For farmers, accessing new land a barrier

  • Andal Sundaramurthy at her “forever farm” on land she leases in Wilmot, where she grows vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Courtesy Andal Sundaramurthy

New Hampshire Bulletin
Published: 12/27/2021 5:37:47 PM
Modified: 12/27/2021 5:37:20 PM

For Andal Sundaramurthy, the path to finding what she calls her forever farm was bumpy at best. The process was full of failed attempts and false starts. In the end, it took her about a decade-long search to find the right place for Nalla Farm, a small-scale vegetable growing operation on a three-acre plot of land in Wilmot that she’s leasing with the option to eventually own it outright.

That’s a plight that other new, would-be farmers looking to set down roots in New Hampshire come up against too. But not all of them have a decade’s worth of determination to make it to the finish line like Sundaramurthy did, a barrier that is limiting the number of new farmers who can successfully get established in the state. And addressing this problem is becoming more urgent as the average age of farmers continues to rise; currently, the average farmer is in their late 50s, nearing the latter part of their career.

But many new farmers get deterred by the process of finding suitable land, according to Melissa Benedikt, who now works as a full-time farmer at Benedikt Dairy in Goffstown. “A lot of people just give up after not being able to make it on their first property,” she said.

Benedikt and her husband, Max, had to uproot their own operation twice before they found a place that would work for them permanently.

Before Benedikt was farming full-time, she worked with Sundaramurthy to help her find farmable land through a non-profit called Land for Good that helps connect farmers with available land and navigate often-complex lease negotiations with landowners. The non-profit, which works with farmers across New England, just received a $750,000 grant through USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to help first-time and beginner farmers access land.

In New Hampshire, there’s a great need for this kind of program, according to Seth Wilner, a farm management educator who works with the agricultural community through UNH Cooperative Extension.

Access to land and access to capital have historically been two of the biggest barriers facing farmers, Wilner said. But while access to capital has improved, he said, accessing land remains tough.

“Then, prices of land went just crazy stupid, exacerbating that problem,” Wilner said. Price is such an issue because the net profits that farmers can hope to earn in the region are so small, ranging from just 3 to 10 percent, according to studies from the UNH Cooperative Extension.

In this climate, Wilner sees the work of Land for Good as especially important: connecting absentee landholders with farmers or introducing farmers who are ready for retirement with new farmers hoping to get their start.

Still, making the right match isn’t easy.

Even landowners that were ideologically supportive of local agriculture had a hard time accepting changes in how their land would be used and managed to accommodate a farmer, said Sundaramurthy.

“I kept having the same conversation over and over with people who had this beautiful land, and they just didn’t want to change anything,” she said.

And that was incredibly frustrating, as Sundaramurthy’s collection of failed attempts grew: “So many leads, so many dead ends, so much time.”

Some landowners are willing to have a farmer on their property in theory without necessarily realizing all it entails. “Things smell or it might be loud at six in the morning,” said Land for Good program director Shemariah Blum-Evitts. “Farming can be messy, it can be unpredictable, and farmers may not have that much experience when they’re getting started,” she said. That can lead to disagreements.

Sundaramurthy said landowners often didn’t understand what she wanted to do as a vegetable farmer. That made the prospect scary to them because it seemed “weird.”

In her work with Land for Good, Blum-Evitts is all too familiar with new farmers like Sundaramurthy struggling to find land. They increasingly come from diverse backgrounds: people who haven’t had access to healthy food but want to create that; people with graduate degrees who haven’t found professional fulfillment; city-dwellers hoping to start urban gardens; veterans; and people of color. Sundaramurthy’s father is a first-generation American from India; her mom’s side is 12th-generation WASP American, she said.

Many of these newcomers don’t have a farming background, Blum-Evitts said, let alone an inheritance including a family farm. Young farmers in the past would often come into land just by virtue of lineage, And competition for flat land near city centers can be fierce; land prices in New England are high, especially outside of urban centers like Boston. But those areas – like Benedikt’s farm in Goffstown – afford access to markets. The Benedikts sell raw milk, a highly perishable item, so it’s important they produce it close to where their clients live.

Still, there are always trade-offs. Benedikt leases the land she and her husband farm, and not owning the land can feel insecure.

“It’s the price we pay for being in our market and having a quality of life where we don’t have to spend hours in the truck,” she said. Benedikt said communication is the key to maintaining a good relationship between landowner and farmer.

In addition to matchmaking, Land for Good helps farmers and landowners navigate these difficult conversations early on in the process, so they can come to an agreement before signing a lease.

After Sundaramurthy had found the right plot of land, she reached out to Land for Good for help negotiating the lease. “They’ve seen so many things go wrong. I knew they’d be able to tell me what not to do,” she said.

There were seemingly endless details – including clauses that were wide-ranging, from wells to wellness (what would happen, Sundaramurthy wondered, if she broke her back?). It took a year to draft the final agreement, which Sundaramurthy signed in 2020.

Sundaramurthy ended up with a 10-year lease. And for all the landowners that only supported local agriculture in theory, Sundaramurthy found one who is materially supportive, too. She pays $100 a year plus taxes for the first five years, and she has a 10-year window to purchase the land for a fixed price. She has the freedom to make changes to the property. For Sundaramurthy, this is a good ending. She’s finally found a piece of land to call her own.




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