Working to Meet the Growing Need for the Next Generation of New York Farmers
When I started working with American Farmland Trust my role was to support the existing Hudson Valley Farmlink Network. I served as a first point of contact for the Hudson Valley Farmland Finder website, a resource AFT launched in 2014 to connect young and beginning farmers with farmland and to help landowners keep their land in farming, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
In my first few months with AFT we received hundreds of phone calls and emails from farmland owners and farmland seekers across the state, but we had no way to formally share opportunities with them if they were outside of the Hudson Valley. Because of the success of the regional program and the demand for a statewide resource, we were able to launch the Farmland for a New Generation New York program and the New York Farmland Finder in October of 2018, in partnership with the state of New York, agricultural organizations, land trusts, and others. When it first launched, the New York Farmland Finder had about 300 total users. Today that number has grown to well over 550 with new profiles added every week!
No Farms No Food, No Farmers No Farms
In New York 30% of our farmland, nearly two million acres, is owned or operated by farmers over age 65. Of those farmers 92% do not have a young farmer (under 45) working alongside them. This suggests that the future of many of these farms is uncertain and this land is at risk of development if a farm successor has not been identified. Between 2001 and 2016, 253,507 acres of farmland in New York were either developed or fragmented, making it more susceptible to development. Because of this loss New York was ranked in the top 20 most threatened states for farmland conversion.
While farming is hard to get out of, it is also hard to get started with. Over half of the beginning farmers in New York are over 45 years of age. Many of these people are starting to farm after they have built up their assets in a non-agricultural career. In the last 20 years the number of farmers under age 45 has decreased by 30%. Starting a farm is very capital intensive and land in New York is expensive. Ultimately, leasing land is a good way for a beginning farmer to get started, but by leasing a farmer is not building equity and leases often lack stability.
Young farmers, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, face additional barriers in accessing land and capital by structural socio-economic inequalities and a history of discrimination in credit markets, state and federal farm programs, and real estate.
The global coronavirus pandemic added more challenges to the already difficult farmland access process. Anecdotally, there was an urban exodus seen across the country. In New York this greatly impacted the Hudson Valley and Long Island, areas already under intense development pressure due to their proximity to New York City. Low interest rates on mortgages made purchasing land more enticing for buyers. Increase in demand for land caused a “seller’s market” where real estate often sells for well over the market value.
A Comprehensive Resource for a Complex Issue
The New York Farmland Finder helps address some of these challenges and serves as a platform for farmland owners to connect with the next generation of farmers. Both farmers and landowners can create profiles, farmers can list their experience and criteria for land and tenure, and landowners can list their property and the options to lease or purchase. Farmers and landowners can also find events, online resource guides, special opportunities such as grants, as well as the contact information for AFT staff and Regional Navigators —partner organizations with dedicated staff – that provide direct support to farmers and landowners in regions across New York. As the point of contact for AFT, I often help farmers with creating profiles on the New York Farmland Finder website as well as provide referrals to resources that can help them with their land access needs or business plan development.
Since the launch of the New York Farmland Finder, Farmland for a New Generation New York has helped facilitate over 60 farmer and landowners matches, keeping nearly 3,000 acres of farmland in production! These matches range from sales, like Emma Smalley, who purchased land in Allegany County to raise meat goats, to lease agreements, including two Long Island vegetable farmers collaboratively farming on protected land, as well as farm management positions, like Maddie Morley, who found security during the pandemic with a long-term farm management position.
With the success of this program in its first few years we were able to merge the existing Hudson Valley program with the statewide program so that farmers and landowners can go to one comprehensive resource for the state that has collectively helped more than 150 farmers gain access to land.
Securing a Future for the Next Generation of Farmers
In April, the governor and the legislature passed a state budget that included $500,000 for Farmland for a New Generation New York, recognizing the importance of supporting a new generation of farmers getting onto the land in New York. This funding will keep the New York Farmland Finder and its resources active and growing, including the development of non-English resources, and an additional $100,000 to support Regional Navigators working directly with farmers and farmland owners across the state.
While new challenges arise every day for the future of farming, I’m proud to be part of a program that is working to support and keep farmers on the land in New York.