Editorial: Leasing land may be one way to boost prospects of young farmers taking root

The Recorder, October 19, 2017

We may love the romanticized image of old Yankees personified right here on many Franklin County farms. But as a practical matter, too few young hands are lining up to carry those farms into future generations. And that’s a worry.

Aging farmers own a collective $1.8 billion in farming infrastructure and land throughout Massachusetts, according to Land For Good, a nonprofit promoting New England agriculture.

For a while now, Land For Good, a Keene, N.H.-based organization specializing in farmland access, tenure and transfer, has been warning about the lack of first generation farmers able to break into the business as long-time farm families fade away.

Of 2,300 farmers older than 65, only 8 percent have someone under 45 working with them, according to Land For Good. And in the next decade, an estimated one-third of the state’s farmland is expected to change hands, according to findings by American Farmland Trust, Land For Good and U.S. Census of Agriculture data.

“What these farmers do with their land and other farm assets as they exit farming will shape Massachusetts’ agricultural landscape for generations to come,” cautions Lisa Luciani, a spokeswoman at Land For Good.

New England has lost more than 10,000 dairy farms in the past 50 years, with about 2,000 remaining. Franklin County had more than 125 about 40 years ago. Today, the number is fewer than 35.

If you don’t inherit farmland, it’s expensive if not impossible to buy into the business. Nationally, farm real estate averaged $3,020 per acre in 2015, up about $1,000 over 2006.

One solution is young, aspiring farmers leasing land from retiring or retired farmers as an alternative to ownership.

Lease agreements give young farmers a chance to break into the market. It can be a win for everyone involved, allowing young farmers to start small and to grow their operations, allowing older farmers to keep their land in production and, most importantly, protecting agricultural space from being turned into housing projects and shopping centers.

Land For Good helps young farmers create preservation trusts and navigate the legal process, while working with aging farmers to ensure their land remains in agriculture and sometimes facilitating long-term agreements.

Land For Good can play the role of matchmaker. It helped Mark and Jeannette Fellows sell their family’s 264-acre Warwick dairy farm, Chase Hill Farms, to Ben and Laura Wells-Tolley, a younger couple who share their farming principles.

Lease agreements of all kinds can be flexible to suit new and old farmers. Arrangements can be made per month, per year, or based on a flat rate or yield percentage.

Leases can lead to outright purchase but are viable in their own right.

Most people in Franklin County cherish the region’s agricultural roots, and the continued flowering of innovative small-scale farming. We like the availability of locally grown black Angus meat, locally produced milk and yogurt, fruits and vegetables of every kind. We have stayed or settled here, many of us, because we also appreciate the rural ambiance that the fields, pastures and orchards of our neighbor farmers create through their industry.

So, we are happy to see Land for Good helping many individual efforts to support agriculture, and to preserve that legacy.