Land.

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One of the many beautiful fields here on the Ridgetop.

Two weeks ago, the student farmers at Maggie’s Farm presented their business plans to one another and some of the Farm School staff. These presentations were the culmination of several weeks of business planning classes from a local business consultant, followed by several weeks of research into how we might start our own farm operation or farm-related enterprise.

We all have such big dreams. Schools for regenerative agriculture that integrate anti-racism and community organizing training. Family farms that build relationships with local communities. Community farms that provide healthy produce to urban neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy produce. Farms where returning veterans can recover from PTSD and regain their sense of self and purpose.

But we need farmland to do all of this, and farmland is hard to come by.

According to the National Young Farmers Coalition’s 2011 survey of over 1,000 farmers, “68% listed access to land as a challenge.” Since three-quarters of these new farmers did not come from farming families, accessing land via inheritance was not an option from them.

Average prices of farm real estate, “have more than doubled since 2004″ due to “competition from developers and estate, or second home, purchases.” Furthermore, “land around urban areas can be more than double the cost of rural land,” but it is far more difficult to find markets for produce in rural areas than in urban ones. This means that purchasing land is often impossible for beginning farmers.

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Hawthorne Valley Farm, Columbia County, NY.

We are also facing a shortage of farmers in this country. “Two-thirds of all farmland (573 million acres or 63%) will need a new farmer over the next two and a half decades as older farmers retire.” In New England, the numbers are even more startling: “92% of farmland in New England is owned by people over the age of 45, and 70% of New England farmland is expected to change hands in the next two decades.”

These two problems–a lack of farmers and a lack of farmland–are obviously a threat to our nation’s supply of fresh food.

We are fortunate to have many guest speakers visit Maggie’s who introduce us to new and creative possibilities that would allow us to farm without owning land. A visit from Land For Good informed us about the possibilities of acquiring lands through land trusts, lease-to-own agreements, and both short and long-term leases. Ben Shute of Hearty Roots Community Farm recounted to us his story of starting a successful farming operation with nothing but a “handshake lease”–an informal agreement with the landowners to use a piece of farmland.

All these options have their pros and cons.

Rental options can be less expensive and more accessible. They also help beginning farmers avoid taking on debt before they know that their farm or farming-related option can be profitable or sustainable. Unfortunately, rental agreements–particularly informal ones–provide for less long-term stability than ownership. Without a long-term commitment to a piece of land, it is also harder for farmers to engage in long-term restorative agricultural practices or work with perennial or agro-forestry crops.

Long-term leases, lease-to-own agreements, and other arrangements can eliminate some or all of these issues. Unfortunately, as our friends at Land for Good informed us, these agreements are often hard to come by.

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Picadilly Farm, Winchester, NH

The reasons for wanting to own our own land are not merely related to stability and economic viability, however. After all, the ideal of owning land is deeply rooted (pun intended) in the American agricultural psyche. Many of us feel that there’s a prevailing cultural sense that one isn’t a real farmer until you own your own land.

Of course, we also recognize that this perception probably has to change. Why is owning farmland necessary to be a real farmer, if we are successfully growing food and/or raising animals? And considering the fact that most of America’s farmland was forcibly taken from the native peoples who originally farmed and managed it–most of whom had no concept of private ownership–should ownership be a primary goal? Are there ways to farm in community, or for our community, that can undo these historical injustices related to land ownership and also solve our land-access issues?

At the same time, how are we supposed to build long-term relationships with our customers, and with our communities, if we only have access to impermanent land-use agreements? How can we plant perennial crops? How can we rebuild topsoil, a process that can take years, if not decades? So much of what we want to do, of what we desire for ourselves and our families, depends on building not only a long-term relationship to a piece of land, but also on creating a sense of place–or even of home.

There are so many questions that we need to answer, and so many decisions that we need to make. After 6 months at the Farm School, we now have a better idea of what we want to farm and why.

Now, we must answer the questions of where and how, and do so within a system that does not always support our dreams.