In the Upper Midwest, Cracking the Code for Farmland Access | Civil Eats

In the Upper Midwest, Cracking the Code for Farmland Access

Networks of farmers, facilitated by nonprofits, are offering solutions and community for new and retiring farmers.

Kate Edwards on her Wild Woods Farm in Johnson County, Iowa. (USDA photo by Preston Keres)

Iowa farmer Kate Edwards describes her process of securing land access as one of “relentless looking.” In the nine years since she founded Wild Woods Farm outside Iowa City, she has had to move the location of her farm three times.

Today, Edwards helps beginning farmers find land in her role as a Farmland Access Navigator through the Farmland Access Hub. And last fall, she finally reached an important milestone: she bought her own farm.

Even though Edwards was born into a farm family, the Farm Crisis of the 1980s discouraged both her parents from taking up farming themselves. Born in 1986, Edwards trained to become an agricultural engineer and worked as an environmental consultant before deciding to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps and start farming. At that point she was a generation removed from farming, and had to find a mentor outside her family.

Her first land lease was based on a verbal agreement. As a new farmer, she didn’t feel she had the authority to question an established system of handshake agreements, which she says still mean a lot more in a rural community than people might think.

When she entered into her first written lease four years later, it might have seemed like Edwards’s land security had improved. Writing up the lease gave her the power to consider what she wanted, “But I didn’t have enough experience to know what I needed,” she adds. In hindsight, she says the lease included too many moving pieces—and she didn’t secure a lawyer review.

A year later, the landowner made a decision totally within their rights: They changed the land use, leaving Edwards no option but to leave.

“It was heartbreaking because I thought I was going to farm there forever. I hoped to buy it someday,” she says. “All of a sudden I had no place to farm.”

Edwards credits the mentorship of Susan Jutz, a farmer she met through the nonprofit group Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), with helping her stick it out through the transition. The two first met long before Edwards started farming, when she visited Jutz’s farm as a student. Years later, they reconnected through PFI’s Beginning Farmers program. “Susan went all over the area with me looking at farms,” Edwards says. Eventually Jutz helped her select new land and secure a five-year written lease. This time Edwards made sure to show it to a lawyer.

Today, Edwards feeds 250 families through her farm’s community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription program and owns a 16-acre farm in the same Iowa county where she was born.

Kate Edwards on her Wild Woods Farm in Johnson County, Iowa. (USDA photo by Preston Keres)

Kate Edwards on her Wild Woods Farm in Johnson County, Iowa. (USDA photo by Preston Keres)

Edwards told the story of how much Jutz’s mentorship has meant to her at The Upper Midwest Farmland Summit, in Red Wing, Minnesota, a first-of-its-kind event last autumn organized by Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit that convened the Farmland Access Hub. The conference brought together farmers, nonprofits, and experts from around the Upper Midwest and across the nation to share models that help beginning farmers secure land and support exiting farmers in passing on their land when they’re ready to retire.

The event came at a critical moment. As of 2017, one third of U.S. farmers were over the age of 65, and the average age of farmers in Minnesota is 56. And because for many farmers, selling to the highest bidder is the best shot at retirement, that often means that the land gets passed along to into larger operations or sold for commercial or residential development. All these demographic and economic realities make it difficult if not impossible for young and beginning farmers to secure long-term access to land.

“So much land is going to change hands in the next few years,” says Jan Joannides, Renewing the Countryside’s executive director and co-founder. And much of that land will not be handed down to family members. In 2014, the last time the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report on land tenure, ownership and transition, the agency estimated that 10 percent of all farmland (93 million acres) was expected to change hands between 2015 and 2019. And by that same year, about half of all farmland had been purchases by someone outside the family.

“We have a window of opportunity to take some community action to address this [shift],” adds Joannides.

Renewing the Countryside and its many partners in the Farmland Access Hub help beginning farmers seeking land in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin through farmland literacy workshops, in-depth trainings, and specialized technical assistance including consultation with legal and financial advisers. As a Farmland Access Navigator, Edwards sticks with farmers through the entire process—starting from square one.

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“The very first thing I do is help [beginning farmers] figure out what they want. We can’t go after it until we know what they want,” Edwards says.

Bryant Mann and Carly McAndrews of Trowel & Error Farm in Iowa. Kate Edwards helped the pair purchase land as a Farmland Access Navigator.

Bryant Mann and Carly McAndrews of Trowel & Error Farm in Iowa. Kate Edwards helped the pair secure a lease as a Farmland Access Navigator. (Photo courtesy of Kate Edwards)

A total of 32 farmers have worked with Navigators since the program launched in 2017. Of those, 12 have already signed a more secure lease or purchased land of their own.

Farmland Transfer: The Other Side of the Coin 

Joannides credits the program’s development to training and resources shared by Land for Good, a nonprofit in Keene, New Hampshire, with a mission to put more New England farmers more securely on more land.

Kathy Ruhf, a senior adviser with Land for Good, who helped train Edwards and other Farmland Access Navigators, also works closely with retiring farmers. “We can’t talk about land access without talking about where that land is coming from and how it’s being transferred,” says Ruhf.

