Young farmers fulfill their dreams of working the land
Jason Silverman, of Conway, decided he wanted to be a hay farmer at 2½ years old, after a neighbor who was one gave him a toy tractor. But there was a problem: No one in his family was a farmer, nor did they own farmland.
His father, Mark Silverman, worked for decades as a fifth-grade teacher at Gill Elementary School. His mother, Susan Silverman, was a nurse practitioner in the health department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Silverman faced an uphill challenge from the start. And yet, three decades later, he has made that hay farming dream a reality. These days, Silverman, now 31, manages 33 acres of farmland scattered across 12 properties in western Franklin County.
Silverman doesn’t own any of it. Instead, he leases the land that he works.
“There was something about hay and the machinery,” he said, noting that he was particularly inspired when he saw a bale thrower. “I finally got one a few years ago. It was my version of wanting to be an astronaut when I grew up.”
His is a story that plays itself out elsewhere across Franklin County from Bernardston to Whately, Orange to Colrain. The face of farming is changing. Over the last century, farmland ownership has consolidated as the number of farms has decreased.
In 1935, the average farm in the United States was 155 acres. In 2016, it was 440 acres, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But the agricultural industry has reached a tipping point. Farmland across the United States is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of aging farmers. According to a 2017 report from the National Young Farmers Coalition, farmers over the age of 65 outnumber those under 35 by about six-to-one.
That’s expected to change quickly in the coming decade. For only the second time since 1900, the 2012 USDA’s Census of Agriculture documented an increase in the number of farmers under 35.
It’s a passing of the guard; one generation giving way to the next. But while there’s opportunity, there’s also risk.
“It’s really daunting. For a lot of (young farmers), they just can’t make the numbers work, or understandably, they don’t want to try to make the numbers work because it can be a make it or break it,” Silverman continued. Part-time, he splits his time as the Massachusetts agent for Land For Good, a regional advocacy organization that facilitates farm transfers. “What we’re finding is that a lot of the new farmers, especially first-generation farmers, want to start at a small scale. … There are a lot of opportunities for young farmers to step into an existing operation and take it over. but for whatever reason, folks seem timid to do that.”
A tipping point
The conundrum spans generations. On the other side of the age equation, experienced farmers have a hard time selling to a generation that is hesitant to invest — and for good reason. Silverman estimated that purchasing a legacy farm could cost “anywhere from several hundreds of thousands of dollars to well over a million, sometimes $2 million” — a substantial upfront investment for a low financial yield.
“It’s a big cliff to jump off of,” he said.
For Silverman, leasing land “has been a really nice win-win,” noting the agreements are also beneficial to landowners, many of whom qualify for Chapter 61A farmland credits, a state program that gives tax breaks for land that’s farmed.
“It’s been a gradual stepping stone. Without a farm to inherit — even with a farm to inherit — it’s not a simple thing,” he said. “It never felt right to me to take out a loan and start a farm at a larger scale.”
At the other end of Hart Road in Conway, where Silverman has his farm, he leases land owned by the children of farmers who don’t work in agriculture.
“When I approached them about it, they were ecstatic,” Silverman said. “As far as I know if I weren’t haying it, it wouldn’t be farmed otherwise.”
Without a land inheritance or a family background in farming, Silverman has had to learn the ins and outs of agriculture on his own. The challenges he has learned to manage varied — from securing land access, to finding skilled labor (his father often drives a tractor).
A steep learning curve
Farming can be a dangerous profession and younger farmers, many of whom are still growing a business, must pay for their own health care, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition. In a survey, nearly half of the 3,500 farmers under 40 years old surveyed cited health care as a significant challenge.
Further, Amanda Brown, director of the South Deerfield-based UMass Student Farming Enterprise Program and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture’s Agricultural Learning Center, said that getting enough experience to manage a farm alone can be difficult. It takes a season for a young farmer to learn from a mistake, she said, because “the learning curve for this industry is steep if you’re just beginning.”
“What I tell people, first of all, is to spend a couple of years working for a really talented farmer — there are plenty of people here in the (Pioneer) Valley,” Brown said. “Go and learn from someone. … Work as hard as you can and learn as much as you can.”
To that end, Silverman studied plant and soil science at UMass and first got his hands dirty at the student-run farm. Then, over about a decade, he pieced together a niche hay business serving private landowners and small farms like Little Song Farm in Montague and Natural Roots farm in Conway, which don’t produce hay. To make a profit, his business model is structured around living off what the land can produce.
Silverman said he couldn’t sustainably run a small haying business any other way, especially not if he bought the land he farms. The payoff for haying isn’t worth the investment.
