Farmland Conservation: Helping or Hurting Beginning Farmers?

Are Land Trusts and Farmland Conservation Efforts Helping Beginning Farmers?

An interesting op-ed in the New York Times graced my computer screen the other day, and begged me to ask the question: is farmland conservation helping or hurting beginning farmers? Lindsey Lusher Shute and Benjamin Shute are co-founders of the National Young Farmers Coalition. Together they published “Keep Farmland for Farmers” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times this past week. Their narrative, pared down to its most basic form, is one of a hunt for secure land tenure in New York's Hudson Valley. And they explain how though it seems the law helps make land accessible to small farmers with limited capital resources in New York State, de facto this is not the case. Good agricultural land is indeed protected through conservation easements, but small, cash-strapped farmers cannot compete with moneyed buyers and investors for this land. The good news is the tax code in New York encourages nonfarmers to rent their land to farmers. But the bad news is these landlords offer only short term leases. Hence, the Shute’s land tenure problems. Why is land tenure necessary? Why is renting or leasing not good enough? According to the Shutes, the problem is that without long-term, guaranteed tenure, there is a disincentive to improve the land through building soil fertility or adding infrastructure. Moreover, the Shutes explain, some states are already helping farmers like them; in Vermont and Massachusetts, the law helps farmers secure land through stricter conservation easements.

It seems clear that current systems of land conservation in some cases are making accessing and securing (long-term) affordable farmland difficult or impossible for beginning farmers, or any working farmers who do not have significant capital resources.

But the real crux of the article, I would submit, is the following: “As water resources dwindle in the West, and as transportation and fuel costs climb and research shows that fresh, clean food is the key to a healthy life, isn’t it the job of every city and town to secure the land and the farmers necessary to grow the food they need?”

The above statement is what the Shute’s provide as their strongest claim for changing the law, the strongest evidence that society, broadly, would benefit if the farmers in question could access land the way they envision. But, it’s crucial that they pose their strongest argument as a question, rather than as an assertion. Because, it is indeed a question, not a foregone conclusion. Of course, it would be good for small farmers if they can get long term access to land that is affordable to them. But is this clearly good policy? Who wins? Who loses? Would this benefit New York City? Would this benefit New York more broadly? Do the Shute’s convince?

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