Editorial: As farmers age, future of land in question

  • A farm in Richmond, Massachusetts. —WIKIMEDIA

Published: 5/12/2016 10:21:53 AM

A recent study showing a steady increase in the number of aging farmers in Massachusetts and across New England raises troubling questions about what will happen to their land when they retire or die.

The report released in January shows that 30 percent of Massachusetts farmers were 65 or older  in 2012, up from 23 percent in 2002. Moreover, more than 90 percent of the state’s 2,333 farmers who fell into that senior age group did not have a potential successor under the age of 45 working with them, suggesting the future of those farms is in doubt.

The study was done by the American Farmland Trust, a national group with its New England office in Northampton, and Land for Good, an organization based in Keene, New Hampshire, which works on issues concerning access to farmland and its succession. The study drew on Census of Agriculture data, which is produced every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and seven focus groups in New England and New York involving 67 farmers who told researchers they had no succession plan to keep their farmland in agriculture.

Among the local farmers who participated in one of those focus groups in Greenfield is John LaSalle, owner of LaSalle Florists in Whately, a cut flower-growing business his grandfather started in 1934. LaSalle’s adult children have their own careers and are not interested in maintaining the family business, while LaSalle, who is in his 60s, looks ahead to retirement.

His business has annual retail and wholesale sales totaling about a half million dollars, and as LaSalle describes it, his 16-acre farm is situated on “fantastic farmland … with two traditional, old glass greenhouses that are perfect for certain crops.” While he has no immediate plans to sell his farm, LaSalle knows that time is not too far off. “I would like to sell the property at some point and help someone transition so I could step away … I have to find the right time to make the move and go forward.”

The researchers who conducted the “Gaining Insights, Gaining Access” study found that farmers, like LaSalle, who do not have an obvious successor working with them need help getting linked to younger farmers. Participants in the focus groups said they want to learn more about successful models, particularly a gradual transfer of their farm to a new owner, which may make it more affordable for a younger farmer.

The stakes are high. According to the report, that group of senior farmers in Massachusetts working without a younger successor own farmland and buildings worth $1.5 billion. They are managing 154,000 acres off farmland, or roughly 30 percent of the total in Massachusetts.

The challenges facing aging farmers who want their land to remain in agriculture is not limited to Massachusetts. The researchers found that 92 percent of senior farmers in New England are not working with a younger farmer.

The study concludes that during the next 10 to 20 years, 30 percent of farmers in Massachusetts are likely to leave the fields, which means their land “will change hands in one way or another.”

The project says policies are needed to help with business transitions that can keep land in farming, offer seniors a “secure exit” and provide opportunities for the next generation of farmers.

That’s a job for policy-makers in government agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, and private organizations like American Farmland Trust and Land for Good.

For the rest of us who appreciate the rich agricultural heritage of this fertile Valley, it’s a wake-up call not to take that land for granted. It’s easy to support farmers – young and old – by shopping regularly at the many farmers’ markets in the region or becoming a member of one of the nearly 60 or so Community Supported Agriculture farms in the Valley. The message to farmers: we value your labor.

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