Local food movement should concern itself with land tenure for farmers

local-foodBy Kendra Johnson, CaliforniaFarmLink

If you shop at the Co-op, you can probably count yourself among the growing number of Americans who cares where your food comes from, and how it is grown. You are glad to buy locally in an effort reduce fossil fuel use and support your local farm economy, and you enjoy fresh and traceable produce. Indeed, farmers like Jeff and Annie Main bought their farm (sans house), raised their family, and have fed tens of thousands of eaters in the Sacramento Valley selling just to local markets. They are among the pioneers of the new local food movement, and in many ways a real success story.

Like most farmers, though, the Mains’ retirement (and retirement of the debt they incurred to build their house) is all locked up in the value of their land. “If we stopped farming and decided to sell tomorrow,” Jeff says, “this farm would be over.” What he means is that any farmer intrepid enough to carry on the Good Humus legacy and farm for a living would not (without a trust fund or wealthy spouse, anyway) be able to afford the “fair market” purchase price. Although conscientious shoppers like yourself may want continued access to seasonal, traceable produce from your local farmer, the real estate market wants Good Humus to turn into a residential estate or “ranchette” property.

“It’s Not Farmland Without Farmers,” cautions the American Farmland Trust (AFT), encouraging consumers to preserve farmland by supporting their local farmers. Our task is great. Even after the recent housing market crash, land prices continue to be driven by residential (not agricultural) values. National farm real estate values more than doubled from 2002-2008. AFT reports that during the housing boom, land values in the San Joaquin Valley increased upwards of twenty times (from $10,000 per acre for agricultural land to $200,000+ per acre) when that land was re-zoned and sold for development. The result, laments AFT’s Ed Thompson, is that 10, 20, and 40-acre ranchettes are “pricing bona fide commercial farmers out of the market for the most productive agricultural land.”

Lack of access to affordable farmland is a real barrier to new-entry farmers, and is partly responsible for their dwindling number: There are eight California farmers age 65 and over for every one young farmer under 35 years old, according to California Census data. Researchers on the Farm Land Access, Stewardship, Tenure and Succession (Farm LASTS) national research project report that seventy percent of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next twenty years… and who will buy it? If current trends continue, not farmers. A full eighty-eight percent of the nation’s farm landlords are not farm operators, and that number is growing.

I have observed this conundrum while working with farmers and landowners in the Valley for the past several years, as one of three Regional Program Coordinators with California FarmLink. FarmLink is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to linking a new generation of farmers with land and business resources, while helping retiring farmers and other ag landowners keep their farms in production.

Fifty years ago, farmers were paying off their land purchases in as little as three years with farm revenue. Now, obviously, it’s a different story. At a meeting not long ago of young farmers and ranchers in the Central San Joaquin Valley, twenty skilled young farmers echoed my dismay when an agricultural real estate appraiser broke the news that almond ground in that area – suited for one of the state’s most lucrative crops – could not generate the returns needed to secure a purchase loan, due to real estate speculation on future development potential. How are we supposed to get farmland as farmers, if farming won’t pay for it? They wanted to know.

This problem of values affects beginning farmers at all scales, across the nation. Some of California FarmLink’s most skilled and savvy incoming farmers, looking to grow for local markets, would be thrilled to work 20 acres like those of Good Humus. Co-op owners have long believed in the importance of smaller farms for the unique role they play in the local economy, rural culture and ecological resilience of a region. The challenge is that small farm properties are the ones most skewed by non-farmers’ demand for rural residential real estate. Thus, in the scheme of farmland preservation, they are the hardest to protect as maturing farms for future generations.

This is why the “One Farm at a Time” campaign matters. By raising local dollars to preserve our precious smaller farms, we can provide a much-needed leg up to our regional land trusts and other conservation groups who could otherwise not afford to work on small farm projects. By purchasing creative conservation easements like the one being designed for Good Humus, or even purchasing farms outright and offering lifetime tenure to select farmers, we can provide much-needed opportunities to the next generation of producers, while keeping alive a patchwork of unique, productive family farms in this fertile region.