Bringing Landowners and Farmland Seekers Together

Increasing the local food supply and expanding opportunities for next-generation farmers in the Piedmont depends on improving access to affordable farmland. Many Piedmont landowners are interested in expanding the agricultural use of their land, and many farmers are eager to partner with landowners through farmland leases. However, both landowners and farmland seekers say that it often proves very difficult to make these matches in Virginia.

PEC is working to make farmland leasing easier and more widespread in the Piedmont. Earlier in the year, thanks to a grant from the Beirne Carter Foundation, we released the publication “Finding a Place to Grow: How the Next Generation is Gaining Access to Farmland.” The booklet included eight profiles of successful farmland lease arrangements in Virginia.

This fall, we held two workshops for landowners and land seekers focused on farmland leasing. The workshops were made possible by grants from Prince Charitable Trust and the Nicolaas and Patricia Kortlandt Fund of the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation.

PEC held one workshop in Middleburg and another one in Charlottesville. The keynote address was given by Kathy Ruhf, senior program director for Land For Good, an organization that helps farmers secure land in New England, as well as provide guidance to help farmers, landowners and communities navigate the complex challenges of land access, tenure and transfer.

During Ruhf’s presentation, she emphasized that leasing is an approach that can meet the needs of both land-owner and farmland seeker. She explained that successful land-leasing relation-ships are based on the landowner and farmland seeker having a shared vision, good communication and some flexibility. This calls on both landowners and seekers to assess their goals, values and expectations before coming to the table to negotiate the lease. Ruhf provided a variety of examples and resources for how to approach this assessment, particularly landowners interested in leasing land.

After the keynote address, attorneys Mark Botkin of BotkinRose and Steve Price of McCandlish & Lillard, P.C. provided their perspectives on working with local land-owners on farmland leases in the region. Each of their presentations touched on many of the issues and concerns raised by both landowners and farmland seekers when leasing land. “The discussion with the attorneys after their presentations led to a spirited question and answer session about leasing options and opportunities,” said Mike Kane, land conservation officer for PEC. The workshops also included a panel discussion that included landowners, farmers leasing land, and professionals who assist landowners and farmland seekers with leasing arrangements.

Charlottesville’s panel included Andy Sorrell from Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Office of Farmland Preservation, who talked about the Virginia Farm Link program that helps match landowners and farmland seekers. Heather Coiner and Ben Stowe, who were featured in the “Finding a Place to Grow” publication, talked about their experience finding a farm to lease through the Farm Link program. Now they have been operating Little Hat Creek Farm in Nelson County for over a year, selling produce and “old-time bread” at markets in the Charlottesville area and through an 18-member Community Supported Agriculture program.

Another landowner, Laura Farrell, from Temple Hill Farm in Albemarle County spoke in the Charlottesville panel about her continued search for the right farmer to lease her land. She expressed concern that few people who are seeking to lease her farmland are also prepared to run a farm business.

During Middleburg’s workshop panel, Chip Planck shared his insights gained from more than 35 years of owning and operating Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Loudoun County. Chip and his wife Susan began leasing some of their land, equipment, and infrastructure to independent vegetable farmers beginning in 2006, as they started to reduce their own full-time operation. Chip highlighted the success of this arrangement for all the parties, providing specifics on how they developed the lease terms and were able to work cooperatively with independent farmers.

Katie Meyer from Virginia Certified Farm Seeker Program and Jim Hilleary, who is the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) unit coordinator and extension agent for Loudoun County, also joined the panel in Middleburg. Meyer explained that the Certified Farm Seeker Program helps farmland seekers through the development of a business plan and ensures that they are ready to begin their farm operation.

Hilleary emphasized that Cooperative Extension is a resource for both landowners and farm operators, noting that his role is to enhance the local agricultural economy. Cooperative Extension is there to connect landowners and farm operators with the work generated from Virginia’s land grant universities, which can help match the right land for the right farm operation. Moreover, with his extensive contacts in the farm community, Hilleary talked about his informal role matching landowners and farmland seekers.

The workshops wrapped up with a networking social hour where the presenters, landowners and farmland seekers had a chance to meet each other and, potentially, make a connection.

“I was hopeful there would be interest in the leasing topic, but I was surprised at the strong response. More than 100 people participated over the two days, and we are looking forward to holding follow-up workshops in 2016,” said Kane.

This article was featured in our Winter 2015 Member Newsletter, The Piedmont View.