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The United States’ ability to sustainably produce food, steward natural resources, and support rural economies depends on ensuring greater access to land for the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Working in partnership with public and private land protection leaders throughout the country, American Farmland Trust (AFT) announces a new “Land Transfer Navigators” program in partnership with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA NRCS) that will help exiting farmers and landowners retire with confidence and help new, beginning and underserved farmers gain secure, equitable land access.
Nearly 300 million acres of American farmland are expected to change hands in the next twenty years. As aging farmers exit the field, the future is uncertain for about one third of the country’s farm and ranch land.
“Farmland is most at risk of conversion during generational transition,” says John Piotti, AFT’s President and CEO. “With the wave of land transfer that is coming, we risk converting far too much farmland into low-density housing, subdivisions and strip malls. Public and private conservation entities—groups like land trusts and purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs—have done a tremendous job of protecting farmland across the country. They can continue to accelerate their impressive farmland protection work, and with greater support, they can also guide landowners in the eventual transfer of protected land to a new generation of farmers and ranchers.”
Farmland transfer is a delicate process, one that involves a complex and often emotional combination of legal, economic and social factors. For many exiting farmers and ranchers, retirement can be a challenge, especially if they do not have heirs who are interested in taking over the farm business. For aspiring and incoming farmers, particularly those who do not come from farming or ranching families, accessing affordable land is their biggest barrier.
Land Transfer Navigators will build bridges between these two groups, leveraging land protection as a strategy to facilitate successful, affordable land transfer. Over the next four years, AFT will train three dozen land protection organizations and their staff to serve as “Navigators” in communities across the country to aid exiting and entering farmers in the land transfer process. The trusting relationships these land trusts and PACE programs have nurtured with conservation-minded landowners can serve as a foundation for the successful transfer of land between generations. With this new training, Navigators will connect with one another and gain additional skills, tools and resources to bring unprecedented support to help transfer farmland.
“With millions of acres of farmland likely to transition over the next decade, NRCS sees a pivotal opportunity to help landowners identify transfer strategies that keep land in active agriculture,” says Carrie Lindig, Director of Easement Programs at NRCS. “NRCS is pleased to collaborate with American Farmland Trust to build the capacity of land conservation professionals to assist farmers and ranchers with these strategies.”
This collaborative, capacity-building approach is tested and proven, explains Erica Goodman, Director of AFT’s Farms for a New Generation initiative. “Organizations across the country are providing critical expertise on land protection, transfer and access, but capacity and coordination are limited. That makes it difficult to help farmers, ranchers and landowners through unique, complicated processes. Yet it is this grounded, one-on-one assistance that can help transform land transfer challenges into land access opportunities,” she says. “We’re excited to scale up the projects we have organized with partners in New York and the Great Lakes Watershed to the national level to provide more coordinated assistance through a group of trained professionals that can help keep land in farming.”
Agencies and organizations that have formally joined the program underwent a thorough and competitive application process to become Navigators. They are hopeful about the project’s impact. are hopeful about the project’s impact.
“We sit at kitchen tables with our farmers, discussing their hopes and dreams for their land as we work together to secure their conservation legacies. Farm transfer is a natural progression of that conversation, and a critical next step to ensure protected lands stay in production,” says Jess Laggis, Farmland Protection Director at Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “SAHC is grateful to work with American Farmland Trust’s Land Transfer Navigator Program to better serve our region’s farmers and close the loop of farmland protection and access.”
Melissa Odell, who serves as the Lands Director for Bitter Root Land Trust in Montana, agrees. "We are honored and excited to be selected to participate in AFT's Land Transfer Navigators program," she says. "Our community has traditions steeped in agriculture and local food production. To help ensure agriculture continues to be a driver for our local economy, it is critical to connect our valley's farmers and ranchers with resources to support and engage the next generation of agricultural producers."
In addition to training dozens of organizations and AFT staff to serve as Navigators, the project will offer regional support for landowners and land seekers. AFT will build and expand communities of practice for service providers—such as attorneys, appraisers, real estate agents, financial planners and lenders, among others—who specialize in agriculture and are key figures in the transfer process. AFT staff and Navigator partners will work directly with landowners and land seekers, as well as distribute grants to farmers, ranchers and landowners to help them develop and implement farm transfer plans.
AFT will create and host an online “Land Transfer Resource Hub” on the Farmland Information Center. The Hub will be a one-stop shop of resources to help landowners and land seekers in even the earliest stages move through the transfer process. Once live, it will include a national “Farm Link Finder” with an inventory of existing programs and services. There will also be access to Navigator contact information and one-on-one technical assistance, as well as a library of farm and ranch transfer stories to support and inspire people navigating the process. The Hub will be free to use and readily available for farm owners and seekers.
As the average age of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural landowners continues to climb, the working land they steward is at a moment of seismic transition. It matters how—and to whom—that land transfers.
The collective components of the Land Transfer Navigators project will work to get more land in the hands of next generation farmers and ranchers. With support, they can flourish—putting our nation on the path to a stronger, brighter, and more equitable agricultural future.