Access to Affordable Farmland: Problems, solutions

Tricia PhelpsA single price point cannot define affordability. What’s affordable for some may not be affordable to others. So how do we solve a problem like “access to affordable farmland” when the definition can be so broad? We make personal connections with farmers and the community to deeply understand the issue and create solutions.

The mission to preserve farmland may not sit atop everyone’s priority list, but it should. Food production is clearly a major reason, but also consider the scenery and ecosystems that agricultural land provides to this area. Farm families own some of our most significant natural landscapes – not just the producing fields or orchards themselves, but open spaces, wetlands, and forested areas as well.

According to a study by the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the land that produces most of the fruits and vegetables we eat is the same land that’s under the most development pressure. This is extremely true in the unique microclimate of northwest Lower Michigan and the West Michigan fruit belt, where land along the shore is prime for agriculture production, but simultaneously the most attractive for lakeside homes and condos.

This heightened market-value is a major factor in the issue of farmland affordability. The value of land for a developed use, like a rural subdivision, is significantly greater than its value as farmland. And this is a relatively unique problem for our generation, because the difference in value has never been so disparate.

A number of conservancies across the United States and throughout our region have sought a solution by removing development rights on farmland through a conservation easement. It can be best understood by describing the choices facing retiring farmers today.

Wealth is tied up in the land,” explained Brian Bordauges, a program manager at Tamarack Holdings in Traverse City, with 15 years of experience in farmland preservation. “The only way to extract that wealth is to convert the land into development, or use an agricultural conservation easement to compensate the landowner for some or all of the development value in exchange for a permanent land-use restriction that keeps the land available for farming.”

This method is beneficial to landowners, the nearby community, and young farmers looking to purchase land in the future, but it also takes some foresight and planning by the older generation of farmers.

Nationally the average age of farmers is 50 years old. Closer to home, one-third of all farmers in the six-county region are 65 or older. A majority of these farmers have no succession or estate plans to outline the next steps after death or retirement so a large amount of our region’s privately-held agricultural property will change hands over the next 10 years. We’re left wondering: What will happen to the land?

Sam Plotkin, Farm Programs Manager at the Leelanau Conservancy, works with farmers to protect their property through conservation easements, and is actively engaged in developing programs to support the generational transfer of farmland in Leelanau County.

“One of the best ways to conserve farmland,” said Plotkin, “is to keep farmers on the land.”

From California to Vermont, people are developing creative solutions like conservation easements to keep farmers farming. Another strategy is directly linking an older-generation farmer to a beginning farmer looking for land.

Generally, this approach is called “Farm-Link” and programs like it exist in different forms throughout the United States. Land link programs connect the buyers and sellers of land, and sometimes lessors and lessees, through a social network. The network is strictly agriculture-focused and makes it easier for buyers and sellers to connect without having to sift through uninterested parties or unfit properties.

Where a conservation easement can help restrict the use of land and make farms more affordable, farm-link provides a unique opportunity to access available properties. A third approach, “Buy-Restrict-Resell,” addresses both affordability and access simultaneously. With this method, a business will purchase property outright, restrict the land-use through a conservation easement, and then sell it directly to a beginning farmer in search of land.

All three of these approaches are being explored here in northern Michigan. Additionally, a group of farmland protection professionals, land conservancies, and private investors have begun discussions to develop a farmland investment program with a triple bottom line mission (social, ecological, financial) and a focus in assisting young growers to find farmland.

From environmental impacts, to our food systems, to the beauty of our natural landscape, conservation of farmland is at the foundation of it all. Farmland access and affordability are critical for us to see the next generation of farmers farming.

Tricia Phelps is a local food & farming advocate in northwest Michigan. She is the Operations Director for Taste the Local Difference®, a company specializing in the marketing and promotion of local food.