Access to acres a top challenge for new farmers

Managing Editor

BOYDS, Md. (Jan. 10, 2017) — Though he had his most successful year in 2016, Michael Protas now wrestles with the reality that his One Acre Farm and community supported agriculture program may have to shut down in a couple years.
His Achille’s heel of sorts — farming in an increasingly urbanizing area of Montgomery County — is finding and holding on to land to grow his crops.
When he started his CSA program in 2009, he was growing on a one-acre piece of a residential property in Poolesville, Md., and he said finding that was quite a chore.
“I knocked on a lot doors, I posted flyers in grocery stores,” he recalled. “I talked to a lot of people.”
Two years later, with help from a family friend, he seized an opportunity to lease a small part of a property owned by Adventist HealthCare in Clarksburg, Md., where it had planned to build a hospital. The spot suited Protas well as his CSA expanded from about 25 to more than 150 members last year.
Three years ago, he partnered with Washington Hebrew Congregation to conduct week-long farming skills workshops for teen students to expose them to farming and benefit local food banks.
Protas said watching the students change their impressions of being on a farm is rewarding, as one of the community-building aspects that attracted him to farming and the CSA model.
“The first day is like summer school detention. Nobody wants to be here,” Protas said. “On day two you see how excited they are. To see that transition is really neat.”
Protas said he knew starting out on the property it wouldn’t be a permanent place for his farm, but when plans for the hospital changed and in its place was built a large outlet shopping center, Protas said plans to develop the rest of the property accelerated.
With the hospital not getting built, “I thought maybe I could stay for a lot longer, but with the outlet mall everybody wants this property,” he said.
Crop damage from deer, even though his production area has been fenced, was brutal last year, spoiling about 30 percent of his crops.
“Something changed between this year and last year. This year the fence was completely worthless,” He said. “All year we spent fixing holes.”
Protas said he’s ordered seed for the 2017 crop year and said he expects to be on the property at least one more year but added the uncertainty has him not actively seeking more CSA members and he’s earnestly in search of farmland in the county that he can buy.
He said he’s found a parcel that would be “perfect” for his operation and close to his family but is still unsure about the financials and taking the plunge on a mortgage.
“I understand I’m giving myself a very limited window with some of the most expensive land in the country and I realize that’s ridiculous,” Protas said.
Not willing to uproot his family and move to an area with more available farm land, Protas said he’s prepared himself for the possibility that not resolving the land situation could shut down his business.
“I’m still trying to figure this out,” he said.
Though Protas’ situation has several unique aspects to it, access to land is a primary challenge for many young and beginning farmers nationwide. In a 2011 survey conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition, 68 percent of participants cited access to land as beginning farmers’ top challenge, ranking it second behind a lack of capital to start a business. Farmers under the age of 30 were significantly more likely to rent land (70 percent) than those older than 30 (37 percent).
The coalition noted land around urban areas can be more than double the cost of rural land. Yet that is often where farmers participating in a direct market model like Protas need to be located to be successful.
For those farmers, it’s often a question of supply but for other areas the issue is demand as about 63 percent of all farmland, 573 million acres, will need a new farmer over the next 20 years as older farmers retire, according to the coalition.
The issue has sparked several efforts to get new and young farmers a better shot at finding farmland.
Since 2014, the coalition has teamed up with experts in farmland conservation to offer a series of Land Access Innovations Trainings across the country. In 2015, American Farmland Trust received a grant to start a Farmland for the Next Generation initiative to address the primary barriers to entry as a farmer.
“While there are lots of resources available to help beginners learn farm production, business, and marketing skills surprisingly few are available to help beginners gain access to land — and most of them are region-specific. This project fills that gap and addresses land access needs for the diversity of America’s next generation,” said Julie Freedgood, AFT’s vice president of programs.
In the Mid-Atlantic region, online FarmLink databases in Maryland and Virginia are available to pair farmers to available farms, a service Protas said would have been helpful when he was starting out.
In Delaware, its Young Farmer Loan Program offers no-interest loans to eligible farmers for up to 70 percent of the value of a property’s development rights, up to a maximum of $500,000.
Land purchased through the Delaware program is permanently preserved as farmland through Delaware’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program. Since 2012, through six rounds of the program, 2,269 acres have been purchased by young farmers and preserved.