“It wouldn’t float for hay,” Silverman said. “It’s certainly a pipe dream. But I don’t think my business would justify it.”
Investing in agriculture
But while it’s a daunting task for beginning farmers, buying farmland isn’t impossible. The key, according to Daniel Greene, the young farmer behind Good Bunch Farm in Charlemont, is patience.
“I took the long cut. I’m like a tortoise,” Greene said.
Like Silverman, Greene, 33, is a first-generation farmer. Neither of his parents has an agricultural background. He tended his crops on leased land for more than a decade before he had a client base strong enough to support the $272,000 real estate investment he made last year with his life partner, Teri Rutherford, a wedding planner at Valley View Farm in Haydenville. In September, they purchased the former North River Bridge Farm using a USDA low-interest and fixed-rate farm ownership loan.
According to Greene, who grew up in Melrose near Boston, he didn’t have a strong connection with agriculture until he went to UMass, from which he graduated in 2008 with a degree in sustainable farming. He opened Good Bunch Farm in 2009 as a mobile operation, growing his livelihood on “borrowed, begged” land. Eventually, Greene said his business became too big for a nomadic approach to farming.
He needed a permanent base of operations and began searching for land.
“The bigger I got, the more stuff I had. You have to have a place to put your stuff,” he said. “I consolidated.”
While challenging and scary, Greene said his transition to a permanent farm was made easier by his longevity in the region. People knew him and wanted to help. Currently, his commercial customers include Hearty Eats in Shelburne Falls, the Ashfield Lake House, Double Edge Theatre, Gloriosa and Co. catering, Elmer’s Store in Ashfield and The Blue Rock. Good Bunch Farm produce can also be found at McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls, the Old Creamery Coop in Cummington and farmers markets in Shelburne and Ashfield.
Passing the torch … or letting the flame blow out
So far, the endeavor has gone “much better than we anticipated,” Rutherford said, attributing their success to Greene’s slow, methodical business approach. “Our loan officer was fantastic, it felt pretty smooth.”
Rutherford also credited the farm’s previous owners, who wanted to keep the property in agriculture and were willing to keep it unlisted on the real estate market until they secured a USDA loan. Their efforts highlight a crucial aspect of keeping land in agriculture — the benevolence of legacy farmers toward the next generation of land managers.
“The vast majority of senior farmers we work with really want to see their farm continue. The idea of seeing it either let go or be developed breaks their heart,” Silverman said of his work with Land For Good. At the same time, however, today’s agricultural economy “makes it really tough for those older farmers to sell their farms and cash out. … They’re caught between this rock and a hard place of desperately wanting to see it continue as a farm and having very real financial needs — whether that’s retirement or having enough money for health care or wanting to get their fair shake out of what they spent their life doing.”
As a result, Silverman said farmland is sold for development every year — land that can’t easily be bought back.
“The Pioneer Valley has some of the best land in the world. We see it lost to development all the time,” Silverman said. “We all see it. And it’s tough because it’s hard to fault each individual landowner. They need retirement. But as a society, it just sucks to see. … It’s one of these really tragic things we see happening — farmland disappearing.”
A nationwide issue with local ramifications
It’s not just a problem in the Pioneer Valley. Between 1992 and 2012, the United States lost 31 million acres of farmland to development, according to American Farmland Trust, a national farmland advocacy organization that has offices in Northampton.
But while policies intend to help farmers keep their land in agriculture — such as local Right to Farm bylaws and the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program, which subsidizes farmland and puts it into an agricultural deed restriction — Silverman said there isn’t an easy solution to the problem.
“There’s no silver bullet or free lunch in any of this,” he said.
Locally, the issue came to a head last year in Shelburne when Norman Davenport, a member of the town’s Conservation Commission, submitted a letter of resignation after serving for 18 years because, in part, “preservation of the land has nothing to do with the economic stability of the farmer.” Notably, his fellow commissioners refused to accept his resignation.
Davenport told the Selectboard in the summer of 2018 there aren’t enough young farmers lining up for land. In some cases, the land is purchased at discount through the APR program by non-farmers. And while the deed-restricted land is preserved, it’s not always farmed the way it would be if it was owned by the farmers themselves.
“The farmer maintains his property by the depth of his roots,” Davenport told the Selectboard. “Others maintain it by the depth of their pockets.”
As for Silverman, his business plan is sustainable. By leasing land, he’s been able to gain a foothold into an industry that’s increasingly becoming difficult for first-generation farmers to break into.
“I’m not about to proclaim that I’m wildly successful,” he said. “But I’m also not about to proclaim that I’m struggling heavily. It’s working, and I’m really grateful for that.”
Andy Castillo is features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 276.