A Tale of Two Farm Transitions: Protected Farms Take Different Paths to Keeping Land in Farming - American Farmland Trust

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A Tale of Two Farm Transitions: Protected Farms Take Different Paths to Keeping Land in Farming

Farmers Meghan Hauser and Olivia Fuller each stand with their fathers on their farms.

Part of the mission of American Farmland Trust is keeping farmland in active agriculture. Recently aggregated data from USDA surveys and the Ag Census show a staggering amount of American farmland will change hands over the next twenty years. How much land, exactly? Nearly 300 million acres, or one-third of all agricultural land in the lower 48 states.

The statistics rely primarily on an aging farmer population. This, coupled with unprecedented development pressures, leads many to wonder if the next generation of Americans will identify their country as an agrarian land, with amber waves of grain being replaced by parking lots and single-family homes.

However, two important forces come into play when determining if farmland will be lost forever. The first is farm viability, or how successful a farm enterprise can be in a rapidly changing economy. The second is a new generation of farmers eager to take the helm of existing operations. Farm transitions are complicated at best, and there isn’t a playbook to guide landowners weighing their options. Here, we will tell the stories of two farms in our community that recently transitioned: both were family-run dairies, and both protected their land through conservation easements. One focused on keeping the farm enterprise intact, while the other changed course entirely. Both transitions were years in the making and hit bumps along the way, but most importantly, kept the family farm alive.

Table Rock Farm – Wyoming County
Meghan Hauser stands on silage bunk
Meghan Hauser of Table Rock Farm, a century dairy farm. Photo by Rebecca Drobis.

Founded in 1915 by Scott and Florence Holmes De Golyer, Table Rock Farm touts itself as “a family farm of 35 families,” counting the long-term farm workers as central to its identity. Table Rock spans 1,900 acres to feed a herd of over 1,200 cows. Long admired for their commitment to climate-smart agriculture, the family sold their plow in 2000 and were awarded the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award in 2021. But the farm leadership, Cal and Willard DeGolyer, were thinking about their transition plan ten years prior. With the passing of Cal in 2018 and Willard in 2020, the farm’s management landed on Willard’s daughter, Meghan Hauser. She says, “I was surrounded by a talented, seasoned, supportive farm team, but did not have someone to share the leadership or financial responsibilities. Without that person, your decision-making strategy shifts.”

Meghan’s great-uncle Willard with the first milk sold from the farm in 1918.

The first step in identifying a transition plan for Table Rock was to seek a new successor who was familiar with the operation. After coming up short in conversations with family members, the farm team, and respected dairy industry people, Meghan’s next move was to enroll the land in the NYS Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program. PDR protects the land forever from development but is a competitive and lengthy process. During this time, Meghan renewed her search for a successor, this time relying on a trusted advisor to connect her with like-minded farmers, Dan and Nate Osborn.

“Nate and Dan are talented dairy farmers who successfully manage multiple farms, so I knew their animal care techniques would be similar to our practices,” says Meghan. The other high priority was retaining all members of the Table Rock team who wished to stay on board. Meghan and the Osborns prioritized conversations about farming philosophy, cattle care, soil health and cropping practices, valuation of the enterprise, and key roles for the farm team. The method of sale was important, too, because they wanted a structure that would allow the Osborns to be successful long-term while giving Meghan and her mom time to move through the preservation process while continuing farm operations. Meghan credits a strong financial and legal team that helped her through the process.

What’s next for Table Rock Farm? Meghan and her mom will remain involved as landowners but will take a step back from the day-to-day operations. The team that made Table Rock an innovative leader in conservation-focused dairy will keep their jobs. And the new owners, Nate and Dan Osborn will keep Table Rock running smoothly as it has for over a century.

Fuller Acres Farm – Washington County
Olivia Fuller holds a lamb
Olivia Fuller with lambs she started to raise while diversifying the farm from a dairy operation. Photo by Eric Jenks.

A fourth-generation family farm in the “Welch Hollow” Valley of Fort Ann, Fuller Acres has been a dairy for over 70 years. In 2016, the family learned about an opportunity to apply for a conservation easement through the Agricultural Stewardship Association. They successfully closed on the easement a year later, ensuring the land would remain in agriculture. Next-generation farmer Olivia recalls that “deciding to protect our farm was the catalyst to acknowledge that my dad wouldn’t be farming forever.” They started discussing a farm transition plan.

Olivia didn’t grow up thinking she would be a farmer. But she knew that small-scale dairy farming wasn’t profitable, saying, “It was a way of life and one that was increasingly pricing us out.” The family met with advisors and took a hard look at the numbers. It didn’t add up without a value-added product line that would require years of time and lots of capital to launch. The conversations began to shift to alternative business strategies for the farm.

The natural first step for the small dairy was to raise crossbred cows for beef. But that transition came with a learning curve. Olivia says, “As dairy farmers, we always sold milk through a cooperative as ‘price takers,’ so it took a while for us to believe that we were able to set our own prices when we sold our meat products. We lost some money at first, not having the confidence to sell at the price we needed to, or not understanding what it was costing us to raise each animal and comparing our prices to the grocery store.”

But Olivia persevered through learning from other farmers, especially in her role working for American Farmland Trust as the New York communications manager. She was particularly inspired by operations run by women, as she could see herself in their stories. Her beef operation evolved as her business sense grew, and she began investing in innovative marketing strategies and a farm store. In many ways, the farm was a stabilizing force for the family after suffering tragedies in 2018 and 2020 with the loss of Olivia’s best friend and then her mom. She credits the land with helping her heal.

Olivia, 3 and a half years old, helps to clean the milking parlor as her dad looks on.
Olivia, 3 and a half years old, helps to clean the milking parlor as her dad looks on.

Her dad finally sold the dairy herd in early 2023, and the land ownership was transferred to Olivia by the end of the year. It was a tricky process, as she notes, “We weren’t only exchanging ownership of the land – we were also reconciling decades of debt from the dairy – and figuring out a pathway for my new farm business to get onto its feet and support my dad in retirement. We ultimately found a solution in working with our lender to refinance the debt and for my dad to sell the farm to me using an installment sale contract.” Along the way, Olivia worked with several organizations and advisers, but says Tim Biello of American Farmland Trust’s Farmland for a New Generation New York program was a throughline and source of support from the very beginning. She says, “Having one advisor who knew the whole story, who could see how far we had come and could celebrate crossing that finish line with me, made a world of difference.”

The time and effort the family put into letting go of the dairy and developing a sustainable new business strategy was all worth it in the end. Olivia says, “My dad bought a small fishing boat this summer, and we went out on the water for the first time since I was a little kid. Being able to see him finally take time during the day for recreation, and to experience that with him, was a really special moment.”

Learn more about American Farmland Trust’s programming to support farmland access and transfer through Farmland for a New Generation New York and to connect women in agriculture through New York Women for the Land.

Photo credits: Rebecca Drobis, Shawn Linehan, Eric Jenks

About the Author
Stephanie Castle

Women for the Land New York Program Manager



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