For most Americans, running short on groceries is no big deal: Scope out the fridge, jot down a list, and head out to the nearest grocery store or farmers market. We take abundance for granted, rarely considering the path our food takes from the farm to the table.
But if you take a look at the nation’s virtual “grocery store”—the farms that supply our food chain—there’s little to take for granted. The number of farms is shrinking and the age of farmers is increasing. Two out of three farms will change hands in the next 20 years, and 90 percent have no plan for who will take over.
The farmer, writer and activist Michael Ableman calls the uncertainty of our future farmers a “national emergency,” and the crisis has been compounded in recent years by climate change and its resulting chaos. (Drought-ravaged California, for instance, is expected to lose 564,000 acres of farmland in 2015 alone.)
Photo courtesy of Land for Good
The irony is that this loss of farmland isn’t due to a lack of interest in the work of farming. On the contrary, a growing number of young farmers, some of them first-generation farmers, are drawn to the profession. The problem? The cost of starting a farm from scratch is prohibitive. Many young farmers simply can’t afford the price of a startup.
Land for Good, an organization based in Keene, New Hampshire, looks at the twin problems of land succession and high startup costs, and sees an opportunity. By matching retiring farmers with those who are just beginning, the organization hopes to increase food security, maintain natural biodiversity, and improve the rural economics of the New England farm regions.
Founded in 2004, Land for Good views the problems of farmland preservation and economic opportunity from a systemic level—involving new and existing farmers, other land owners, and entire communities. In practice, their services boil down to three primary zones: Succession planning for farmers looking to retire, programs for new farmers in search of land, and assistance for non-farmers who own land suitable for agriculture. All three areas focus on organic, sustainable and locally based food systems, with an eye on maintaining biodiversity and the ecological health of New England’s rural regions.
Photo courtesy of Land for Good
The programs at Land for Good focus on planning and consulting. The group offers a variety of publications and worksheets, as well as hands-on help from half-a-dozen field officers who work throughout the New England region. Another emphasis of the group is knowledge transfer: In many cases, retiring farmers stay on as advisors to their younger successors.
Most recently, the group launched a pilot program specifically designed for dairy farmers. Because dairy farming requires expensive equipment and abundant pasture lands, it’s even more difficult for starting farmers to gain a toehold. The pilot, funded in part through a Farmers Advocating for Organics grant from Organic Valley farmers, will explore new tools and training designed to address the specific needs of dairy farmers.
Once upon a time, the transfer of land and knowledge from one farm generation to the next took place primarily within families. Land for Good is essentially updating that model for the more complex economics of our times. In the process, says senior program director and former executive director Kathy Ruhf, they’re creating a more sustainable future—environmentally and economically. “It’s not only about preserving land,” she says, “but also about providing active economic opportunities for young farm families.”
Organic Valley has always been dedicated to saving family farms and is happy to support Land for Good in their efforts to connect new and retiring farmers and establish the next generation of organic farmers in America.