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The Land Access Dilemma—How the Hub Can Help - Audio article

Last February I began training as a Farmland Access Navigator—a support program under the umbrella of the Farmland Access Hub. The Hub, by its own definition, is a consortium of partners including non-profits, government agencies, local companies, and private citizens dedicated to assisting beginning farmers with their quest for land tenure. The Farmland Access Hub serves Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, with plans to create partnerships with Illinois and other midwestern states. It is grant funded through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and support from Lakewinds Food Co-op.

Farmland Access Navigator is a pretty groovy title if you ask me. It elicits curiosity and respect, though most folks have no idea what a Farmland Access Navigator does… I sure didn’t. Honestly, I’m still not sure I do, 100%. It varies so much from navigator to navigator and client to client. After a year of training and working with clients, there seems to be so much more that I don’t know, than what I do. What I have learned is that the world of land access is very complicated… and in some cases, cruel.

In a nutshell, a Farmland Access Navigator works one-on-one with a land-seeking client. Most of these clients are beginning farmers, defined by the USDA as farming for 10 years or less. However, many of them are immigrant and BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Color) farmers with a great deal of farming experience—they just lack the means to rent or purchase land to run their businesses. Sometimes (most times, for both parties) these reasons are financial. In many cases though, the issue boils down to language barriers and/or cultural differences. To simplify it, a navigator has three priorities:

Assess a farmer’s financial/business readiness to achieve tenure;

Provide technical support and mentorship;

Equip farmers with the resources necessary to reach their goals.

Pretty simple right? Except it’s not simple at all. Every client is different, with vastly different backgrounds, levels of experience and education, family needs, regional needs, and financial situations. The base goal of a Farmland Access Navigator is to help farmers achieve land tenure. We are here to get… farmers… on…the… land.

Sometimes the most helpful action on my part as a navigator is reviewing a business plan for a loan application. Sometimes it’s helping someone write a business plan or connecting a farmer with grant or loan opportunities to advance their business. Sometimes it’s showing up to a meeting with an FSA loan officer to provide professional support and validation. And sometimes it’s as simple as helping someone find a piece of property that fits their business and family needs.

I have multiple clients with 5-10+ years of experience farming and running their own businesses. They qualify for financing through a conventional mortgage or a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan—they have solid business plans and customer bases—but their pursuit of affordable land close enough to their markets has been hopeless. Some of them have been waiting three years or more, unable to expand production and advance their business, at risk of burning out and giving up. This loosely translates to the loss of even more food and fiber producers.

Even more, you say? Are we losing producers? Why are we losing producers? How many have we lost?

This part is simple. There is a generational gap in our farm force. In the last few decades kiddos in farm families stopped staying on the family farm. They started opting for the convenience and excitement of city living, pursuing more lucrative white-collar jobs. The remaining producers—the folks that grow our fruits, veggies, and grains; produce our milk, meat, leather, and wool—they’re aging out. Many have retired already, and many more will retire in the next 5-10 years. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture (2017), more than half of current producers in the United States are over the age of 55. That means 50% of our producers are at or near retirement age, whereas the percentage of producers aged 35 or younger remains at 8%. The percentage of incoming farmers versus exiting farmers is disproportionately low. Additionally, many of those retiring producers are also the landholders… and they are generally relying on the sale of their land to fund their retirement. Often, that land goes to the highest bidder. Perhaps you can see where this is going?

The rapid and permanent loss of farmland in the United States is arguably the most cataclysmic issue Americans face, yet it remains an imperceivable threat for most. American Farmland Trust (AFT) found that approximately 31 million acres of farmland were lost to development between 1992 and 2012. That’s the equivalent of three acres per minute. In AFT’s “Farms Under Threat 2040” report, released in June 2022, it is projected that, in less than 20 years, due to poorly planned development and low-density residential sprawl, America will lose another 24.4 million acres of farmland—over 1 million acres per year of precious soil for growing food, paved over or otherwise irreparably damaged. The numbers are staggering. AFT’s “No Farms No Food” slogan is no joke.

These statistics, coupled with the land-access barriers the next generation of farmers are struggling with, is putting America in a real pickle. Most agricultural professionals now recognize that the United States is facing an impending crisis. With farmable land becoming scarce and real estate prices hitting ludicrous highs, the few folks who are willing to do the work into the future—the ones who need the land the most—are increasingly becoming the ones who can’t access it. A survey conducted earlier this year by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) gathered information from over 10,000 farmers aged 40 and younger. This survey revealed that “Finding affordable land to buy is the top challenge for young farmers.”

I know from experience how difficult land access can be. Even as a child I yearned for a nature-based life. Most of my formative and adult years were lived out in urban environments—primarily Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. Year after year I became more restless; more and more worried about the fragility of our food system and natural ecosystems. The noise and chaos of the city didn’t suit me. I needed green space and quiet plants to tend. There was a deep nagging in me to produce healthy food and protect precious land. In my late 20s I knew I wanted to farm… but how? I was poor, struggling as a freelance musician and part-time assistant preschool teacher. I had no experience farming. I didn’t even have a car.

