Business & Economy

Mentors help hopefuls overcome biggest hurdle to getting into farming: Finding land

Three people stand in front of a farm in Oronoco.
Kristin Pearson, center, stands with the crew at Pearson’s Organics, Jay Acker and Ashley Hammes, on the farm near Oronoco in southeastern Minnesota. Pearson reached out to the Farmland Access Hub for help navigating leases, loans and the process of purchasing land.
Courtesy of Kristin Pearson

Vegetable farmer Kristin Pearson started her own farm in southeastern Minnesota two years ago — and quickly learned how many complicated details are involved.

“One step could take two, three, four weeks,” she said earlier this week at a gathering of farmers and farm advocates at a farmland access summit in Red Wing, Minn.

Even with the challenges Minnesota farmers are facing this season — trade wars, economic uncertainty and tough weather conditions exacerbated by climate change — some young people still want to get into farming. But it’s not easy, so a variety of nonprofits, government agencies and others have joined together to help with one key part of it: finding land.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture estimates about half of Minnesota farmland will change owners over the next 20 years. And still, connecting farmers who want to begin — or grow — their operations with land to use is a complicated equation.

The Farmland Access Hub, a newly created coalition of nonprofit and other farm advocacy organizations to support beginning farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, is stepping into that void. The program is funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supports four farmland access navigators — mentors for less-seasoned farmers — who know the ropes.

Program participants gathered in Red Wing earlier this week to talk about land access and how to address it — just days ahead of a related conference on farm viability.

Four people pose for a picture.
From left, Bob Kell of the Mainstreet Project, Kate Edward of Renewing the Countryside, Jennifer Nelson of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service and Brett Olson of Renewing the Countryside are shown at a farmland summit on Monday in Red Wing.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Pairing farmers with navigators

A “farmland access navigator” can coach and mentor farmers like Pearson through things like lease agreements, buying land or applying for loans.

Pearson had been renting land in Oronoco in southeastern Minnesota and worked with farm navigator Brett Olson as she looked for something to buy.

“He offered a lot of support throughout this process,” she said, adding that she’s now signed a purchase agreement for some land.

Olson said Pearson called him up one day with the news and thanked him.

"And I was like, 'What did I do?'” Olson said. “And she said, 'You were there. You were helpful in just showing up and saying: Did you think about this? Did you think about that?’”

Olson, who works for the rural advocacy group Renewing the Countryside, said the farm navigator program should be expanded. So far, the program has mostly focused on smaller-scale operations, but farmland access can be a barrier for those wanting to grow corn and soybeans, too.

"We need 20 [or] 30 navigators out there in just Minnesota alone," he said.

Navigator Kate Edwards, who helps farmers in Iowa and works part-time for Renewing the Countryside, said a lot of the work involves helping people through the emotional ups and downs of farming.

“I’ve been there,” said Edwards, who is a farmer herself and talked about having to start over after the land she had been renting became unavailable.

One recent situation Edwards said she helped with involved identifying an existing resource for a young farmer. He was looking for land, and Edwards asked him if he knew anyone who farmed. His grandfather, he told her.

"I said, ‘Well, have you told him you want to farm?’ He said, ‘Well, no,’” she said. “Thanksgiving was coming up. I literally said, 'Over the Thanksgiving meal, tell one of your family members that you want to farm.'"

The story has a happy ending, Edwards said: A relative told the young farmer he could lease his grandfather’s land the next year, and there are plans under way for the young man to eventually own the land himself.

“As navigators, we’re not necessarily telling people what to do. We’re helping them find the resources that they already have access to in a lot of ways,” she said.

Ensuring farm viability

The farm access discussion took place ahead of a larger National Farm Viability Conference taking place in Red Wing this week.

Thom Peterson, Minnesota’s agriculture commissioner, participated in the discussion, and said there's been a lot of interest in programs aimed at helping beginning farmers, including a tax credit, loan programs and a website that connects retiring farmers with beginning farmers.

Peterson hears his share of bad news, especially when it comes to the dairy industry. But he said a recent monthly report on the number of dairy farms in the state showed 11 farmers had quit while five started, giving him hope.

"I'm excited about the people who want to get into farming every day," he said.

Resources: Are you a beginning farmer?

Find available land through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Farm Link site, which connects beginning farmers with retiring farmers

Get help from advocates like Farmland Access Navigators who understand the system and can help connect beginning farmers with resources

Complete coursework or training sessions, such as through the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings program or the Sustainable Farming Association. The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture lists several other programs.

Apply for financial help, whether it’s Minnesota’s Beginning Farmer Tax Credit or a loan from the federal Farm Service Agency.