We’re betting on a new generation of farmers

  • Emily Landeck harvests lettuce at the Riverland Farm in Sunderland. September 27, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 10/11/2018 9:26:17 AM

Many of the region’s farmers are getting gray, which has some people worrying about the fate of all their farmland, which makes western Massachusetts so pleasantly rural.

Sweetwater Farm in Petersham traces its roots back nearly 270 years to Sylvanus Howe, whose fields fed colonial soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Karen Davis and her husband bought the farm in 1978. But today, at 66, she’s looking ahead to what to do with the 80 acres of pasture and hay fields from which she’s produced organic lamb, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, chicken and, at times, vegetables and eggs.

“I’d like to retire,” says Davis, “so I’ve been looking for somebody to take over the farmland.” Davis is not alone.

A 2016 study by Land for Good and American Farmland Trust found that farmers age 65 and older operate 30 percent of the farms in Massachusetts, and only 8 percent of those 2,333 farmers have someone under the age of 45 managing the farm with them. Massachusetts had fewer farm operators under age 45 in 2012 than in the previous decade.

Farmers age 65 and older manage 184,000 acres and $1.8 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure in the state, much of which may transfer ownership in the next 10 to 20 years. What will happen to all that land worries people who love farming and how it shapes our landscape and the character of Franklin County and the North Quabbin region.

Ironically, the silver lining in this cloud of graying farmers may be younger people who are looking for suitable land on which to launch their careers. One of the farmers who considered Sweetwater, Emily Landeck, has been farming on Pioneer Valley farms for eight years and is looking for a place of her own.

“A lot of people tell me I’m crazy to be in this area, because there are so many farms, and land is expensive,” said the 29-year-old farmer, whose husband works at the Hampshire College Farm.

“There’s lots of marginal land available, especially in the hilltowns, that may be good for animals, but a lot of it isn’t that good for growing vegetables,” said Landeck. “There’s also a lot of uncleared land for sale, large lots of wooded land, especially in the hills. That’s awesome if you want to log the land and then start to farm, but not great if you want to farm right now.”

Davis has turned to a farmer matchmaker, Land for Good, a 16-year-old nonprofit organization based in Keene, N.H.

“It was a real wake-up call to see how few farmers age 65-plus have a next generation working on the farm with them,” said Cris Coffin, Land for Good’s policy director. “How and to whom this land and farm infrastructure transfers will have enormous impact on the future of farming in New England.”

With 30 percent of New England farmers likely to leave farming over the next decade or two, she says the 1.4 million acres they manage will change hands in one way or another.

To keep this land in farming will require better policy and increased support services to people leaving and entering the field. Luckily, this region has that kind of support.

We hope that organizations like Land for Good can keep making productive matches as the transition continues. We urge continued support for local non-profits like Mount Grace and Franklin land trusts and the state’s Agriculture Preservation Restriction program, both of which help shield farmland from development, and organizations like Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture  with its “Local Hero” marketing campaign, and even the locavores among us who buy food at CSA farms. They all help perpetuate farming as a way of life in the region.

New farmers have to be smart and sophisticated today. It’s not enough to grow good food, and to put in all the hours, they also need to understand marketing, to find a profitable niche.

But ultimately, we believe, the good news will be the very fact that has some agriculture advocates worried: the pending retirement of many farmers and farm families, which will clear the way for  a new generation of smart and sophisticated farmers looking to step onto their fields.


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