Down Home on Someone Else’s Farm: Tenant Farming is a Viable Option for Those Starting Out
By Meghan Gourley, Stone Barns Reporter-at-Large
Year after year, livestock farmer Brenna Chase found herself caught in a cycle that ate away her profits. “It was a lot of money out in spring, and a lot back in the fall, and then it just started over again.” Chase, 33, raised pigs, cattle and chickens on rented farmland in Brunswick, Maine and felt stymied by the realities of leasing land; it was difficult to move forward without making a serious investment in the land, and it was difficult to invest heavily in land that she didn’t own. Though Chase ran a successful business selling organic meat and eggs at local shops and farmers markets, it was break-even. “I felt like I was running in place.”
With farmland prices on to rise, and land rental rates rising right along with them, beginning farmers are met with serious challenges. The most recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census places the average acre of farmland at triple the amount of just 20 years ago. Faced with tough odds, a growing number of farmers are turning to tenant farming; in the Northeast most are invested in sustainable agriculture, and find work on farms that share a similar philosophy.
Chase, and her partner James Blair, 30, now belong to this group; the two manage Turner Farms, an organic livestock, poultry, and vegetable operation in North Haven, Maine. Chase confesses, “I used to say I’m too independent minded to not work for myself but that’s exactly what happened. After going through an experience like I did, you realize some changes are acceptable.” Chase found a farm committed to sustainability and the arrangement has kept she and Blair from turning their back on farming. She says, “I can sleep at night. My bills are paid.”
The pair are in good company; it’s estimated that half of the 9.2 million acres of farmland in the United States are owned by someone other than the farmer and tenant farming, sometimes called estate farming, exists on a wide spectrum. A term that once conjured up raw images that most would like to forget, today’s tenant farmers choose a life connected to the land, and receive competitive salaries and benefits. They learn economic lessons without risking their personal finances; and they often make powerful decisions on behalf of landowners. A tenant farmer might look after hundreds of acres of row crops in Iowa, or five acres of diversified vegetables in New York. Pairing young farmers with landowners is critical and challenging—for a variety of reasons, it can be difficult to make a match.
Bill and Lesley King, professionals who purchased a farm in Litchfield, Connecticut, experienced the challenge firsthand. Frustrated by a perceived lack of resources as they searched for someone to live on, and manage, their 55-acre farm, the Kings approached the Stone Barns Center for help. “We wanted somebody who would be comfortable with us and would feel comfortable including us with the farm work. We also wanted someone who was committed, but felt it was OK not to stay forever.” Acting as matchmaker, Stone Barns paired the couple with 30-year-old Mike Krug, who graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Montana and apprenticed at Stone Barns. Krug now has a two-year contract, including healthcare benefits to farm food for markets and local restaurants. “I was really excited about it, and almost instantly committed. Still, I had to sit down with the Kings—they had to feel me out and vice versa.” Ultimately, the Kings would like to use their property for educational purposes, and have benefited from Krug’s knowledge of sustainable farming. At the same time, Krug has had an education in the business aspect of running a farm.
West of Litchfield in Rhinebeck, New York, Zach Wolf, 30, and, Olivia Kirby, 29, manage hotelier Andrew Balazs’s farm, Locusts on Hudson. If you’ve dined at the Standard Grill in New York City, you’ve eaten from the farm. Wolf was formerly a field foreman at the Stone Barns Center. Working at Locusts Farms provides an opportunity to further his management experience. Wolf explains, “Olivia and I felt like we needed more time to develop a sense of how to manage a farm business. We were given the range to create a farm from scratch.” The two have been working on the farm for over a year.
An evolving and prescient group of organizations recognize the need for programs that pair landowners with farmers on a larger scale. Marissa Codey is a manager at nonprofit Columbia Land Conservancy, which has a database of 58 farmers and 81 farm owners hoping to find a match. “We have a staff of 15 people. Half of that, I put toward the matching program.” Many of the owners in the data base are like the Kings, says Codey. “The majority of people are relatively new landowners; a lot of them live in the city and they have weekend properties in Columbia County.” Small farms are on the rise, nationwide. Between 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in the U.S. between one and nine acres increased by 30%, and farms between ten and 49 acres increased by 10%. In areas without formal matching services, landowners are turning to websites like GoodFoodJobs.com to fill positions. While new resources for landowners and farmers are seen as a positive, matches are most successfully made when the characters of all parties involved are taken into account and both sides are carefully vetted.
Operating under a different set of circumstances, farmers in the Midwest are turning to tenant farming, too. Michael Duffy, professor of economics at Iowa State has studied land tenure issues in Iowa for years. “We have more people retiring from farming and just keeping the land. They don’t sell it when they retire—they view the land as part of their social security. And women live longer than men, which is especially true of farmers. About one-fifth of Iowa farmland is owned by a single female, and 1 in 10 acres is owned by a single female over the age of 75.” Duffy manages Iowa State’s Beginning Farmer Center, which has a growing database of retiring and young farmers; the system offers a way to match the two and includes 380 young people and 16 retiring couples. “As people are getting older and can’t physically farm, they have someone else do the farming and pay that person for the operations. We’re seeing more of that and it will probably continue.” Progress is met with serious challenges; less than 15 percent of Iowa farmers report that they have high-speed Internet access. Duffy says, “One of the big things I encourage young farmers to do is develop a flier or trifold brochure to sell themselves.” It’s difficult for young farmers to market themselves to a generation who doesn’t use the Internet; Twitter is obsolete in a world of handshake agreements.
Farmers who are able to find an arrangement still wrestle with the notion that tenant farming is a short-term solution and farming is a long-term investment. “We put in the same amount of work and personal commitment into the land as we would if we owned it, but at the end of the day it isn’t ours,” explains Chase. Farmers feel invested in, and attached to, the land. Krug echoes, “The thing that is lost is a long-term relationship with a piece of land. Ideally, I would love to be able to observe the climate over a good 5 or 10 years—and the way the soil changes. Developing a long-term historic view is a challenge with this kind of arrangement.” More resources are needed to ensure that land is carefully transitioned from one farmer to another; both tenant and landowner want to see their investment thrive in the future and through a change of hands.
Recognizing the hurdles faced by beginning farmers, each year farm loans are appropriated as part of the USDA’s budget; and the USDA Farm Service Agency places a premium on farm management experience when awarding them. To qualify for a Beginning Farmers and Ranchers farm ownership loan—the best hope in securing a large loan—applicants must have participated in the business operations of a farm for at least three years out of the previous 10. Allyson Angelini, 24, was a tenant farmer in Connecticut and Massachusetts for two years. Her experience combined with an agriculture degree from Amherst College qualified her for a loan, and she purchased a farm in Connecticut earlier this year. “I, like every other farmer, imagined this spacious property and a porch—a place where my grandchildren will be. I had been saving for a while to start a farm; this is my investment. Do I want to stay here forever? I’m not sure.” Prophetically Angelini adds, “Farmers have to be flexible.”
Even the most flexible beginning farmers need better structure in place. Unfortunately, little public support exists for this group because most people are unaware of their circumstances. As a result, farmable land sits idle while beginning farmers—many who are dedicated to a sustainable agriculture system—leave the field for more reliable, profitable work. Brenna Chase, Mike Krug, and Zach Wolf are ambassadors of sustainable farming practices, teaching landowners how to grow responsibly. If we want to eat their food at farmers markets and in restaurants, we need to grow the support and funding of matching programs; the goal is to turn beginning farmers into lifelong farmers.