Partners on the land: Farming on conservation land offers security that fields won't be sold off
Looking out over the just-so rows of leafy greens and perfectly placed packs of peppers on an eight-acre stretch of dirt lining the Cold River in Walpole, John and Teresa Janiszyn for the first time in a long time see more than this season's farm stand offerings.
They see security.
It wasn't too long ago that the owners of Pete's Farm Stand looked upon a similar plot for the last time before it was plowed under to make room for a new strip mall along Route 12 in Walpole. They watched a similar thing happen to friends across the way who lost their land to a tractor supply company and an apartment complex.
However, through a new lease deal that allows them to farm conservation land owned by Perley Lund of Gilsum, they no longer have to worry that their fields will be sold off for commercial enterprise to the highest bidder.
"John's whole experience farming has been under the threat of development," said Teresa Janiszyn. "He felt really helpless. (Farming on conservation land) just makes it a more secure prospect for the farmers and the owners."
About two years ago, the Monadnock Conservancy, a land trust for southwestern New Hampshire, partnered with the Cheshire County Conservation District and Land for Good. At the same time the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension received a grant for the Conserved Farmland Access Partnership project through the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to study farmland access issues in Cheshire County.
Growing better farms
Recognizing that access to sufficient farmland is a major challenge for farmers, the project's purpose was to identify the barriers to that access and what opportunities exist to get more land into agriculture. The land the group targeted specifically was conserved land.
Stacy Gambrel, conservation project manager for the Conservancy, said the team figured that owners of conservation land might be more open to farming since they already demonstrated a strong land ethic by conserving their property in the first place.
The Monadnock Conservancy holds 45 easements on land with agricultural potential, yet less than one quarter is used for farming by the owner or a tenant, Gambrel said. The team saw that as a whole lot of untapped potential.
To find out what was possible, the team surveyed landowners and farmers, conducted focus group sessions, and offered farmer landowner mixers where each group could meet and greet and get technical assistance, according to project officials.
What they found confirmed their initial thesis: Participating landowners did in fact have a strong conservation ethic and many times that translated to wanting that land farmed. And where the land was already being farmed, the landowners wanted to expand.
That said, the project team also discovered that there was often a disconnect between a landowner's interest in seeing the land farmed and the realities of a working farm, including the dirt, smells, and unpredictability inherent in farming, according to the Conservancy's report. This makes defining expectations and communication essential to the success of any farmer-landowner partnership, according to the report.
The team also discovered that landowners involved in the project weren't doing it to make money. They realized that the margins in farming are slim.
But as Perley Lund, the Gilsum-based landowner who leased land to the Janiszyns, told The Walpolean, a community newsletter in Walpole, "People need to know where their food comes from, and to be able to enjoy fresh, local vegetables. . It's just the right thing to do - for the land and for the community."
Gambrel said ultimately the team discovered challenges, including access to technical assistance, farmers wanting longer leases than landowners were comfortable with, and landowners wanting more say in the farming than farmers were comfortable, but none were deal breakers.
No, she said, the biggest challenge turned out to be simply finding a way to connect farmers with interested landowners. According to the team's report, many arrangements seem to happen through word of mouth. There was a desire for a local land-linking program to help bring the two groups together more easily, the report said.
Conserving and using
Using conservation land for farming is kind of a novel idea, Gambrel said. There is often a perception that conservation land is meant to be pure, pristine, untouched. But Gambrel argues that using conservation land for such things as agriculture is still a means of conserving the land.
"There is this feeling, that traditionally even among land trust circles and land conservation groups, is that the only way to do conservation was to have what's called a forever wild conservation easement, where you basically put the restriction on the land and you never touch it again and it's open for wildlife and there's no forestry, no agriculture, maybe no recreation," Gambrel said.
When weighed against the fact that New Hampshire is a heavily forested state (98 percent) and it only produces 4 percent of its food ("we're trucking in the majority of our food," she said), forever-wild conservation is not sustainable.
"We used to have an agriculturally dominated society, despite our rocky soil, things do grow here," she said. "We can do agriculture and we can do it well. I think that there is a role for conservation groups to both serve our core mission of conserving land and protecting habitat, but also continuing to allow traditional natural resource industries to flourish, like agriculture and forestry, I think you can strike a balance."
The willingness to work with conservation land this way may end up helping young and beginning farmers who often cite access to land and affordability as two big barriers to success.
Land is prohibitively expensive, particularly in the Midwest, Northeast, and near large urban markets. In 2007, the National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) noted that the price of farm real estate was dramatically on the rise. Between 2000 and 2008, the average price of farm real estate in the U.S. more than doubled, from $1,090 per acre to $2,350 per acre, according to a 2010 report from the FarmLASTS project. In 2014, it stood closer to $2,700 per acre, according to the NASS.
Rents have seen an equally sharp increase in the last decade or so. In 2005, rent on average for farmland was $80 per acre. By 2010, it was up to nearly $105 per acre.
This prospect is particularly daunting for new and young farmers since many of them have little long-term experience or financial history. And even if they have the scratch to acquire the land, they'd have to buy enormous parcels. This is a risky prospect in an occupation that comes with inherent uncertainties. One crop failure could mean a total loss.
Using conservation land may make some of that a little easier, Gambrel said. The easements in question in the Cheshire County project, Gambrel said, tend to be on the smaller side. She also said that easement land, since it can't be used for development, is valued at a lower price and may ultimately prove more affordable for newer farmers.
Farming conservation land is not a magic bullet, said Kathy Ruhf, senior program director with the nonprofit Land for Good, which seeks to ensure the future of farming in New England by putting more farmers more securely on more land, and was part of the Conservancy's project. But it could be one more tool to help get the next generation of farmers established and working.
It also is a way for people to start thinking creatively about what constitutes farmland. "It's not obvious and can't be done in all cases," Ruhf said. "But we need to think more broadly about where farming can happen."