Farmland and Small Farmers

From a recent New York Times article:

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.

The article then goes on to point out some efforts in Vermont and Massachusetts to improve ag land conservation easements, etc.

I think the bigger issue is what has happened/continues to happen to agricultural land ownership in New England. As we begin to realize how neglectful we’ve been of local farming, we also realize much of our effort to conserve ag land has – besides lessening productive land – greatly concentrated the control of land.

From my perspective, the biggest changes in ag land ownership in the last fifteen years is a concentration of land assets in fewer and fewer hands. It has driven up prices and created a commodity price dependent bubble.