Landowners willing to adjust and extend leases
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic farmers maintain what Penn State Extension Educator and Agronomist David Wilson described as short-term, year-to-year leases, including those that are often verbal.
These casual agreements are for the very earth that is among a farmer’s greatest assets.
“It’s risky,” Dauphin County straw and hay farmer Tyler Shaw said, “but if you can’t afford to farm, you’re not going to get anything back.”
The earth, when nurtured, becomes more fertile, improving the farmer’s production and decreasing the land loss and the water and soil pollution that accompany erosion, Wilson said.
Tenant farmers in Pennsylvania in 2019 paid what the USDA shows was an average $3,669 to $23,701 monthly for an average 137 acres and yet “don’t have much of a future vision of what’s going to happen,” Wilson said. “They can plan ahead but, if the [land]owners pull the plug on them, it’s over.
“They need to sit down with the owners and have conversations with them … [and] try to get something … that gives them a little more longevity at least,” he said.
Shaw, 24, said that he has negotiated written and verbal farmland leases with several landowners for varied lengths of time.
Lease terms, he said, depend upon what the landowner wants, the condition of the land, what he has to put into it for production and how well he knows the landowner.
Shaw does the right thing in farming the land regardless, he said.
“The more you take care of the ground, the more the owner is comfortable,” Shaw said. “Once you have that relationship with the landowner, I don’t see you going anywhere [else].”
Landowners who responded to an American Farmland Trust survey said that they are willing to adjust and extend leases in order to incorporate conservation-related issues into them.
A challenge in getting farmers and landowners to work more cohesively together has nevertheless involved the different ways that non-operator landowners and farmers view the land, Wilson said: One essentially views it as an investment. The other basically wants to get the most out of it.
“The soil management is the key to their production levels,” Wilson said.
With many farmers retiring, Pennsylvania programs such as Farm Link work to connect operator and non-operator landowners with farmers who would like to lease or purchase land.
Yet 22 percent of Pennsylvania’s landowner respondents to the American Farm Trust survey said that they do not know who is next going to own their land.
Shaw said that one of the attributes that has worked against him in land negotiations is his age, an area where the USDA suggests that the farming population is experiencing a shortage.
The agency in farm population counts for its 2017 agricultural census reported that a gap in the number of young farmers and those who are aging out of the industry is widening.
The number of primary producers age 65 and older who outnumber those younger than age 35 increased between the 2014 and 2017 censuses from a ratio of 5.85:1 to 6.41:1.
In Pennsylvania, the ratio is 2.55:1.
“We’ve invested a tremendous amount of time and money to attract people to careers in agriculture,” Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokesperson Shannon Powers said, citing programs such as farm to school and ag and youth grants. “We’re also attracting people who are disproportionate to our population.”
Pennsylvania offers tax incentives for keeping farmland used as farmland and for selling or renting preserved farmland to qualifying beginning farmers, Powers said.
The state’s Ag Business Development Center would be a place for landowners to learn about land transitions and to find legal counsel for succession planning, Powers said.
The business development center based at the Department of Agriculture’s Dauphin County headquarters offers consulting and referral services in person, via telephone and at farms and businesses throughout the state.
Tenant farmers and beginning farmers can turn to the Ag Business Development Center and its partner agencies to plan a farm’s long-term viability by addressing aspects such as finances that Wilson suggested involve comparing the cost of inputs into the soil as compared with the production output and the market value of the crop that can be grown on the rented acreage each year.
A farm’s long-term viability can also depend upon marketing through means such as Community Supported Agriculture, Powers said.
Pennsylvania in addition to leading the nation in beginning farmers has been accruing more preserved farmland than any other state, Powers said.
The state’s Bureau of Farmland Preservation, like trusts, purchases special natural or public value lands and each year has $200,000 in grants available to assist in doing so, Powers said.
The easements as part of their purchases are designated for specific uses such as agriculture.
Pennsylvania’s approved farmland preservation easements presently comprise 552,702 acres on 5,329 farms that are accessible from public roads, Powers said. They are intended to ensure that those portions of land continue to be farmed forever, that they are not sold for commercial or residential purposes, she said.
Nationally, 29 states have a farmland protection program that purchases easements and American Farmland Trust helped in developing them, sometimes simply providing advice, sometimes driving the entire process, from crafting program details to helping secure funding, according to the trust’s website. It also helped create over 70 regional or local programs.
AFT-developed educational programming, available via its farmland.org website, addresses the challenges that beginning producers face when seeking secure land.
Shaw, for his part, purchased 64 Dauphin County acres in May. The USDA”s Farm Service Agency assisted in financing, he said. He supplied a business plan in order to secure that assistance, he said.
“I’d like to buy more land,” Shaw said.
Shaw has, since he started leasing land, developed friendships with some landlord landowners, he said.
“I hope, if some of them want to sell, they would offer it to me first,” he said.