The Beginning Farmer’s Plight

No Access to Land

Mike Madison on his land.

Mike Madison on his land.

By Mike Madison | Photography by Scott Peterson

Farming is increasingly popular as a career choice, partly because of the poor job market in other occupations, and partly because young people have come to recognize that a life of cubicle-serfdom is a life wasted. We are mammals, and are meant to spend our days under the open sky pursuing interesting, physical, useful undertakings such as gathering our food and embellishing our nests. Farming is about as close as we can come to fulfilling our evolutionary destinies.

The beginning farmer, having taken a few practical courses and perhaps served a brief apprenticeship, sets out to start farming on her own and discovers, to her increasing dismay, that she has no access to suitable land. There are at least four sorts of barriers—economic, psychological, strategic, and imaginative—impeding access to land.

The Economic Barrier

This parcel near Davis, listed at $4 million, is a bargain by local standards. But what beginning farmer can write that check? (Photo by Mike Madison)

This parcel near Davis, listed at $4 million, is a bargain by local standards. But what beginning farmer can write that check? (Photo by Mike Madison)

The first and most obvious barrier is economic. Good farmland is no longer affordable. Consider a 40-acre plot of unimproved land in the lower Sacramento Valley, with excellent soil, a near-perfect climate, sufficient water, and easy access to Bay Area markets. In the 1860s you could get this land for free by homesteading it. By 1986, when I bought my farm, such a plot was selling for $160,000 at a time when median income was $28,000, so that the purchase price, measured in labor, was about 5.7 years of median income. In 2015, the same 40-acre parcel sells for $1.4 million, and with median income at $53,000, it would take 26.4 years of labor to buy the land. That is, priced in terms of labor, farmland is more than four times as expensive as it was thirty years ago. It is now beyond reach. There is no way that an individual unsupported by deep family wealth can buy good farmland in this district.

Partly this is a simple case of supply and demand. The supply of farmland is decreasing as agricultural lands are urbanized, while the demand is increasing. But we also recognize that the price of a parcel of farmland reflects not just its agricultural value, but also its value as a home site and its value as a vehicle for financial speculation. It is the latter two that are the primary drivers of rising farmland prices.

The flip side of the cost of land is the resource base of the buyer. Here too, the beginning farmer is worse off than her forerunner of thirty years ago. New necessities of life (mobile phone, internet) take a bite from the meager income. Worse is the nearly ubiquitous burden of debt from student loans: Not only do the payments ravage a budget, but the debt itself impairs one’s ability to get credit for the necessary costs of starting a farm. Inflation and deflation do not affect asset classes uniformly; measured in terms of the value of labor, over the last thirty years the costs of manufactured goods (including tractors), clothing, and food have decreased substantially, while the most outrageous increases are real estate (including farm land), higher education, and medical care. The beginning farmer will find medical insurance unaffordable, and may choose to go without it, while struggling to pay for college loans, and with scant credit remaining for her farm.

It is in the context of buyer resources that racial/ethnic/gender discrimination might appear, as white males often have more social and financial capital. This is not so much contemporary overt discrimination as it is legacy discrimination from the past projected forward to the present—a family does not build its financial and social capital in just one generation.

Mike Madison has taken on as partners the young East Bay couple in the photo above as presumptive successors to his farm. As Susan Ellsworth and Colin Dixon’s skills develop, they will incrementally take over more of the farm as Madison gradually retires.

Mike Madison has taken on as partners this young East Bay couple as presumptive successors to his farm. As Susan Ellsworth and Colin Dixon’s skills develop, they will incrementally take over more of the farm as Madison gradually retires.

The Psychological Barrier

The young farmer, determined to buy her own farm, starts looking farther afield, and discovers that there is affordable land in the north end of the valley. This is likely to be sloping, stony, infertile soil with a doubtful water supply located forty miles down a dirt road, seven hours drive from Bay Area markets. There is little likelihood of successfully farming such a parcel (unless the crop is marijuana). This exemplifies the second barrier to acquiring farmland—the determination to own the farm. In the lower Sacramento Valley, ownership no longer makes economic sense. The beginning farmer needs to stop looking for land to buy and start looking for land to lease. In the long run, it does not really matter whose name is recorded in a dusty book in the county courthouse: What matters is who has the use of the land.

Agrarian writers are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s writings on the virtues of the land-owning yeoman farmer, but they overlook his other writings on the value of usufruct, including farm leases. Much of Jefferson’s own farming was on leased land.

This psychological barrier should not be underestimated. The desire to own a farm rather than rent is even stronger than the desire to own one’s house. I have seen people buy hopeless, remote land rather than acquire an inexpensive lease on good land in a good location, simply because of their insistence on ownership.

