CLERMONT, N.Y. — WHEN we went looking in upstate New York for a home for our farm, we feared competition from deep-pocketed developers, a new subdivision or a big-box store. These turned out to be the least of our problems.
Though the farms best suited for our vegetables were protected from development by conservation easements, we discovered that we couldn’t compete, because conserved farmland is open to all buyers — millionaires included.
Easements are intended to protect farmland, water, animal habitat, historic sites and scenic views, and so they are successful in keeping farms from becoming malls and subdivisions. But they don’t stop Wall Street bankers from turning them into private getaways, with price tags to match.
Few bankers farm; long days with little pay lack appeal. A new report by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a group we helped start, reveals that one-quarter of the land trusts that oversee these conservation easements have seen protected land go out of production. Why? A nonfarmer had bought it.
Still, tax incentives in New York encourage nonfarmers to rent their land to farmers, so you would think suitable land would be easy to find.
Most landlords, however, offer only short-term leases. They want peace and quiet; they don’t want vegetable or livestock operations that bring traffic, workers, noise and fences. But long-term land tenure is essential for vegetable and livestock growers, who need years to build soil fertility, improve pasture and add infrastructure. Only farms that grow low-value animal feed crops like hay, corn or beans are attracted to one-year leases.
Once well-off city residents who are looking for second homes buy the land, farmer ownership is over. After they’ve added an air-conditioned home, a heated pool and an asphalt drive, the value increases so much that no working farmer can afford it. The farm, and its capacity to feed a community, is lost.
Thankfully, there is a solution. The Vermont Land Trust and the State of Massachusetts are keeping farmland in the hands of farmers through stricter conservation easements that limit who can own it, which keeps farms affordable and deters farm sales to nonfarmers.
To qualify, the Vermont Land Trust requires that a farmer derive at least half of his or her income from farming, or have a business plan that demonstrates an ability to run a viable farm business. The trust has the option to step in and buy the land at its agricultural value and find a suitable farmer if the seller can’t (or won’t) find a qualified buyer.
Landowners in Vermont or Massachusetts selling easements with this affordability option are paid the difference between the market value of the farm and its agricultural value, which is significantly less. That increases the cost of conserving the land over a traditional easement by an average of 10 to 40 percent. But the payoff in fresh, local food, jobs and young farmers in the community is easily worth it.
In the next 20 years, 70 percent of the nation’s farmland will change hands.Farmers do not live forever, and most farm kids do not choose to carry on the family business. An eager generation of young Americans is motivated to farm but, like us, they need land and few will be able to secure it without help.
The federal government and states spend hundreds of millions of dollars on farmland conservation each year, which can do much more than protect pastoral views for the wealthy. Those dollars must also be used to shore up rural economies and national food security with productive farms.
Eighty percent of us live in or near cities. It’s critical that farms ring those cities, and that farmers in the ring be protected. The United States Department of Agriculture spends money to preserve farms, but matching funds are required, and there aren’t enough. In New York State, the Farmland Protection Program hasn’t come to the aid of any new farms in five years.
Smart, self-interested cities would be wise to do their part. New York City needs to think about the land beyond the boroughs. The need is well documented: a recent study identified 614 vital unprotected farms in the Hudson Valley.
New York City invested in the protection of its watershed in the Catskills; it needs to do the same with farmland to assure fresh food. It must come up with the money and leadership to help regional land trusts protect farms.
As water resources dwindle in the West, and as transportation and fuel costs climb and research shows that fresh, clean food is the key to a healthy life, isn’t it the job of every city and town to secure the land and the farmers necessary to grow the food they need? Locking up land for farmers is the first step.
We started our Hearty Roots Community Farm nine years ago but quickly realized that we needed more stability than we were getting with the 20 acres we had rented in Dutchess County. After a grueling four-year search, a land trust came to our aid: with help from Scenic Hudson, we were able to buy a 70-acre farm in Clermont, a town of 2,000 people, just five miles north of where we’d been renting.
This land is protected only by a traditional conservation easement, but because it never made the transition to an estate and the previous landowner felt strongly that it be sold to a farmer, we got lucky. But what happens after us? We want to pass our stewardship of this land on to future farmers. We are now working with the land trust to tighten our easement and make sure that on our land, an American farm family will always have a chance to succeed.
Lindsey Lusher Shute and Benjamin Shute are farmers in the Hudson Valley and co-founders of the National Young Farmers Coalition.