Findings from American Farmland Trust in 2018 indicate 371 million acres—more than 40 percent of American farmland and ranchland—will change hands over the next 15 years. Ruhf says two-thirds of retiring farmers have not identified successors, and nearly 90 percent of farm owners don’t have an exit plan.

According to Ruhf, many farmers delay farm transfers because of fears—of death and taxes, not to mention in-laws and complicated family dynamics. “Social and cultural transfer is a huge component that isn’t addressed by legal transfer,” she says.

In Ruhf’s experience, successful farmland transfers take a team. A farm is not just one entity, she reminds retiring farmers, but consists of the land itself, the farm operation or business, and the operator. Defining which of these entities is being transferred is a key first step. After that, families must plan for the legal, financial, and managerial components of the transfer process.

All that planning takes time, and Ruhf and other experts at the Farmland Summit say it’s never too early to start.

Fred Kirschenmann, a lifelong leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, has also experienced firsthand the trials of transferring farmland. He shared his experiences at last fall’s summit. “I understand the real difficulty and the challenge for [retiring farmers],” he says. “They’ve done exactly what we told them to do—get big or get out.”

Kirschenmann, who earlier in his career ran his family’s 1,800-acre certified organic farm in North Dakota, slowly began to transfer the land to a young family so he could pursue his academic career as his role as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa. After first hiring the family to help on the farm, Kirschenmann eventually sold them a quarter-section of land at reduced price and built a home for them on that land. They now rent the rest of the farm.

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He says trust was key to making that farm transition positive for both him and the family. He says, “I had total confidence in their capability and especially their passion.”

California FarmLink, a 20-year-old nonprofit that matches retiring farmers with the next generation of farmers and farm businesses, has seen the same kinds of challenges. The organization is developing a program to help families start their succession plans as early as possible.

“It takes a lot of time, it’s expensive, it’s emotional. It can be frustrating,” Liya Schwartzman, program coordinator for California FarmLink, says of the farm succession process.

Starting this year, the group will offer a new model that will ask farm families to apply and commit to a year-long program as part of a cohort. In-person training sessions will cover essential farm succession topics like retirement planning, estate planning, tax structuring options, and how to plan family meetings and communications. Between hosted training sessions, families will be assigned to set personal appointments with technical advisers like attorneys and financial planners to keep their plans moving forward.

Beyond helping farmers with technical advisers for their succession plans, the program aims to help farmers know they’re not alone in the challenges of succession planning. No matter the differences they may have in production style or beliefs, Schwartzman says, a cohort model helps farmers see “this is something shared. [Passing on your farm] is challenging for all families.”

Above all, Kathy Ruhf has a recommendation perhaps as relevant for farmers transferring their land as for beginners seeking to rent or buy it. “Readiness,” she says, “is as important as the actual transaction.”


Lessons from a Successful Farmer-Mentor Relationship
An interview with Kristin Pearson and Brett Olson.
by Lauren Koshere
After two years of leasing farmland, beginning farmer Kristin Pearson is set this month to close on her first farm purchase, in Lake City, Minnesota—a process supported by her mentorship with Farmland Access Navigator Brett Olson.

Olson is co-founder and Creative Director of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, which helps beginning farmers seeking land tenure in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The organization offers farmland literacy workshops, trainings, and technical assistance through the Farmland Access Hub and the Farmland Access Navigator mentorship program.

Farmer Kristin Pearson and Farmland Access Navigator Brett Olson. (Photo by Lauren Koshere)

Farmer Kristin Pearson and Farmland Access Navigator Brett Olson. (Photo by Lauren Koshere)

Pearson, who operates Pearson Organics near her hometown of Rochester, Minn., has been working with Olson since 2018. She’s one of 32 farmers who have worked with Navigators since the program launched in 2017 and one of 12 so far to secure a better land tenure situation for farming as a result.

Pearson and Olson recently spoke with Civil Eats about the role of their mentorship in helping Pearson purchase her new farm.

Kristin, how did you two first connect?

Pearson: We met at the farmers’ market in Rochester, Minn. Brett was working as a Farmland Access Navigator with another farmer who introduced us.

Brett, what interested you about working with Kristin as a beginning farmer?

Olson: She had a lot of experience that I thought made her a likely success story. She knows that what you need and what you want as a farmer aren’t always the same thing. She’s strategic. She knows she’s building a business. She inserts herself where she needs to be and has plans and partners. For example, she had a connection with the restaurant scene in the Twin Cities from working at one of the grand dames of local foods in our area.

Kristin, what other work did you do before starting your farm?

Pearson: I apprenticed on and managed a farm in Maine for four years before coming back to Minnesota [in 2016]. After that, I worked as a manager at Birchwood Café, a farm-to-table café in Minneapolis. That was a very strategic move on my part because I knew I was going to want to sell to them. I started my farm in 2017, and I now have a CSA drop site at Birchwood; I’m trying to work my way into selling them produce for the kitchen.

Kristin, what fears did you have when you started your farm?

