Connecting Aspiring Farmers with Existing Land: Connecticut Farm Link Program
By Jane Slupeki
In 2006, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture established the FarmLink Program. The goal of the program is to connect farmer seekers with farm owners with agricultural land for rent or for sale. The program also disseminates information on leasing and farm transfer to the next generation of farmers. That is the official line I use while on the phone with my constituents. What you really want to read, though, is the story about the adventure, and how I, a real novice in the field, with a lot of other people, established and learned to appreciate a new land link program for the State of Connecticut.
According to the US Department of Agriculture,Connecticutis losing farmland at one of the fastest rates in the country. Preserving farmland is by far the most effective way of providing a method for stabilizing regional food security forAmerica. However, FarmLink also has a place at the table, as it finds and helps to get other landowners interested in putting their idle land back into production, but not necessarily formally preserving it. The trend acrossAmericasadly points out there are twice as many people looking for land, as there are parcels for lease or for sale on similar land link programs.
Why and how did Connecticut’s FarmLink start? Connecticutgrassroots groups wrote and fought to pass Connecticutlegislation, known as the Community Investment Act, Public Act 05-228. It sets aside funds for many agricultural programs: farmland preservation, farm-to-school, farm-to-institution — and a funded FarmLink program. (Please see http://www.cga.ct.gov/ for full text.)
I am not a lawyer, real estate agent, or much of a farmer, so let’s be real: the only lease I knew was for an apartment or two I rented when I was in my twenties (a good long time ago). What would I be able to do for these people? I had no prayer of getting this right.
This program was about 15 years in the works. I had been handed this an entire year after the legislation passed! The groups had gathered information – a lot of information. I read it all, then visited nearly every U.S.land link site, and called lots of program directors (and began to understand how little I knew). Whittling down the programs that mirrored Connecticut’s law, I used them as the template to build our program. I called the program coordinator in Wisconsina lot. I literally built a program that fit the statute, which mapped out a structure to help farmers and farm seekers make it through the transition of old farm owner to new farm owner.
I am a marketing rep, by trade and passion. Almost immediately, I worked on a logo and website with UConn’s College of Agriculture Communicationsand Information Technology (CIT) office. I researched information to fill pages that answered the statute’s call for an educational hub. While researching topics, I juggled the paperwork, negotiations, quotations and agreements between my agency, the University and our business office, a third state agency. I typed up rough applications, and then it was reviewed by marketing, regulation, farmland preservation, the Commissioner’s Office, some outside partners for good measure, adjusting the applications along the way.
With a logo, brochure, website and applications completed, a year had passed. Finally, I had something to show the grassroots groups. After explaining that I would only be swapping applications, not negotiating the land agreements, I thought that would be the end of me. We laid out what I was allowed to do and what the legislation left to be done by other groups. Shortly after our group meeting, a website went live January 2007 (please visit www.farmlink.uconn.edu)
In essence, the FarmLink program listings serve as a sort of matchmaking website for prospective farm owners and farm seekers. Interested parties register by completing either a Farm Seeker Application orFarm Owner Application. The description of an available farm or an individual’s needs for farmland is then posted on the website. Then, participating farm owners or seekers can call or write, and we send out the full application to help with the “match.”
There. I was done. I was so naïve, I figured I would never get a call on this topic. I had no idea what I was in for.
The phone started to ring. And I did my stuff. I am a talker and a referrer. If I do not know, I send you on to someone who does. The phones rang some more. Then the listings started coming in–seekers and owners. More calls and a couple of local news paper stories, well placed, and a five second NPR story that picked up on the idea I was a matchmaker. Next thing I know I have a decent pool of land and a ton of farm seekers! I was shocked!
I think in some ways I am still in shock. Typically, each quarter, I receive about 60 phone calls inquiring about the program, usually by word of mouth or through my agricultural partners across the state. “They tell me I should talk to you, Jane.”
There are presently 90 farm seekers and 34 farm owners in program. We have all shapes and sizes of farms, from 3 acres or less to 650 acres, all types of operations. There are currently more than 1000 acres which could be turned into farmland.
I have landowners who can no longer afford their land or have land they have inherited and want it to stay productive. I think about a man who said he needed help to get someone on his land. He really wanted his family’s land to remain a working farm. He offered it rent-free to any responsible farmer. Within the month, he had an agreement for a young person. He was happy. I was thrilled. The young farmer is still in the program, as he needs more land.
Some landowners saw a story about the FarmLink program and thought they could help. That particular man had two parcels of land that he listed, to let someone use. No match yet but what a generous offer that was.
Some seekers are school systems looking to grow their own food. A major city inConnecticutwould like someone to allow them to lease land (inexpensively was mentioned) and the school would find a farm manager to work the property to grow food for the cafeterias in their city. We have two farm-seeking groups looking to start farms for autistic persons. The need to find productive jobs for persons with disabilities is quite common for me to list.
Still, most seekers are people looking to go back to the land, to homestead. Yes, there are some dreamers, but we like dreamers in the Marketing Division. Some of those dreamers will in fact become small hobby farms, or market gardens, growing up into farms with farm stands or morphing into pick-your-own operations.
We had a young couple move toConnecticutwho purchased one preserved farm but continues to look for another through the FarmLink Program to complete their dreams to have a larger, more viable farm inConnecticut.
I have young farmers looking to start their careers after finishing at UConn…they struggle with capital requirements, collateral or lack thereof to buy land, but I try my best to find them solutions to the crisis of the day blocking their dream to buy a farm. I hear a lot about the financial and credit crunch these days, which is now worse than ever.
To encourage participation, we put out notices about the program, send applications to state stakeholders, like town halls, town planners, commodity groups, agricultural associations, federal agencies, and UConn Cooperative Extension System. I try not to turn down any opportunities to speak about the program. I am hopeful about some newer ideas bubbling up around FarmLink to help towns that are purchasing farmland.
I am grateful toConnecticut’s agriculture community for putting up with me. My advice for other organizers of farmlink programs — never turn away advice, learn as I did, plodding into the unknown, unfettered by any old mindsets, preconceived notions or old habits. Everything should be new and fresh. It also helps that I am quite persistent and ask too many questions–ask for help from anyone that is willing to give it to you. Never give up. This complex clearinghouse of seekers and owners has the simple goal of keeping farmland in production. And I will do my darndest to help them succeed, because farmland is irreplaceable. And we need our farmers in the Northeast to survive. Our food security depends upon it.
Jane Slupeki is a Agricultural Marketing & Inspection Rep with CT Dept of Agriculture in Hartford, CT. She can be reached at 860-173-2588 or Jane.Slupecki@ct.gov.