Connection is the Key to Conserving Farmland for a New Generation in New York
I call myself a former farmer, but this is only part of my story; I am a fifth-generation farmer who has farmed in four states and three countries. I have helped two farms successfully transition to organic operations, learned the intricacies of biodynamic systems, provided agricultural training in dairy husbandry and beekeeping, and trained countless teams of horses so that farmers could transition from tractor usage to animal-powered market garden operations. Despite this experience, two degrees, and working for one of the leading agricultural organizations in the country, I was financially unable to take over my own family’s farm.
Young people with intergenerational knowledge and indigenous wisdom want to farm and grow food, but this vocation is often inaccessible due to the rising cost of land. Every year, development poses a great risk to farmland, farmer viability, and food security in the United States; however, this threat significantly accelerated during the pandemic. When COVID-19 swept across the Northeastern United States in 2020, affluent and majority white urban residents fled major cities such as New York in search of space in rural communities. They paid unprecedented prices to turn farms into investment properties, Airbnb’s, and second homes. Between 2020 and 2021, farmland prices in Ulster County in the Hudson Valley saw a price spike of 28.6%. Even more worrisome – rural farmers were largely left out of housing articles despite an increasing farmer housing crisis in the Northeast.
Noticing this trend, in 2020 I returned to my home community in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to conduct interviews with dairy farmers about the impacts of new non-operating farmland owners purchasing land in rural communities. The impacts ranged from new residents filing complaints with local police about the smell of farmers spreading manure, real estate agents interrupting chores with outrageous cash offers for their property, and farmers losing access to hayfields they had rented for decades. What at first seemed like a funny trend of affluent residents moving into working-class rural communities is now having major consequences for local and regional food systems as farmland becomes increasingly inaccessible for young, new, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other historically resilient farmers and growers. Protecting farmland requires uprooting the systemic inequalities in land access and ownership that exist due to a long American farming history of racism, sexism, and classism within the United States agricultural system.
When skilled land stewards are unable to access land, agricultural knowledge and wisdom is lost and our food systems, environments, and soils suffer. We must sustain not only the land that feeds us, but the knowledge and wellbeing of the farmers and growers that tend the land. Here in New York, some programs have focused on providing farmland protection new market opportunities to farmers to ultimately conserve farmland and protect farm viability. While this is an important endeavor, farmer training can only go so far to address farmland loss and inaccessibility. Many farm workers already have the technical expertise and business knowledge necessary to manage their own operations.
It is my belief that the key to a healthy agricultural system is connection. When I think about the farm I helped steward for 25 years of my life and can no longer access, I feel a connection to and longing for the land as if it were a living being. This connection to food and land is also evident in New York’s vibrant urban communities, from the Callaloo growing in the East Flatbush windowsills tended by Caribbean immigrants to colorful chards growing on townhouse stoops in Jackson Heights. Once a connection to the land has been established and hands have dug in soil, growers and farmers will go to amazing lengths to nurture their relationship to home-grown food. For those who choose to spend their lives farming and growing food for their communities, it is devastating to not be able to afford or access land; it is even more devastating to see this land be purchased by wealthier buyers who have limited experience in agriculture or even no interest in feeding their communities, as discussed in the recent NY Times Article, “How ‘Fairy Tale’ Farms are ‘Ruining’ Hudson Valley Agriculture.”
This issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not a new threat to the desirable farmland of New York’s Hudson Valley. American Farmland Trust has been working to educate and support non-farming landowners in making land available to farmers through the Farmland for a New Generation New York program and its regional predecessor, the Hudson Valley Farmlink Network, which have helped over 200 farmers access land since 2014. Affordable, secure land access for farmers is the ultimate goal, but there are many paths to get there. Farmland access can include direct purchases of land within or outside of the farm family, or short-term or long-term leases, including ground leases or lease-to-own arrangements. Land access can also involve a partnership with an existing farmer or a farming collective. There are also different farmer land access tools that can be used to help farmers access land more affordably, including conservation easements and buy-protect-sell transactions.
While most Farmland for a New Generation New York matches are from retiring farmer to next generation farmer, several have included long-term leases and collaborations with non-operating landowners, or ‘NOLs,’ who were committed to working with farmers to keep land in production. One of these unique partnerships was featured recently on AFT’s No Farms No Future podcast. Following the influx of new buyers during the COVID-19 pandemic, American Farmland Trust partnered with Glynwood to develop a 5-part Hudson Valley pilot program for training a cohort of non-operating landowners, or NOLs, on fostering equitable connections with farmers. Through this program, landowners develop an understanding of what farmers need in order to thrive on the land. Through this groundbreaking program, AFT found that many NOLs are willing and excited to work with farmers to keep farmland in production, showing that meaningful connections and relationship building are crucial to sustain our farmers, land, and food system.
I personally may never be able to reacquire the farm that I spent most of my life caring for, but I take comfort in my work at American Farmland Trust. Here, I can listen to current farmers’ stories and uplift their voices and experiences to develop programming or advocate for policy changes that will make the future of farming accessible, especially for BIPOC communities. I can also nurture farmers’ wellbeing, and most importantly, keep farmers and growers on the land that sustains us.
Special thanks to my AFT colleagues who contributed to this blog, including Molly Johnston-Heck and Olivia Fuller.