided to start her own CSA.
She lucked into land to rent. A farmer posted that he was retiring, freeing up five acres in North Reading. He had been leasing land that belongs to a proprietor (who prefers to remain anonymous) who lives on the property in a historic house that dates back to 1703. The property covers five acres, much of it soil that had always been farmed, and the owner enjoys having someone working the land today as well. Sisson settled in and grew a diversified vegetable CSA, full of greens, squash, potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes and eggplant. She spread compost and harvested cucumbers, and soon built up a loyal community of buyers.
Sisson had only a verbal agreement, renewable on a yearly basis. While this worked for her, and she developed a positive relationship with the landowner, such a situation is not ideal, says Ruhf: Too often, “leases are very short term, typically annual, and often not written down, so there’s not a lot of security there for the farmer.” In addition, farmers may be reluctant to make the financial and time investments necessary to, for instance, build up the soil’s fertility if they have no idea how long they’ll be sowing that particular plot. Sisson experienced this; as it wasn’t a long-term agreement, she says it was difficult to consider future planning.
But now, as she works on a graduate degree in regional economic and social development (which she’s hoping to apply to her farming business), Sisson is looking for land in which she can invest for the long term: a 10-year lease, a 99-year lease, maybe even something she can afford to buy.
Purchasing land remains out of reach for most entry-level farmers. The cost of the land is the most significant obstacle, along with the need to buy equipment and amendments to prepare the land. Banks are loath to lend to small-scale introductory farmers, as agriculture doesn’t usually offer a rapid return. “It looks bad on paper if you don’t have the capital infrastructure to build up your farm really quickly: cash, land, the ability to grow enough food to create more cash and hire people,” says Sisson, considering her own situation. She admits that she’ll probably have to rely on the stable job of her partner to help them secure loans, as his employment provides the benefits of health insurance and a steady income.
Yet there’s exciting news overall that can provide encouragement to new growers. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study published in November 2011, the number and value of local farms has mushroomed in recent years. Local food grossed $4.8 billion in 2008, four times higher than previous estimates (which were based only on direct-to-consumer sales and excluded sales to an intermediary, such as a grocery store). Adding to the optimism for the Boston food scene, the two areas with the highest concentration of farmers and support of local agriculture are on the West Coast—and in the Northeast. (This doesn’t, however, ensure financial viability; according to Building a Future with Farmers, more than 73% of young respondents depend at least in part on off-farm income.)
And so enthusiastic new farmers set out to find the foundation of their new business: land.
Sisson discovered a suitable plot posted on an index card on a bulletin board at the Essex County Co-op. But for many, uncovering that land can be a challenge. In theory, more farmland should be changing hands in the coming decades: In 2007 the national average age of farmers was 57, and some organizations estimate that, nationally, a quarter of older farmers will be turning over their farmland to younger generations or new farmers within the next 20 years (see the previous stories “Keeping It in the Family” and “Who Wants the Farm?”). More than 1,000 farms in Massachusetts are owned by farmers older than 70.
Undeveloped soil, though, can be as good as gold here. With a continually growing population and the resulting development pressures around Boston, farmers may be tempted to sell the property for its significantly higher development value.
And that’s where New Entry has a plan, one designed to find hidden pockets of arable land and make those plots available to new farmers.
The Groton meeting is the culmination of the first stage of New Entry’s novel approach. Most of the homeowners decided to attend because they’re curious about the process of leasing to farmers. But some received a special invitation letter in the mail, one that could easily have fallen into a junk pile. The letter told them that, perhaps unbeknownst to them, their property includes “valuable soil and land characteristics.” And it invited them to consider allowing someone else to dig in.
This initiative began in part out of desperation. As Jennifer Hashley, New Entry director, explains it, the organization matches Massachusetts farmers with land, and to do so, they search many avenues: Perhaps there’s open farmland managed by a local conservation commission or agricultural commission, or maybe town-owned land under agricultural easements (land that has legally been dedicated to agriculture in perpetuity). “We find parcels through these outlets that we then try to match with farmers looking in those communities,” she says. “As of late, we’re sort of tapped out.”
Then Becca Weaver, New Entry’s farmland matching coordinator, connected some dots—in this case layers of maps. Throughout the 1900s, surveyors have wandered New England, mapping the vegetation and soil for what today makes up the National Soil Survey. They dug a few feet down, and, with a practiced eye, they noted the characteristics that make each soil unique, such as the color, texture, water-retention ability, whether it was glacial outwash or lake sediment, how much gravel it contains, what’s the pH level. Over the decades, this information was compiled and eventually computerized.
And there are other contemporary maps as well, one of which is the current use of any given parcel. Is it divided into lots? Paved over for development? Preserved as forest?
Interns at New Entry in the past went parcel by parcel through an assessors list in a given town, determining the size of available land and the address. There had to be a faster method, thought Weaver, and she remembered a GIS (geographical information systems) research class she’d taken as part of her graduate degree at Tufts University. All this information already exists, she considered; she just needed to layer the GIS maps of potentially productive land atop maps of development. This way, she could determine where there are promising parcels—around two acres—that haven’t been built, that are part of someone’s property.
The result of her efforts for Groton is a satellite map of the area. Narrow yellow lines demarcate property. And blocks of red signal potential farmland.
The room at the Groton Grange eventually fills with 40–50 attendees. The crowd is a mix of ages, from 20-somethings—those seeking land—to older participants, landowners in town. Presenters discuss the need for agricultural land to grow crops sustainably and feed the growing hunger for local produce. Weaver explains the tax advantages for landowners, and the overwhelming disappearance of agriculture land in Massachusetts. Groton, she points out, is number eight overall in the state for the amount of lost agricultural land. She explains—to the surprise of some participants—that many farmers don’t need a contiguous, say, 20 acres. Some can get by with a few acres here, maybe another few nearby.
Several people in the audience are taking notes, and hands shoot up during the question session. A woman sitting in the back, whose straight grey hair hangs heavy down her back, calls out to the front of the room that she received a letter in the mail and wants more information. She owns five acres, land she’s never farmed. “I was surprised by the letter,” the landowner says. “I’d never thought about anything similar.” Her home abuts the road, the property stretching out behind. There’s a paddock in the back, a small shed, as her family previously owned horses and goats, and the shed would be perfect for storing farming equipment. “I had never really thought of farming these five little acres, farming on a small scale. But people here are only looking for an acre or two.”
The model New Entry has employed with Groton is intended to be one that can be used throughout the state, says Hashley: “We’re trying to develop a replicable model, where we can train other community members or agricultural commissions to partner with a town and do a similar GIS analysis.” In fact, New Entry intern (and Tufts graduate student) Jesse Steadman recently mapped most of Middlesex County via the same method.
A couple of months after the meeting, Weaver sends me an email with the results. Four landowners who received letters came forward to talk to Weaver at the meeting, and two of them are now moving ahead with plans to lease their land. Another four community landowners, two private and two public, who attended the workshop are also in the midst of the leasing process. “Pretty good, eh?” she writes.
It may seem like a small number, and a small amount of land. But it’s a start. And for beginning farmers in search of a farm, that’s just the start they need.
Cynthia Graber covers science and agriculture, among other topics, for a variety of magazines and national radio shows. Read more of her work at www.cynthiagraber.com