The Strategic Barrier

Susan-and-ColinThis brings us to the third barrier to acquiring good farmland—the strategic barrier. I teach a lot of beginning farmers, and most are thinking in terms of five to ten acres of intensive vegetable production with their produce for sale at farmers’ markets or through a CSA. Part of the attraction of this is that it is a comprehensible scale—the equipment, the expenses, and the labor are all easily imagined, and the process of selling directly to the end user at the farmers’ market is readily understood. This is in contrast to the intimidating scale of a big farm, where a tractor the size of a Tyrannosaurus costs $350,000, and you need a couple of them. The problem with the small, intensive approach is that it is the most difficult, least remunerative, most failure-prone way to farm. Over the last forty years in my area (between Davis and Winters), little farms of this sort have either gotten big or failed. Half a dozen of them have grown to hundreds of acres each, with dozens, or even hundreds, of employees. Nearly all the rest have disappeared. There are hardly any long term surviving mom-and-pop farms with no employees and no off-farm income. My farm is one of them; it is sometimes mentioned as a success story, although most years my income is less than minimum wage—a humble notion of “success.”

The reason that an intensive, small-scale strategy hinders access to land is that there is a mismatch between land available for lease, which is measured in hundreds of acres, and land sought for lease, at five to ten acres. Land rents on a large scale are surprisingly inexpensive; an annual cash rent of $300–$400 per acre is common for excellent soils. My neighbor farms 4,000 acres of peppers and tomatoes, all on leased land, and he considers the rent to be a minor part of his expenses. But it is nearly impossible to find small parcels for rent, especially long term, and if you do find one the per-acre rate will be considerably higher.

The Imaginative Barrier

The fourth barrier to accessing farmland is a failure of the imagination. We have a situation where good farmland is unaffordable for purchase, and the leases that are available are nearly all for much larger parcels than what is sought. This is a point where many would-be farmers, lacking imagination, accept defeat and give up on the idea of farming or move to Vermont or Idaho or some other place where farmland is still affordable. And yet, there are ways to succeed within these limitations. An obvious one is to band together in a cooperative arrangement of some kind. With a few bright exceptions, the history of agricultural co-ops in California is a dismal one, although there have been so many exemplary failures that by now we know where most of the weak points are. And there are some recent successes. For example, Hmong immigrant farmers have collectively leased land south of Sacramento and subdivided its use among themselves.

Another concept slowly gaining currency is the idea that an institution purchases farmland and leases it to small-scale farmers. This pathway can be both righteous and financially shrewd for municipalities, counties, colleges, school boards, hospitals, churches, food banks, and similar organizations that may provide food or jobs to their constituents. The California Farm Academy in Winters leases incubator plots of one or two acres to its graduates so that they can hone their skills and solidify their intentions before scaling up. The Sunol AgPark in southern Alameda County uses public lands leased by a nonprofit organization to provide small-plot leases for beginning farmers. These ideas are worthy of imitation.

There is another approach that promises success, and it hinges on the observation that the median age of farmers in California is about sixty, and many of the older farmers are looking for a way to retire. California FarmLink is an organization that matches up young farmers with those retiring, an excellent route, as I see it, into farming. Farming is a craft, and like other crafts, the proper way to learn it is by apprenticeship. A prolonged apprenticeship not only teaches the trade, but also introduces the beginning farmer to the social context of the farm. Despite its appearance, farming does not proceed in isolation. The farmer depends on dozens of suppliers, repairmen, advisors, buyers, utilities, and government agencies. Even my small farm is under the direct surveillance of eleven distinct government agencies. It is much easier to establish these relationships with the guidance of a mentor than on your own.

The potential difficulties with this sort of apprenticeship are that the scale of available farms (hundreds of acres) may be bigger than what the novice is comfortable with, and the usual farming philosophy (conventional productionist ethic) is at odds with the novice’s organic and holistic inclinations. Rigidly held ideologies prognosticate failure, but if the parties are open-minded and tolerant, they may reach a compromise.

On my farm I have taken a young couple from the East Bay as partners. As their skills develop they will incrementally take over more of the farm, and I will be able to gradually retire. Eventually it will be their farm, although I will continue to hold the deed to the property and charge them some nominal rent. This is not a traditional mechanism of farm succession, but it seems appropriate to the times.

The classic American pathway to a career in farming—buying a farm—is no longer feasible in the lower Sacramento Valley, the Napa Valley, the Salinas Valley, the California central coast, the Hudson River Valley, southern Connecticut, New Jersey, northern Virginia, and numerous other places. We are entering a new era, and we need new social and economic institutions that give young farmers access to land. At the same time, we need to educate would-be farmers as to the realities of their situation—historic agrarian philosophies are no longer valid, and will have to be re-imagined. ´