In the fall of 2013, I was accepted into the Women Food and Agriculture Network’s (WFAN) “Harvesting Our Potential” mentorship program. I didn’t know at the time just how fortunate I was to be paired with WFAN founder Denise O’Brien at Rolling Acres Farm in Atlantic, Iowa. Denise didn’t just teach me farm techniques—she changed my trajectory. It was only ten weeks, but she pumped me full of resources that would help me succeed in my goals, and she taught me how to continue to seek resources to sustain me into the future. I helped Denise on her farm, and she put me through a sustainable farming crash course, in many cases funding my way through University of Iowa Extension classes, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) field days, and other relevant workshops. We visited her neighbors, toured their farm operations, and helped with whatever tasks they needed assistance with. We learned about Aronia berry production and planted garlic while her friend’s baby ate fistfuls of dirt. We joined a team of 15 people strong to plastic another friend’s new high tunnel.

By the time I left Denise’s farm that fall, I had attended my first WFAN conference and was destined for Land Stewardship Project’s (LSP) “Farm Beginnings” course and my first MOSES (now Marbleseed) conference. In the spring of 2015, I started working a ¼-acre plot of Certified Organic farmland outside of St. Paul growing heirloom vegetables. It was ultimately a disaster. The well on-site broke shortly after I started planting, leaving me without water access for the season. I hauled 5-gallon buckets of water to the farm in my “new” 1998 Toyota Rav4, often in rush-hour traffic (along with all my tools because there wasn’t an outbuilding available) just to water in new seedlings. The perennial weeds were a nightmare, and the soil was so rocky I broke multiple tools.

Leading up to the 2016 season, I searched for rental properties and internship opportunities to no avail. Finally, an acquaintance in the Twin Cities agreed to a contract, allowing me and my former husband to move to his off-grid cabin on 40 acres near Wheeler, Wisconsin to get my business off the ground. That property had its own long list of dramatic, back-breaking, heart-breaking challenges which will make a great story for another time, but after three years I had markets and I had community. We still didn’t have any money to buy a farm, but I had a plan.

By this time, I had switched to growing cut flowers and was eager to get perennial crops going. Due mostly to my former husband’s off-farm income, we qualified for an FSA Farm Ownership Loan. This zero-down, low-interest loan was the only way I was going to be able to buy a farm in the foreseeable future. In summer of 2018, we did find a farm, we were approved for the loan, and we were ready to move. In late October, two weeks before closing, the appraisal came back $40,000 lower than the asking price. Our loan fell through.

In my panic to find a new property to farm by spring, I leaned hard on my community. With the support of incredible neighbors, a lot of determination, and a huge stroke of luck (prayer answered?), I am now living on my dream farm, which is part of a land-based condominium association. I have a 5-acre homestead and am also part owner of 276 pristine, mostly wooded, stunningly beautiful Wisconsin acres. My farm was financed through a short-term land contract, also known as a contract for deed. It took most of the winter to negotiate and two fundraisers to reach the down payment, but it worked out in the end.

The story doesn’t always end so happily, however. My road wasn’t an easy one, either. It was long and hard and stressful. It was a factor in the end of my marriage. I did lasting damage to my body trying to farm without proper tools and resources. The Farmland Access Navigator program didn’t exist when I was on my land-access journey. If it had, I would certainly have taken advantage. It was clear though, considering my near-and-dear relationship with land access, that when the job opportunity was presented to me, applying was a no-brainer. I needed to do this work.

Renewing the Countryside (RTC) is the driving force behind the Farmland Access Hub. I am fortunate and grateful to also be a staff member at RTC. Our team, which includes partners like AFT, Marbleseed, LSP, University of Minnesota Extension, University of Wisconsin Extension, and many others is working hard on some great initiatives to preserve farmland and keep it in the hands of farmers. In the very near future (hopefully January 2023), we’ll be launching the new and improved Farmland Access Hub website to make resources more easily available to both emerging farmers and transitioning farmers/landowners.

At the Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference this February, during the first session on Friday morning, RTC will give a land access presentation with the goal of introducing more land-seeking farmers to the Farmland Access Navigator program, as well as share some new ideas and resources the Farmland Access Hub has been working on. In a later afternoon session, RTC will host a land access meet ‘n greet to connect land-seekers with landowners. We anticipate this time will also provide opportunities to ask questions and talk with navigators and other service providers. While land access continues to be a barrier for beginning and emerging farmers, we are committed to breaking down (or finding ways around) those barriers to secure a safer and more resilient future. We hope we’ll see you on Friday, February 24th!


Purdue/percentage of farmers 35 or younger: https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=jafe

USDA Land Loss: https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Todays_Reports/reports/fnlo0222.pdf

American Farmland Trust Farms Under Threat 2040: https://farmland.org/new-report-smarter-land-use-planning-is-urgently-needed-to-safeguard-the-land-that-grows-our-food/

Issue: Jan 2023
By: Bonnie Warndahl