Who Wants the Farm?

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By Cynthia Graber

Michael Smolak faces a conundrum. He’s the third generation on his family’s land, 130 acres in North Andover that his grandparents purchased in the 1920s. Dozens of employees work there today, tending to the fruit trees and bushes, vegetables, animals, a farm stand, a bakery and a function space. In the fall people tumble out of cars and head to the orchards to reach for Macintosh, Empire and Cortland apples, along with some rather romantically labeled varieties, such as Seek No More.

The farm is thriving. But Smolak, 59, is single, with no heirs. Not one of his nine nieces and nephews has yet expressed interest in taking over after he’s done farming. He’s hoping to remain working for another 10 to 20 years—and perhaps more, as an 85-year-old paterfamilias puttering around a family farm is not an uncommon sight. But he’s already considering what should happen to the farm once he’s ready to pass it on.

In the best case, a farmer’s children all want to work together to take over the land, such as with the three siblings at the Volante Farm in Needham (Edible Boston, “Keeping It in the Family,” Fall 2011). But that is rare. More often, one or two children want to make a living as a farmer—or none is interested in such a lifestyle. And so most farmers must navigate complex family dynamics of siblings and inheritance, as well as convoluted tax laws and land issues, as they ready themselves to hand over the tractor.

Much of the farmland in Massachusetts has disappeared over the past century. In the 1950s, a quilt of almost 2 million acres of farmland draped over the state. Throughout the next half century, that slowly declined. By 2001 the number had shrunk to slightly more than half a million acres, which has since remained stable. Many factors led to this conversion. Farmers found that the rising value of land offered an alternative to farming. Some had no children who were interested in taking over the family business. Other farmers found greater opportunities to be made in the rich, deep soil of the Midwest, or were priced out by fierce competition from huge farming operations in the Midwest and West Coast. And some simply found it too challenging to make a living.

Many in the sector express concern today about the future of Massachusetts farmland, as the average age of farmers in the United States is 57, and about the same in the state. But Richard Bonanno, head of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, believes this statistic is misleading: “My whole life, the average age of farmers has been 55. The reason is: Who owns the property? It’s not my father, who’s 82. It’s not my daughter, who’s 20. It’s me, the middle generation, and we’re all 50.”

Whether or not there will be a massive transfer of land in the next two decades, all farmers agree that part of the difficulty of land succession is, of course, familial. A farm’s worth as land might reach into the millions, says Warren Shaw of Shaw Farm in Dracut, and if the couple has four children but only one wants to farm, it’s difficult to share those assets in a way that feels equitable. Bonanno points out that one family he knows hauled in $1 million an acre by selling the farm to a big-box store.

Children may be tempted to carve the land into plots, or sell it to another type of development that allows all siblings to inherit equally. Plus, siblings may be harboring personal emotional issues, which could influence inheritance decisions, says Smolak: “Someone stole someone’s doll when they were five, and has held that against the sibling for years.”

One option is to sell the land’s development rights through a Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR). The funds, which come from the state and federal governments, pay farmers a set amount per acre (up to $10,000–$20,000 per acre, depending on the area) in an attempt to cover the difference between the farm value of land and the development value. That acreage is then preserved as farmland forever.

The money from such a deal could serve as an inheritance for children who don’t take over the land. Or help provide money for retirement, supply additional investments to sow back into the farm itself, or even offer a method of paying taxes on the land once it passes to a new generation. Smolak’s family put an APR on 107 acres of the farm. His grandfather had gifted a third of the farm to Smolak, and a third to his mother, to help avoid then-insurmountable estate taxes, but even the gift taxes at the time reached $120,000. The APR supplied the funds to pay that tax. (Smolak’s family also sold some of the land for a retirement community, in order to direct money to his sisters’ inheritance.)

Land trust organizations such as Trustees of Reservations, which work to preserve such tracts of land as farmland for the future, help farmers and towns navigate APRs in order to conserve the land. They may facilitate access to the state and federal funds, or negotiate with the local town to come up with any additional money necessary to purchase the land. They may help the town purchase land through its own preservation fund, or a private fund. These organizations may even take ownership of the land and then run it as a working nonprofit farm or rent it out.

This farmland conservation program began in Massachusetts in 1979 and served as a model for a similar federal program called the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, a version of which was introduced in 1996. The Massachusetts program has conserved about 12 percent of local farmland, or about 65,000 acres. Nearly all local farmers view it as successful, and as an important tool to help farmers preserve land even in the face of building pressure and skyrocketing prices. The at times stratospheric land value, however, remains one of the APR’s weaknesses: In some regions, particularly the Boston area, the amount the APR pays per acre still does not come close to bridging the gap between the value of the land as farmland and its value to developers. In addition, there simply aren’t enough funds to help support all the farmers who would like to take part.

The nonprofit Land for Good is now working with Smolak as he considers his options. The organization helps new farmers find land, assists with landowners who want to make their land available to other farmers, and aids farming families with transfer of land to another generation or a new owner.

Smolak is mulling over whether to hire an apprentice, someone who will take more responsibility than current employees with an eye to eventually taking over the farm. Perhaps the ownership of the land will remain in the family, and that manager will pay rent. Or perhaps the town of North Andover will acquire the property, and the town will figure out the most effective way to keep it a working farm. Or, of course, Smolak might sell the property outright to another farmer.

His nieces and nephews help out on the farm from time to time, but so far they’ve found farming too intense for full-time employment. “Which makes me think: What am I doing killing myself trying to make this thing work?” Smolak wonders. But he feels a close connection to the land, and to the mission of providing the community with a sense of nature and agriculture and a respite from what he considers a world of technology overdrive.

Many families have persisted through the ups and downs of farming over the past decades, and are now appreciating the surge of interest in locally grown and raised food and livestock. This doesn’t mean that farming is lucrative, however, or that a family couldn’t make more money by selling off the land to developers.

Still, there’s a whole crop of eager farmers bouncing on their tiptoes, ready to sprint off to own their own business, on land they can invest in, whether financially or physically. Land they can work. Land that can offer them a way to develop relationships with the local community.

One of those enthusiastic newcomers is 27-year-old Lydia Sisson, who’s hoping that the owner of just such a parcel of land will find a way to provide acreage for another willing farmer, perhaps even her. She would love to purchase land, but if she can’t afford it, she says, “I’m looking for that 10-year lease, or a 99-year lease. I’m looking for the land that will be my home.”

NEXT IN THE SERIES: How do new farmers find land to farm?

Cynthia Graber covers agriculture and science, among other topics, for a variety of magazines and public radio shows. Contact her at www.cynthiagraber.com.