Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Land Access for Mountain Farmers

Farmer-owned distribution cooperatives are integral to the future of sustainable agriculture in Western North Carolina

Western North Carolina's local food culture is vibrant and growing. Its land prices are also growing, especially for decent farmland. The average age of farmers in the region is growing as well - just crossing the 62 year old threshold.

The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project's Local Food Guide ( is a veritable "who's who" of local agriculture in the region - with 350 farms and 58 farmers markets selling everything from microgreens to giant organic pumpkins. Sustainable Agriculture programs at Warren Wilson College near Asheville and Appalachian State University near Boone are training and graduating dozens of young people each year with hands-on experience in building chicken tractors, managing organic apple orchards, butchering heirloom hogs, and selling farm products.

So why is it that some of the most respected sustainable farmers in Western North Carolina, men and women with many years of experience in running family farms, frequently express their concern for the future of farming in the region? Prohibitive land prices and the high costs of starting a farm are on their minds, and how these realities are keeping too many people from going into agriculture as a vocation and a viable way of life. These factors are also on the minds of beginning farmers, who often work as interns or apprentices while facing the daunting challenge of finding land and starting their own farm. These forces are playing out in the same Southern Appalachian region where generations of residents have run small farms producing food for home and local consumption.

If we do the math in places like Asheville or Brevard or Boone, where the demand for "local" foods is seemingly insatiable, and "local" farms may sell anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 or more an acre, the land is too expensive to pay for through farming. What farmer can sell 750 bags of arugula at $4 apiece every 30 days to pay a $3,000 a month mortgage? Or 1,000 dozen free range eggs, or 500 $6 wheels of goat cheese. How many pints of "beyond organic" cherries?

It's clear that new options are needed for beginning farmers gain affordable access to land where they can live and grow food. Unless you inherit it, or marry into it, you've got to make the numbers work. It's also clear that retiring farmers need options -- more often than not, the family farm is the main asset farmers count on for their retirement. If the American Farmland Trust estimate is true, that 70% of all privately owned rural land in America will be changing hands in the next 10 - 15 years, then we have a HUGE opportunity in front of us to address farm transition in ways that benefit retiring farmers, beginning farmers, and the resiliency of sustainable local economies.

Community farm trusts and farm lease brokerages can provide alternatives to the sale and development of prime farmland close to growing markets for local foods

What if there was an entity to truly serve as a bridge between the beginning farmer and the retiring farmer? Or between the absentee investor landowner and the beginning farmer? What kind of organization would that be and how would it function?

  • It would need to be the kind of organization that could sit at the kitchen table with the retiring farmer and hear their story and their needs. And it would need to be the kind of organization that could sit at the kitchen table with the beginning farmer and hear their story and their needs.
  • It could be a non-profit/for-profit hybrid organization combining the benefits of a community farmland trust and a farm lease brokerage.
  • This organization could be capable of negotiating equitable farm leases that benefit both parties. It could secure slow money/social venture capital to invest in purchasing farmland at fair prices and leasing that land to beginning farmers.
  • It could secure grant funding from private and public sources to hold farmland in trust by and for the community.
  • It could enter into flexible lease-purchase arrangements to balance the needs of retiring farmers who want to see their legacy of their farms continue on, and with beginning farmers who want to grow that legacy for the future.
These are the options that Land In Common is focusing on -- building those relationships, and finding those strategies that create the space where farm transition and legacy meets land access and opportunity, and where Southern Appalachian communities grow more vibrant.