BTLT In the News: “Mainers are finding ways to homestead without their own land”

by Elizabeth Walztoni | Bangor Daily News

To read the full article online, click here.

Facing steep real estate prices, Maine’s beginning farmers and homesteaders increasingly rely on people they know to find land and resources they can use. Many lease, often for just a year or two at a time; many don’t know if they’ll ever own.

Accessing land is the primary hurdle for people who want to start farming, according to Bo Dennis, the beginning farmer program specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Each year, more of the beginning farmers he works with operate on land leased year-to-year, without a path to buy.

When he went through the organization’s journeyperson program a decade ago, Dennis was growing on leased land himself. Now, as the owner of Dandy Ram Farm in Monroe, he leases to other new farmers.

Last year, half of the journeyperson program participants farmed on operations shared with others. Buildings, utilities, tools and knowledge are part of that equation.

“Land access determines who is able to follow their farm dreams, who has resources and power, and who is able to get established within the Maine agriculture community,” Dennis said.

This barrier is so common that the Maine Farmland Trust, which conserves agricultural land and sells it to farmers, is expanding its model. For years its motto has been “buy, protect, sell,” where the trust buys land and sells it to a farmer with a conservation easement.

Now, so many people struggle to afford land that the trust is expanding its model to “buy, protect, support, sell,” according to Stacy Brenner, the organization’s senior adviser for farmland access. That means the trust purchases property and leases it to farmers for three to five years before selling it to them.

This helps farmers build their businesses and makes them eligible for agricultural loans. The Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asks applicants for business records, which they can’t develop without land.

The trust is in the process of using this model with its first property, a preserved farm in Wiscasset. The new approach is more expensive and riskier for the trust, but Brenner said at this point it’s undeniably necessary.

They expect many more farms to follow in the next decade, because more than half of the state’s farmers are older than 65 and will eventually age out of farming. That number doesn’t include smaller or non-operating farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which collects that data, classifies a farm as an operation making more than $1,000 a year in sales.

FarmLink, a service of the trust that matches available farmland with prospective farmers, has made 255 matches so far since its inception. It’s often a long and challenging process for people to find the characteristics they need in the right place at a price they can afford.

“When it does work, it feels like magic, and it shouldn’t,” Brenner said. “We should have pathways for people to start agricultural businesses here.”

“Farmer” doesn’t necessarily mean one person or one couple purchasing a property anymore, she said. Next-generation farmers are interested in models focused more on shared values than shared blood, and the trust is taking note.

Krysten Powell, who grows on leased land in Brunswick, is benefitting so much from the setup that she doesn’t want to buy. She’s in her second year running Suncatcher Flower Farm on about an acre at Crystal Spring Farm, a carrot and blueberry operation leased from the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. The space also houses the Maine Flower Collective.

Powell subleases from farm manager Seth Kroeck, from whom she bought most of her equipment secondhand. His tractor does her field work, so she doesn’t have to buy one. Powell didn’t need to build a permanent greenhouse, barn space or cooler. The two farmers order materials together to save money.

Having an experienced farmer on site has also helped her learn. While their operations are quite different, the arrangement works because their values are the same, she said.

There are different considerations when working on someone else’s land — she asked Kroeck before planting perennials, waited a year to broach the idea of a temporary greenhouse and schedules use of the cooler.

She lives 40 minutes away in Portland, which may be her biggest challenge when weather emergencies like high winds and power outages put her seedlings at risk.

Powell said she’s learned boundaries and business from Kroeck too.

Noncommercial ventures and smaller homesteaders are following this model as well, Brenner said. Organizations are popping up around the state like Land in Common, the Bomazeen Land Trust and the Bowsprit Foundation.

Outside of the farmland trust, she and her husband run Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, which they found through FarmLink. A land trust owns the property. After a few years in Cape Elizabeth with a different lease, they moved with a five-year lease, then 30, then 99. That longer tenure makes it worth it for them to put money into infrastructure improvements.

When they came to Maine to farm in 2001, Brenner and her husband were young and had student loan debt. They wouldn’t inherit land or the resources to buy it, making this path a necessity.

Speaking as a farmer, Brenner said she doesn’t think about her working land as something to possess.

“We’re all just passing through here on Earth. I think of my relationship to the land as a steward,” she said. “It’s my turn, but we don’t own it. Even if we’d bought it and gotten a mortgage, the bank would have owned it.”