CLF’s Hub Helps Improve New England Farms’ Uncertain Future

Melissa Chalek

In late April, CLF partners American Farmland Trust (AFT) and Land For Good (LFG) released a joint study on farm succession in New England. The study reveals that our region’s farmers are aging fast – as of 2012, 85% of principal farm operators were over the age of 45, up from 76% in 2002.

In fact, nearly one-third of New England farmers are aged 65 or older, and more than 90% of them do not work with a young farmer. That means many of our farms face uncertain futures as senior farmers look to retire.

What’s more, even when eager young farmers do want to buy a property of their own, they face such steep financial hurdles that their dream rarely becomes a reality – making a sustainable future for New England’s small farms even more uncertain.

Fortunately, CLF’s Legal Services Food Hub is here to help with both of these critical issues.

Farmers Have Trouble Creating Succession Plans

To understand why so many senior farmers fail to plan for their farms’ futures, AFT and LFG conducted focus groups with older farm operators. Although all of the focus group participants wanted their land to remain farmland, most felt “overwhelmed” by the process of succession planning. One farmer noted, “I’m not sure who to go to for what information. I need one person…who can listen and point me to the appropriate place.”

This lack of a consistent source of reliable information is just one of the factors putting New England’s farms – and our regional food economy – at risk.

Young Farmers Have Trouble Finding Financing 

That risk is exacerbated by the difficulties that new farmers face. According to the report, finding financing and capital is the number one hurdle for young farmers today. Many focus group participants spoke of farm workers who would be ideal successors. However, those potential successors couldn’t afford the purchase. When presented with alternative methods, such as gradual transfer of the farm over time, most participants had not considered such options.

Lack of information and assistance are again hindering the continuance of farms.

CLF’s Legal Services Food Hub Can Help

Concern for the future of New England farms is one of the issues that CLF is working to address through our Legal Services Food Hub. The Hub pairs farmers, food entrepreneurs, and food-related organizations with attorneys willing to provide pro bono legal services. The attorneys assist with transactional matters, including farm succession planning.

CLF first launched the Hub in Massachusetts in 2014 and expanded into Maine in 2015. Later this year, the Hub will expand once again, this time into Rhode Island. As in the remainder of New England, approximately 90% of Rhode Island farmers over age 65 do not have a young farmer working with them. These farmers manage 19,603 acres of farmland (that’s about 3% of Rhode Island’s total land area!), and their land and buildings are valued at approximately $266 million.

Rhode Island has a higher-than-average percentage of beginning farmers, with 30% of the state’s principal farm operators having fewer than ten years of experience. However, these beginning farmers represent only 10% of the total agricultural market value and average a negative net income. Rhode Island is also the only New England state that has seen growth in the number of young operators – under 45 years of age – since 2002.

This data shows that there are plenty of young farmers in Rhode Island, but not a lot of financial capacity. These farmers could use some help.

CLF is looking forward to launching the Hub in Rhode Island to help senior farmers plan viable ways to pass their farms on to young farmers – and to tackle some of the many other legal issues that stymie progress in Rhode Island’s burgeoning food sector.

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