Land Prices and the Expansion of Pasture-based Production
In another installation of our guest blog series, Kathryn Quanbeck writes about the cost of land in areas where new-generation farming would thrive. Kathryn lives in Portland, OR and works for the Niche Meat Processor Network (nichemeatprocessing.org), a network and information hub for small-scale meat processors and those who work with them.
As someone who is deeply involved in the sustainable food movement, I often think about the call for more farmers, particularly young farmers. There is no doubt we need them- less than 1% of the U.S. population farms and the average age of the American farmer is about 57 years old. But I frequently wonder, for young people not born into a farming family, how are they going to get started?
Farming is a capital-intensive business, with one of the biggest expenses being the price of land. As we seek to expand pasture-based production (and move away from CAFOs and feedlots) that means moving more animals out onto more acres of pasture. Producers need access to additional acreage and where those parcels are located matters. Pasture-based producers tend to sell a larger portion of their farm output via direct or local marketing channels than their commodity agriculture counterparts. In addition, most producers want to rent or own land near their “home ranch”: you can’t be driving animals all over hither and yon to move them to fresh grass. Thus, additional acreage needs to be located a) near the producer’s existing property and b) near their market. Cheap land in Modoc County won’t work for a producer based in Sonoma County, nor will cheap land in rural Missouri work for but a handful of farmers as there aren’t that many people in rural Missouri to sell meat to. Our intrepid young farmer needs access to pasture not just anywhere, but near a major metropolitan area with a population that is willing to pay a premium for locally raised foods. Ever priced out land in Sonoma, Marin, San Mateo, or Alameda counties? It is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of competition for land near major metropolitan areas, whether you are competing against people wanting to build homes on that property, businesses looking to expand, individuals or developers looking to invest in real estate or other farmers who produce a high value crop (i.e. wine grapes). In most cases, a grass-fed beef rancher for example, simply cannot afford a parcel that could also be turned into a housing development or planted with chardonnay grapes.
How are young farmers needing to purchase or rent land plus cover all the other start-up costs associated with a new farming enterprise going to compete in a highly competitive real estate market? I wish I had the answer. Many are working on this problem: local land trusts like the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and Sonoma Land Trust are trying to bring agricultural land prices back down in line with their agricultural use value and strip out some of the real estate value to make farming more affordable for the next generation. Organizations like California Farm Link connect young farmers and established farmers, smoothing the farm transition process and ensuring that farmland stays in production. The Agrarian Trust is a recent initiative, helping “sustainable next-generation farmers access land” and developing case models so others can learn from their efforts. Here’s hoping they are successful so we can continue to have a vibrant local food system in the Bay Area!