The ownership of 40 percent of America’s agricultural land will be in transition within the next 15 years, putting both family farmers and the land they steward at risk. Meanwhile, would-be farmers often can’t afford to enter the field.


To steward farmland and ranchland well requires knowing it well. We need many eyes on the ground and many hands in the dirt. But farming is a tough job. Farmers and ranchers operate on very slim margins and are often only one hailstorm or dry spell or medical bill away from ruin.

These financial realities are now coming to a head with a demographic tidal wave the likes of which American agriculture has never seen. AFT estimates that 371 million acres of farmland and ranchland could be in transition in the next 15 years, due simply to the age of farmland owners.

Much of that land could be lost to agricultural production, unless we can find a way to get it into the hands of the next generation of farmers and ranchers. That’s a big challenge.

There are plenty of Americans who want to become farmers, both young people starting out and older people starting second careers. But farming and ranching have high barriers to entry, coupled with low financial returns. Many people who want to farm simply cannot afford to do so.

One of the big barriers is the cost of land, a barrier that can often be overcome if that land is protected with a well-structured agricultural easement. Farmland protected with an easement sells at its “farm value,” not its “development value,” making it more affordable. Agricultural easements provide a path for beginning farmers to get into the business and for existing farmers to expand their operations.

New farmers need help with a wide variety of services, including finding land and business planning. All farmers and ranchers are interested in new market opportunities and operational enhancements that might strengthen their bottom line. There’s also a need for tax policies that reduce financial strain and facilitate easier farm transitions.

The underlying issue here is economic. Until such time that we have an economic system that rewards farmers and ranchers adequately for both the food they raise and the environmental services they provide, society will be hard pressed to recruit and retain the farmers and ranchers we need to grow our food and restore our planet. For this reason, AFT has researched and piloted alternative mechanisms by which farmers might be compensated for environmental stewardship. We created the first viable system of water quality credits, and we continue to explore how this concept might be expanded. We see opportunities for market-based mechanisms reinforced by public policy.

Forty percent of American farmland is owned by people age 65 and older, while the number of beginning farmers and ranchers keeps falling. There is only a short window of time to ensure these farms pass on to a new generation and to give them the assistance and support they need to make a life on the land.

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