What happens when the average farmer in America is nearly 60 years old, and less than 2 percent of the nation’s workforce is on the farm? That’s a reality many throughout the nation are grappling with, and that the Farm Bill’s programs for beginning farmers, as well as various non-federal microloans and programs for young farmers, are seeking to assuage.
Minnesota’s governor has just signed a bill into law that seeks to fight this problem on the state level by connecting retiring farmers with young, aspiring farmers. The law provides a 5 percent tax credit to older farmers who sell their land to beginning agrarians—an incentive not to sell to land developers instead. Modern Farmer details the specifics of the bill:
Landowners get a state income tax credit when they sell or lease land, or even farm equipment and livestock, to a beginning farmer. It’s either a five percent credit of the sale price, or, for leases, it’s 10 percent of the rental income for the first three years, among other incentives. In return, the beginning farmer has to take a farm management class, the cost of which is also covered by a tax credit.
The hope is that the new Minnesota law can be a blueprint for similar legislation in other states. Fitzgerald says his organization has been in touch with other chapters of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) to talk policy, strategy, and sharing incites about what it took to get the law passed in Minnesota.
“The number one issue across the board, whether you’re in Minnesota, Georgia, or Colorado, is access to land,” 25-year-old grain farmer Matthew Fitzgerald told Modern Farmer.“The new program is win-win. It supports retiring farmers through a financial benefit and helps beginning farmers to hopefully get onto the land.”
These sorts of connections, often called “land links,” seek to remedy a dilemma created by the slow death of multigenerational farming families. In bygone eras, when farming and land ownership carried more cultural and economic clout, children were eager to have their parents’ land passed down. Nowadays, however, fewer farm heirs are willing to take on the family business. Farmlands turn into suburban neighborhoods, or are sold to a farmer’s neighbor, instead of passing into younger hands. This results in either the death of a farming enterprise, or the consolidation of land into larger and larger industrialized farms.
“A lot of people don’t see farming as something that will be financially viable,” Chelsey Simpson, a farmer’s daughter, once told me. In addition, she noted, many farming parents increasingly discourage their children from taking on the family business because “they know farming can be a challenging life, and don’t train them or ask them to pick up the mantle.”
But even as many farmers’ children leave behind the family farm, young people throughout the United States—many from urban and suburban backgrounds, interestingly enough—are eager to start their own farms. They face the burdens of buying land, expensive initial and ongoing production costs, and the slow financial gains associated with farming (especially its more sustainable methodologies)—not to mention whatever student loans or other debt they may carry.
This is why many throughout the United States are eager to establish and foster land links, although Eric Hansen, who’s worked as a policy analyst for the NYFC, has told me these sorts of programs can often have their own challenges.
“It’s not like selling a piece of furniture or a house—it’s a business, a big piece of your identity, where you’ve lived,” he noted. “People want to make sure the places they’re passing on will be valued and taken care of and managed properly. Not all 80-year-old farmers are the best at relating to 20- and 30-year-old farmers, and vice versa. Sometimes it takes an intermediary to bridge that divide and help these people work together. It takes a lot of social capital there to build the trust and develop a relationship.”
Perhaps Minnesota’s new law can help to establish some financial incentives for these relationships, while programs like NYFC foster the social capital and trust. As nearly a quarter of the nation’s farmers are expected to retire over the next 25 years, and only a handful of young farmers have risen up to take their place, something’s gotta give.