Aging Agriculturalists: Study Raises Concern Over Farmland Future

The Recorder, May 3rd, 2016, by Richie Davis

LaSalle Florists has been growing for 82 years, but current owner John LaSalle, who says he started at age 3 in the business his grandfather launched in 1934, is in his 60s, and looking ahead to the day when he might want to retire.

“It’s just logical thinking,” says LaSalle, who like many farmers around the state is looking ahead at the future of the third-generation family business. “I want to do other things with the last 20 years of my life.”

Farmers age 65 and older operate 30 percent of the farms in Massachusetts, and only 8 percent of those 2,333 farmers have someone under 45 managing the farm with them, according to a new report by American Farmland Trust and Land for Good, a Keene, N.H.-based organization specializing in farmland access, tenure and transfer.

The “Gaining Insights, Gaining Access” study, using Census of Agriculture data from 2002, 2007 and 2012 also found that Massachusetts had fewer farm operators under age 45 in 2012 than in a decade.

“It was a real wake-up call to see how few farmers age 65-plus have a next generation working on the farm with them,” said Cris Coffin, policy director for Land for Good. “How and to whom this land and farm infrastructure transfers will have enormous impact on the future of farming in New England.”

LaSalle, whose own children, in their 20s and 30s, have their own careers and aren’t interested in maintaining the family’s flower-growing business, was part of a focus group of about a dozen farmers who met in Greenfield a couple of months ago to discuss the trends found by the study’s authors.

The Whately business, which sells about a half-million dollars worth of cut flowers a month, split about evenly between retail and wholesale, from its Whately shop, River Valley Co-op and through customers in the New York and Boston areas, is situated on 16 acres, including five tillable acres and greenhouses. Believed to be one of the last year-round cut-flower growers in western Massachusetts, LaSalle employs up to a dozen part- and full-time workers in peak season, growing freesia, dahlia and other cut-flower varieties.

“This area where we are is fantastic farmland. There are plenty of places they can build houses; I’d really like to see this continue as a farm. We have two traditional, old glass greenhouses that are perfect for certain crops. If someone was going to come in to buy the land to do something like that, they’d just bulldoze them.”

Although he has no immediate plans to sell the business, he said, “I would like to sell the property at some point and help someone transition so I could step away … I have to find right time to make the move and go forward.

Based on focus groups like the one LaSalle participated in, the study documents that older farmers are not only concerned about retirement, particularly if there’s not a next generation to take over; they’re unsure about how to find a younger farmer who can afford to buy their land.

Many of them want to make sound transfer arrangements, the study found.

With 30 percent of New England farmers likely to leave farming over the next decade or two, Coffin says, “The 1.4 million acres they manage and $6.45 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure they own will change hands in one way or another. To keep this land and infrastructure in farming as it transitions, we will need better policy tools and increased support services to exiting and entering farmers.”

In Massachusetts, farmers age 65 and older manage 184,000 acres and $1.8 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure, much of which may transfer ownership in the next 10 to 20 years.

“Quite a few owners are scratching their heads about retiring and having younger people succeed them,” says Jonathan “Jay” Healy, whose grandfather started a chicken and dairy farm in Charlemont and who now operates a tree farm and sawmill as well as growing corn and hay on Hall Tavern Farm. “There’s a disconnect, because a lot of times the land is worth more for non-agricultural use, and the people who want to farm it can’t afford it. With our hearts, a lot of us want to see it remain in agriculture.”

At 70, Healy has begun looking at how he can have a long-time employee gradually buy a 6- or 7-acre parcel that includes the sawmill and its equipment, and have that split off from the 450 acres of protected forested, pasture and cropland under an Agricultural Preservation Restriction and owned by a family trust.

“I couldn’t have done this if the business of the sawmill was tied to the APR,” said Healy, who was also part of the Greenfield focus group and has received help from Land for Good on working through succession issues.

Kathy Ruhf, the organization’s field agent for Massachusetts, says she’s worked with transitioning farm families to assess their goals, values and issues and that it may take years to work with attorneys, financial planners and land-use planners to work through a lot of their issues. The organization, which Rufh said is the only organization nationally that works exclusively on farmland access issues, also works with finding ways for younger, entering farmers to find suitable land they can afford.

“I’ve worked with hundreds of farmers,” said Ruhf. “and I’ve never met a farmer who’s said he doesn’t care. They all want to see their land kept in farming. But the longer they wait (to plan) the more limited their choices are.”

An event for owners of farmland who want to learn more about resources for planning for the future of their land is being planned for May 23  at 6 p.m. in an undetermined location in Greenfield by Land for Good, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. Topics will include farm succession and estate planning, farmland leasing, farmland protection, forest management and more. (Anyone interested in attending is asked to contact Jamie Pottern, a land conservation specialist at Mount Grace, by email or by calling 978-248-2055, ext. 22.

The COG will be working with interested Franklin County towns later this year to identify town-owned land that could be suitable for leasing to farmers as a way of helping to increase access to farmland for new farmers and expanding farms, as well as providing income to towns. More information is available from Mary Chicoine Praus at 774 3167, ext. 131.

More information is available here.

You can reach Richie Davis by email or at 413-772-0261, ext. 269