In a perfect world, every aspiring farmer would be able to buy a farm, build equity, and pass that farm on intact to a new generation, whether that is a son or daughter or whether that’s another farmer.
But the world is not perfect, and farmland in Connecticut –and in the Northeast in general—has become expensive to the point of inaccessible. This is especially true of land close to urban markets, where new farmers have to contend with a cost per acre driven by the pressure to grow not food but a permanent crop of houses.
This is why municipal and land-trust farmland conservation efforts have become increasingly important for farmers looking to start up or expand an operation at a manageable cost. In Connecticut, for example, there are 78,000 acres of open space owned by municipalities, 58,000 acres owned by land trusts, and another 47,000 acres protected through various kinds of easements.
“Farmland ConneCTions,” a 24-page guide produced jointly by the American Farmland Trust and the University of Connecticut, looks at different kinds of lease configurations across the state, but the lessons in this publication can be applied more generally across the Northeast. Using examples and case histories, the guide outlines where different interests intersect: Towns, land trusts, and other institutions have an interest in capturing a return on their land, and farming can potentially offer economic, social, and stewardship benefits—objectives that are not met with unused land.
Leasing can also work in the farmer’s interest, since it lowers the price of admission and can be structured to support long-term tenancy. Most farmers, and especially organic farmers, need long lead times to establish crop rotations, improve the soil, and prepare for certification. Lease options can be configured to meet the farmer’s need for stability, and one type profiled in this publication is a rolling lease, which automatically extends another five years for each year the farmer is on the land. This reduces the risk of making long-term improvements to buildings, soil, and fencing, and encourages stronger partnerships between the landowner and the farmer.
A lot can still go wrong—issues for landowners range from difficulty collecting rents (although some rents are nominal, making this less important), to disappointing stewardship of land and buildings. Farmers, for their part, can run into communication problems with town or nonprofit staff who may not understand farming. There may be property or crop damage from trespassers who believe the land is open to public uses like snowmobiling or ATVs. And sometimes a town or nonprofit board will not have the administrative agility needed to make production-sensitive decisions quickly.
By naming and explaining these difficulties, and by offering narratives of success, this publication will be useful to municipalities, the nonprofit sector, agricultural commissions, farmers seeking land, and even private landowners who would benefit from leasing idle acreage.
“Farmland ConneCTions” is available as a free PDF download.
To find out more about the project itself, search the project reports database for CNE10-073.