As so many farmers and other people in our network are aware, access to land is among the greatest challenges facing next-generation farmers. The problem is multi-faceted, a complex convergence of unstable land tenure, increasing land costs, and constant pressure to convert farmland for development. In addition, historic discrimation and lack of investment in female and BIPOC farmers has put non-white farming communities in a particularly difficult position in terms of land access. But there are indications that the next generation is gaining a foothold: the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture reports that 27% of California farmers are beginning farmers with up to 10 years of experience. It’s an encouraging sign, and helps us to understand why nearly every day another farmer registers to become a “landseeker” in our network.
Good quality farmland is in great demand, and in our network, that challenge is clear: we usually have five times more farmers than land opportunities. That’s why we’re working to encourage farm and ranch landholders to use our online Land Portal to promote available farm and ranch land. landholders can post land for lease or sale, and farmers can share their interests and qualifications. We’ve been publishing land opportunities online since 2013, but the Land Portal now enables landseekers to post profiles about themselves and message landholders directly. It’s an advance that holds great potential for making more land links.
People looking for land are now sharing their qualifications and aspirations, which are only visible to other registrants. In that sense, it’s essentially a social network.
And given the intense demand for farmland, the system is designed to enable landholders to remain anonymous until they choose to respond to an inquiry. They can also review the qualifications of “landseekers” and even search for farmers by acreage sought, counties of interest, years of experience, and more. The land listing service is provided for an annual fee of $25, which includes a brief land listing on our public website, a more detailed listing in the Land Portal, and in most cases, promotion on social media. Some land opportunities are established, turnkey operations, while others may be bare ground ready for a farmer’s touch, and each submission is reviewed by a staff member before it’s published.
One person who’s been part of our land-linking network for nearly a decade is Claire Etienne, whose great grandparents settled and established a farm in Paradise Valley near Aptos. Today she lives elsewhere in California and has secured two tenants through FarmLink’s network. While recently discussing her experience with FarmLink, she said, “The website with potential for farmers is good. Since I don’t live there all the time, it’s good to have staff who know local farmers. It’s been a positive experience.” One of the challenges that has concerned her is the cost of water, even at agricultural rates. She values the farmers’ ability to adapt their farming plans to avoid adverse impacts to their viability. Dialogue with prospective tenants with the support of FarmLink has been part of navigating that challenge. Commenting on her experiences with FarmLink staff, she said, “Getting people together to meet with farmers is useful, especially with the staff’s Spanish language abilities. Staff move things along and clarify things. Bringing the farmer and landowner together is valuable. It’s been a positive experience.”
Over the years we’ve facilitated hundreds of landowner-farmer connections. We also provide support with lease agreements and education to sustain successful farm businesses. When land connections are made, FarmLink can support the development of land tenure agreements with the interests of both parties in mind. Liya Schwartzman, Central Valley Regional Coordinator at FarmLink, says, “We’re supporting landholders who are interested in keeping their land productive while helping next-generation farmers to access land and maintain viable farm businesses. This is fundamental for the future of California agriculture.”
Part of Liya’s work in recent years has been focused on developing an extensive menu of equitable land tenure agreements and unique lease clauses. We’ve been able to do this thanks to the assistance we get from the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford University. Optional lease clauses address the needs of both landholders and tenants including soil health, drought conditions, infrastructure improvements, as well as pathways to ownership such as first rights of refusal and options to purchase.
FarmLink continues to make investments to improve the Land Portal experience and broaden our ability to bring farmers and landholders together with the best possible win-win scenarios. For example, we’re creating brief videos that outline how the enrollment process works, in both English and Spanish, and helping people to understand how to make the most of the tool, bringing people together to create equitable opportunities for establishing land tenure and investing in the future of next-generation and farmers of color throughout California.