Want to be a farmer? Soon, it may be easier to find farmland.

 Photo by  Biegun Wschodni  on  Unsplash

Written by Robert Downen

Leah Hennessy has repped Hollywood screenwriters and globetrotted as a sommelier. But it's goats and endangered one-toed pigs that make her happy.

While on a wine-tasting trip in Southern France, the Glenmont native stumbled across a one-woman goat farm, and with it an answer to years of soul searching: "I'd rather shovel (manure) every day than have to worry about how much toner was in the office printer."

In 2014 — equipped with a business management background but no real farm experience — she uprooted her Los Angeles life to pursue heritage farming in upstate New York, leaning on free workshops through Cornell Cooperative Extension for a crash course in agriculture.

But like many other young, would-be farmers who have abandoned city living for the farm trade, Hennessy soon found herself on a long, costly, frustrating path to finding and acquiring land. Two years later -— and after stretches of working three part-time apprentice jobs, and bouts of unemployment that wrecked her credit and dried up her savings — she was finally able to purchase her plot in Argyle.

It was a "hellacious" process to break ground at Moxie Ridge Farm and Creamery, she said. But she also knows she was lucky; the "stars aligning" in the form of a few well-placed phone calls and a farm-minded equity group, Dirt Capital, that was willing to take a risk in financing her dream.

"There are a lot of people like me," Hennessy said. "There are a ton of people in my generation that want to do this — that want to pick up these torches that have fallen to the ground.

"And unless we do something to help them and support them, those farms are going to go away."

Indeed, across the nation, many credit-scarce, student debt-saddled young people have been locked out of land ownership, mirroring the hurdles to homeownership plaguing millennials in cities across the nation.

The combination of lower farm incomes, consolidations, and demand for residential and commercial development space have also driven up the cost to rent farmsteads. Last year was the first year since 2009 that national cropland values decreased, dipping by $40 to an average $4,090 per acre, according to USDA, while average, per-acreage rents have increased by 71 percent since 2006. In New York, the value of cropland has more than doubled since the turn of the century, with one acre averaging $2,580 statewide this year and nearing $4,800 in Saratoga County.

And many times, getting land is only the first challenge: Organic farmers, for example, often have to wait three years to become certified so as to ensure no pesticides remain in their soil; and crop insurance is usually too expensive for startup farms, meaning they're especially vulnerable to the severe droughts and flash downpours that have already devastated New York farms, and which scientists agree will only worsen with climate change.

Rural farm communities are also struggling to combat chronic unemployment and population declines, drying up consumer bases that once supported smaller family farms. That in turn makes it more difficult to craft and meet business plans that — as Hennessy found, even despite her decade of financial know-how — scare off investors who provide access to capital.

These are problems that, if not immediately and adequately addressed, could have tremendous consequences for a sector in which the average farm operator is now nearing 60, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"For farming to become a viable career, the land needs to be there," said Holly Rippon-Butler, of the Hudson-based National Young Farmers Coalition.

Her group has been pushing for, among other things, student loan forgiveness for farmers and a change in conservation easement programs to require land stay affordable.

Currently, she said, most easements "don't ensure that farmland stays in the hands of farmers, in production or in a range of what a farmer can afford."

"That's discouraging," she said.

She said larger farm lobbying groups have generally supported NYFC's legislative items, a promising sign as Washington lawmakers mull what to cut from or include in the massive, omnibus Farm Bill expected to pass next year. The five-year lifespan of that legislation makes it particularly important for smaller farm groups to score as many wins as possible, lest they have to wait another half-decade to push larger agenda items.

In New York, lawmakers are trying to aid new farmers by creating an inventory of state-owned property that's viable for agriculture. The bill, sponsored by North Country Republican Patty Ritchie and awaiting signature from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would also require the state Agriculture Advisory Council to "provide guidance regarding tax, financial assistance, and other policies and programs that might address the needs of new farmers."

"Farming is a difficult business," Ritchie wrote, citing growth in Greek yogurt and local food initiatives as evidence of the need to "highlight the importance of assisting new farmers starting out."

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets has also been trying to address the issue holistically, bringing together a hodgepodge of private and public actors to create a sort of one-stop shop for startup farms to access capital, workshops and land. As the percentage of young farmers without agriculture experience increases, Commissioner Richard Ball said that helping ease the transition is vital.

"Agriculture is kind of riding a tidal wave of great interest by our public," he said last week as he left Empire Farms, one stop on his statewide listening tour for young farmers. "A record number of people have an interest in being in our food system in a meaningful way."

"You've got a lot of people falling in love with the idea of agriculture, but who don't know where square one" is, he said.

As more and more families move away from agriculture, they take with them the basic know-how that's vital to starting — and maintaining — a successful food system. For many new farmers, Ball said, "the learning curve is a little bit steeper, and the financial curve of getting into the business is a little bit steeper.

"The stakes have been raised a bit."

SOURCE: Times Union