Farmland Access and Preservation in Connecticut: OPAV's Role - American Farmland Trust

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Farmland Access and Legislative Tools: OPAV’s Role in Farmland Affordability and Preservation in Connecticut

New England’s farmers need policies that help them gain access to farmland. In Connecticut, the Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (OPAV) emerges as a potential tool for aspiring, beginning, and seasoned farmers alike. An OPAV is a voluntary legal agreement that incentivizes the sale of farmland at its lowered agricultural value to a group of buyers limited to qualified farmers or farmer family members. As increasing threats of development, climate change, and food insecurity challenge farmland protection and access, it is essential that tools like this one are put forth to aid farmers in securing land access and keep farmland in agricultural production. OPAV can be transformative in addressing one of the biggest hurdles farmers face: affordable Connecticut farmland access. 

Will O’Meara, Co-Owner, and Operator of Hungry Reaper Farm, has experienced firsthand the challenges of securing access to farmland.   

“In my time as a farmer, I have experienced extreme difficulty navigating affordable land and housing while trying to maximize the public benefit we provide by growing food that we strive to make available to as many customers as possible, regardless of income level,” O’Meara tells us. 

Hungry Reaper Farm Co-Owners Will O’Meara (left) and Jill Verzino (center), alongside Farm Manager Enya Cunningham

During the first three seasons operating Hungry Reaper Farm, Will and his partner primarily spent their time navigating numerous one-year leases and property challenges. These short-term leases did not provide any degree of farmland security. Operating a diversified vegetable farm in western Connecticut for just over three years, Will’s story demonstrates the critical role that OPAV could play in overcoming obstacles to securing access to land. Will explained to us that it was incredibly challenging for him to acquire land security, and although he found a long-term solution through a farmland lease, he still does not have full ownership of the land he stewards. An OPAV would make farmland significantly more affordable for beginning farmer buyers like him. 

Hungry Reaper Farm, Morris, CT

Supportive organizations helped O’Meara gain more secure tenure to his farmland. He worked with Dirt Capital Partners, a farmland investment firm that locates farmland on the market, purchases the land on behalf of the farmer, and executes a long-term lease with the option to purchase. While this support did ultimately help Hungry Reaper Farm obtain a long-term lease, the “lack of flexibility and efficacy of current federal and state programs” meant that working with a for-profit investor was still unavoidable.

Will continues, “while we have voluntary state and federal farmland protection programs that provide funding to purchase and permanently extinguish development rights, both lack teeth to ensure that farmland remains in the stewardship of farmers.”

Although farmland is protected through programs like these, there is still no guarantee that it will remain in active agricultural production, nor are there incentives or requirements dictating that the land be sold to another farmer. 

Farm fields, Hungry Reaper Farm
Challenges to Farmland Access in Connecticut

Connecticut’s hilled and forested landscapes are underlaid with fierce competition for available farmland. At an average cost of $14,200 per acre, one of the highest prices for farmland in the country, access to farmland presents a significant barrier for aspiring, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers. Farmers find themselves in competition with one another and with non-farm buyers eyeing land for various development purposes.   

In Connecticut, 42% of producers are 65 or older, 10.2% are young or beginning farmers, and only 3% of producers identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). BIPOC producers face significant barriers to Connecticut farmland access due to centuries of systemic marginalization. The future of farming relies on equitable access to farmland for the next generation of farmers, including all who identify as young, beginning, and/or BIPOC. With many producers seeking to transfer their farmland to new ownership, alongside the added pressures of farmland conversion, our farms and farmers need more tools to support a feasible and accessible transition of land and its added protection.   

In response, the Connecticut State Legislature is considering the passage of OPAV legislation this session. H.B.5228 would enable the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to offer grants to land trusts, municipalities, or non-profits to purchase OPAVs on protected farmland. OPAV is a proven tool that makes farmland more accessible to new and aspiring producers and is already employed in states such as New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. OPAV not only addresses the financial barriers faced by beginning and historically marginalized farmers but also fortifies existing agricultural conservation easements. By offering additional financial compensation and instilling confidence in landowners that their farm legacy will continue, OPAV becomes a vital instrument in protecting farmland and ensuring that it remains in active agricultural use for generations to come.  

What Would OPAV in Connecticut Look Like?

Connecticut’s model of OPAV would be completely voluntary, one where landowners can choose whether or not they wish to place an OPAV on their farmland. An OPAV could also be used retroactively, meaning that farmers who have previously sold their land development rights can apply to have an OPAV placed on their property. OPAVs lower the sale price of a parcel of land to its agricultural value versus the fair market value, which trends higher. State funding ensures that the seller will still receive the full market value for their land by paying the difference through state dollars. An OPAV ensures that farmland can no longer be sold to all willing buyers but instead must be sold at its lower-priced agricultural value to only a qualified farmer or farmer family member. This additional layer to an agricultural conservation easement ensures that the land stays in production, strengthening Connecticut’s agricultural economy and food security.  

Will O’Meara’s experience as a beginning farmer unites him with a cohort of young, beginning, and BIPOC producers who are struggling to find secure farmland access to continue farming and grow their businesses.

Will and his farmer peers agree that “finding secure access to viable land is the greatest barrier faced by farmers and aspiring farmers alike.”

OPAV is a unique tool that can truly address this barrier and make farmland more accessible for all future generations of producers. 

Jill and Enya with freshly harvested flowers.

Connecticut must act now to adopt OPAV to strategically strengthen its farmland preservation initiatives. By protecting farmland and encouraging the sale of farms to the next generation, OPAV promises to amplify the state’s return on investment in farmland protection. OPAV not only safeguards the agricultural heritage of the region but also fosters innovation and resilience in the local food production system.  

In the face of stiff competition and impending farmland transitions, OPAV emerges as a lifeline for Connecticut’s farmers. The adoption of this forward-thinking tool could be a catalyst for preserving farmland, empowering young and beginning farmers, improving farmland access, and cultivating a viable future for Connecticut’s agricultural landscape.   

For more information on H.B.5228, please check out this handy one-pager from the Connecticut Working Lands Alliance. 

We extend a special thanks to Will O’Meara, his partner and farm Co-Owner, Jill Verzino, and the rest of the Hungry Reaper Farm staff for their participation and support on this blog, and for all the food they grow for their community! 

About the Author
Eliza Paterson

New England Policy Associate

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