Pearson: The biggest concern was around doing it totally alone. I started the business just as myself, the only owner. But I think a lot of beginning farmers go into it with a life partner and it's the two of them busting it out on three acres, not hiring anybody and paying themselves pennies. That seems to be a pretty typical story. But that just wasn't my situation. I had worked with previous boyfriends and found that it wasn't a good situation for my personal management style. And so it was both an asset to not have to manage with somebody else, but also a huge challenge because if you're trying to lift something like the heater for the greenhouse, how do you mount it to the ceiling using only your two arms? Being one person, sometimes it’s literally impossible to do that.

Olson: Isn’t the upkeep on a Kubota [tractor] a lot lower than on a boyfriend, though?

Pearson: They don’t talk back to you. [Laughs]

Brett, since you started working with Kristin, what’s been exciting to see change for her?

Olson: When she came and said, I want to buy farmland, she didn't want to wait five years until her current lease ran out to do look for it. And so she went out to find farmland. Frankly, at first I thought, I don't know how she can do that. But she has been flexible in rewriting the plan as she goes along, instead of saying no, I’m waiting to find this one specific thing. Some of the farmers I work with say, “I want to have a naturopath healing center with a labyrinth and it has to be near a brook and it has to have a little stone house and it has to all be within 10 minutes of downtown Minneapolis.” I hear that a lot.

How has the Farmland Access Navigator Program made a difference for you?

Pearson: I’ve had some legal trouble with my current landlord—probably the biggest stressor in my life over the last nine months. Those issues would have been a lot more costly and challenging had I not had support from the Farmland Access Navigator program—really, just having someone to talk to about it made such a difference. And knowing where to go for answers is important. It can be very hard to wade through the internet just to ask “how do I do this thing?” It’s better to go to one place and talk to somebody who has helped other people do it and can give you a very straightforward answer about the actual steps you need to take, and who you need to talk to. Brett has tips and tidbits that have been helpful in navigating and wading through all the excessive information from other sources.

So Brett is better than the Internet.

Olson: I am. The internet is full of crap. I'm also full of crap, but not as much crap as the internet. [Laughs]

What's the most important thing a beginning farmer can do to become ready for success?

Pearson: Keep track of the money. That's about it. I think a lot of young people get into farming because of the idyllic nature of the day-to-day life. And, you know, it seems beautiful and awesome—and it is, most of the time, to get to work outside and provide people with food. It's amazing.

But something like a farm apprenticeship isn't necessarily going to teach you how to do your taxes or what types of records you should be keeping and why it might be important to not just pay yourself out of pocket, out of your farmers' market cash, but instead put that all in the bank so you have a record of making money. You can learn how to grow a vegetable by watching YouTube videos. You can fake a narrative saying that you are a very good farmer, but you can't fake the numbers.

Olson: There are great resources for learning how to farm, like the MOSES Conference and workshops on pasture management and things like that, but I think that’s like taking driver's ed. Everybody takes that. It's a class you can pay for. But when it comes to buying a car—the one that’s right for you, and how to finance it—you so often just rely on your dad. And he's just bought Fords his whole life and he doesn't know why. He just goes in and gives them the old one and gets a new one and pays them.

Second, I really like it when farmers have some realism attached to their dreams. You know that maybe that labyrinth can wait a little while. Though maybe it can't—it really could be that important to someone. I get it. But I like to see flexibility and that your first farm may not be your forever farm like the one you think you're on now. It's like those little 1940s houses in the suburbs. They’re your starter. Sometimes you have to be flexible. But Kristin has realism, and she’s super flexible. Also, Kristin emails when she needs something.

Kristen, you know when to ask for help.

Pearson: Yes. I have developed a sense of no shame in knowing when to ask for help.

Olson: Did you play sports in high school? It’s one of those things that you tell your kids all the time: you miss every shot you don't take.

Pearson: That’s farming in a nutshell.

Lauren Koshere is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Read more >

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  1. In this same vein, please include/check out the new "Farm to Farmer" program we have launched here in WA state, with lead PCC Farmland Trust. Viva Farms (non-profit organic farmer incubator) is piloting this program here in Skagit County. See: Contact us at Not only creating a mechanism for young/beginning farmers to find available land, we also need to solve the financing/accessible loan part of the equation!!!
    • Matthew Wheeland
      Thanks, Steve – note that Civil Eats covered Viva Farms at length in 2018 as well:
  2. Susan Hallett
    From Bemidji Minnesota 10 miles North of it, We purchased Gene's Acres, I trained in permaculture farming in 1988 started teaching in 1990 for 1 year. I really just need to connect to people like me who understand organic non gmo seed land the holy bible. All farming seed saving, is already written...following the Creator's blueprint, We need more hearts & hands here. Please contact me thru email.
  3. Roseanne Olsen
    Thanks for this article -In the Upper Midwest, Cracking the Code for Farmland Access. It corralled the issues very well, explained various options for assistance, and gave me hope and admiration for the persons assuming the risk for today's farming lifestyle which is both rewarding and complex.

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