Ushering New and Beginning Farmers onto Agriculture Acreage through Federal Land Access Policy Incentives - American Farmland Trust

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Ushering New and Beginning Farmers onto Agriculture Acreage through Federal Land Access Policy Incentives

Across the country, new and beginning farmers are struggling to access land. In its 2022 survey of more than 10,000 young farmers, National Young Farmers Coalition found that acquiring affordable farmland was the top challenge for respondents. In fact, 59 percent of survey takers said that finding reasonably priced land is “very or extremely challenging.” Secure, affordable land access is especially difficult for farmers of color, who deal with additional systemic challenges in their pursuit of an agrarian dream.

The land access issue is, of course, important to beginning farmers themselves. But it should matter to everyone.

American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) research shows that nearly 300 million acres—or about a third of the country’s agricultural land—will transition to new owners over the next twenty years as current farmers exit the field. If current trends continue, an alarming amount of that agricultural land could be converted into real estate development. Because of the high cost of farmland, much of the transitioning land that avoids conversion could be subsumed into expanding already-established operations. The latest data from the Census of Agriculture reveals a 7 percent decline in the overall number of farms and a 5 percent increase in average farm size just in the last five years, highlighting an ongoing and concerning trend toward fewer, larger operations.

Where does that leave young farmers who are eager to make a start—but can’t get their foot in the door? How can they compete with developers who want to plant subdivisions or strip malls and well-capitalized existing farmers or farmland investors?

In recent years, a few government efforts have tried to address these questions by creating and expanding programs and policies to help young farmers access land. One of those federal programs is known as CRP-TIP: the Conservation Reserve Program – Transition Incentives Program.

In its simplest form, here’s how CRP-TIP works. A landowner enrolls some of their acreage—usually their most environmentally sensitive land—into the Conservation Reserve Program, where it is taken out of production for 10-15 years and planted with resource-conserving species. In exchange for taking the land out of production, enrollees are given an annual “per acre” payment by the USDA. Once a CRP contract term is up, the payments end, and the land can be returned to production. But in the case of the Transition Incentives Program, landowners who specifically choose to sell or lease (for at least five years) their exiting CRP acreage to a beginning, veteran, and/or BIPOC (or “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color,” referred to in the program as “socially disadvantaged”) farmer or rancher can receive an additional two years of CRP payments. Hopefully, they pass along some of that economic benefit in the form of a lower rental rate or sales price to the person or people now farming that land.

The program sounds complicated and complex, but the gist is this: Through the Transition Incentives Program, landowners with acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program are incentivized to make their land available through sale or lease to beginning, veteran, and/or BIPOC farmers.

In An Evaluation of the Federal Transition Incentives Program on Land Access for Next-Generation Farmers,” which is published in the open-access Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, Megan Horst, Julia Valliant, and Julia Freedgood study the program through both qualitative and quantitative research. As a component of the “Land Access Policy Incentives” project—a partnership between American Farmland Trust, Indiana University, and Portland State University—the authors aimed to understand how the program has, or has not, helped the new farmers it was intended to benefit. In doing so, they fill a crucial gap. No systematic research has yet explored CRP-TIP’s effectiveness since the program was created in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Horst, Valliant, and Freedgood found mixed results. Between January 2014 and April 2022, there were roughly 2,700 CRP-TIP contracts, or an average of 300 per year. Participation varied across the country, but most of the contracts occurred in Mountain West, Midwest, and Plains states. Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa led the way. There were also a high number of contracts in the Texas panhandle.

The study found that these contracts are indeed helping some beginning farmers—particularly those who come from multi-generational farm families who raise livestock and commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. Often, contracts are made between younger farmers and their neighbors or other community members. It’s possible that the CRP-TIP program helped facilitate these connections, but it’s not certain that the arrangement wouldn’t have happened anyway. Some evidence suggests that by connecting these beginning farmers with land access opportunities, CRP-TIP slows consolidation of agricultural land. The authors also cite data showing that farmers who are retiring from active production are enthusiastic about connecting new farmers with land. That’s good news.

Yet Horst and her coauthors found shortcomings. For one, the primary financial benefits of this program (i.e., the extended CRP payments) go to established landowners rather than beginning farmers themselves, with no guarantee or requirement that the economic benefits are passed on. Also, the beginning farmers who most often use the program are those who already have connections and networks in the agricultural community. In other words, the program hasn’t done much to help first-generation farmers establish a foothold in farming communities. Whether a beginning farmer is established or not, they often have some trouble working the land since it has been “retired” through the CRP program for at least a decade—and since, given its CRP eligibility, the land may be “marginal” for farming in the first place. Thus, quick success, which is essential to a young farmer’s chances of long-term economic security, can be elusive.

Other challenges were identified, too. Understanding of the program among the state and local USDA staff who manage it is low, in part because these staffers are asked to do so many other things with limited time and resources. Short-term land leases, which are far more popular than sales in CRP-TIP, don’t give young farmers much chance to build equity or generational wealth. And finally, while it’s a strength that the program explicitly states its focus on supporting underserved farmers and ranchers, CRP-TIP doesn’t seem to do much to actually help them. It’s not clear if that’s because of geographic mismatches—there are fewer BIPOC farmers, for example, in some of the areas with the highest concentration of CRP lands—or inadequate outreach.

CRP-TIP, then, is a well-intentioned program, and it has moved the needle. That progress can be seen in some case studies and profiles. But on the whole, Horst, Valliant, and Freedgood argue that the program isn’t doing enough to address the mammoth problem of land access in American agriculture.

Given TIP’s limitations in meeting the needs of aspiring farmers throughout the nation, AFT believes that the best approach to addressing land access would be to establish a new USDA program dedicated to offering a comprehensive suite of services to new farmers, including assistance in finding land, accessing capital, and receiving the business technical assistance needed for thriving operations. The USDA Increasing Access to Land, Capital, and Markets Program, which was established in 2023, provides an example of this approach. However, this program was set up with one-time relief funding. The bipartisan and bicameral Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act would make the program permanent within the Farm Bill. This legislation has been endorsed by a wide range of organizations, including AFT, National Young Farmers Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Rural Coalition.

Unfortunately, given the current financial constraints facing the next Farm Bill, the establishment of such a new program faces an uphill climb, making it all the more important that CRP-TIP be improved within the legislation. A key goal must be to strengthen the program’s ability to reach its intended audience and support incoming producers. This improvement could include more education and outreach to ensure that landowners and land-seekers are aware of the program and its benefits. Because USDA is currently prohibited from sharing any information about CRP enrollees, land seekers have no way to search for potential TIP contracts. By allowing CRP enrollees to “opt-in” to having their information shared through local land-linking efforts, as National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has suggested, these connections could be facilitated.

Other small changes to the program could set both the retiring and aspiring farmers up for success. For instance, TIP could be used to incentivize longer-term leases and land sales rather than short-term rentals. This would help incoming beginning farmers build equity and make larger investments in the land. Additional data collection is also critical to understanding the program’s strengths and weaknesses—and how to make future improvements. Thankfully, the USDA is investing in more CRP-TIP research and outreach by partnering with organizations throughout the nation.

Land access is a defining agricultural challenge of our time. It’s essential that we provide more support and assistance to the next generation of producers who will grow our food and steward our land. In addition to other projects, policies, and programs, we can take these much-needed steps through decisive action in the Farm Bill and through improvements to the existing CRP-TIP program.

It may sound cliché, but it’s true: The future of American agriculture depends on increasing and improving land access.

About the Author
Erica Goodman

Farms for a New Generation Director

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