Farmland matchmaking

The Recorder, October 9, 2018, by Richie Davis

Sweetwater Farm in Petersham traces its roots back nearly 270 years to Sylvanus Howe, whose fields fed colonial soldiers in the Revolutionary War with wheat and beef.

Karen Davis and her husband bought what had been the Coolidge dairy farm for 66 years, until 1978, and “backed into” farming after reading the ingredients on baby food labels when she was feeding her first baby. But at 66, she’s looking ahead to what to do with the 40 acres of pasture and about as much in hay fields from which she’s provided organic lamb, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, chicken and, at times, vegetables and eggs.

“I’d like to retire,” says Davis, “so I’ve been looking for somebody to take over the farmland — or lease it — where they can possibly do vegetables, meat, eggs, maybe have a goat dairy. It’s hard to find really good, qualified farmers who’ve had at least three years experience doing vegetables or animals and have some business experience and marketing experience.”

She’s placed an ad on, which yielded about a dozen farming couples, but “a lot of them had some out-there ideas” and were unrealistic about how much work would be involved, because they lacked experience. To know how to interview the prospects that passed muster, though, Davis turned to Land for Good, a 16-year-old nonprofit organization based in Keene, N.H., specializing in farmland access and tenure.

One of the farmers she spoke with, Emily Landeck, has been farming around the Pioneer Valley for eight years — for a couple of years at Natural Roots Farm in Conway and more recently, three years at Riverland Farm in Sunderland.

And though she’s been farming, she’s also been looking.

“A lot of people tell me I’m crazy to be in this area, because there are so many farms, and land is expensive,” said the 29-year-old farmer, whose husband works at the Hampshire College Farm.

“It’s tough in the Valley for sure,” said Landeck, who is on a handful of online farm matching sites, and has also reached out to Land for Good. The cheapest price for good-quality land in the Pioneer Valley, with an agricultural restriction to keep it from developers, is $10,000 an acre. That’s way higher than most new farmers can afford, because farming pays so little. It’s particularly unaffordable if there’s no affordable dwelling,she added.

Landeck and her husband, who considered Sweetwater Farm, but found it too far from his Amherst job, said, “There’s lots of marginal land available, especially in the hilltowns, that may be good for animals, but a lot of it isn’t that good for growing vegetables. There’s also a lot of uncleared land for sale, large lots of wooded land, especially in the hills. That’s awesome if you want to log the land and then start to farm, but not great if you want to farm right now.”

Silver tsunami

A 2016 study by Land for Good and American Farmland Trust found that 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 the age of 45 managing the farm with them. Using Census of Agriculture data, it showed Massachusetts had fewer farm operators under age 45 in 2012 than in the previous decade.

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

“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, Land for Good’s policy director. “How and to whom this land and farm infrastructure transfers will have enormous impact on the future of farming in New England.”

With 30 percent of New England farmers likely to leave farming over the next decade or two, she added, “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.”

Helping with that is Shemariah Blum-Evitts, a farmer and regional planner who has been managing the nonprofit’s education, consulting and research, as well as its direct service to farmers trying to access land, plan for farm succession and secure land tenure.

Facilitating transition

Blum-Evitts with her husband operates a small-scale poultry farm. She founded and from 2008 to 2015 managed a program that offered training and land access to new farmers in central and western Massachusetts.

Working beside Massachusetts field agent Jason Silverman, who grows hay on about 35 acres of leased land around Conway, Blum-Evitts will partner with organizations and agencies, including the state Department of Agricultural Resources, Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, Massachusetts Farm Bureau and Massachusetts Food System Collaborative to work on land access and farm succession education, technical assistance and policy.

“The real challenge,” Silverman said, “is in the central part of the the state, where there are a lot of organizations that are great, but some are underfunded and understaffed. In the Pioneer Valley, there are large, well-established land trusts,” with which the program also works.

“Beginning farmers are determined to get on a farm,” he said. “We help people figure out their options” through workshops and one-on-one consultation. “We encourage people to start out leasing land,” which allows them to gradually increase the scale of their operations. “There are different kind of leases out there. You can get pretty creative, and despite not owning property, you can have land tenure that’s quite secure.”

Landeck, who is working with CISA on fine-tuning a plan for operating a diverse winter CSA, said, “Definitely a stumbling block for many people is the marketing side of everything: trying to figure out what niche you can fit in, if you’re going to grow food, and make a living out of it. That means having an idea of what you can and want to do on the land. But the Valley has a lot of farms already.”