Vermont will have a substantial transfer of agricultural land over the next decade. Prioritizing creative approaches to farmland ownership and access will create farming opportunities for more people, including historically marginalized communities within and outside Vermont, who are disproportionately underrepresented in farmland ownership. The model of fee simple farmland ownership by a single family is not possible for many farmers, and not desirable for some others. It is unlikely to sufficiently address the shift underway in farmland ownership, as the price of land continues to rise and the costs of production and land are well above the return obtained from many farm businesses. If we do not explore and implement a range of approaches that provide alternative methods of land ownership and access, we risk losing farming opportunities for new entrepreneurs and existing farmers, agricultural land, and the opportunity to redress historical racial injustices related to land.
Ensuring access to land for those wishing to farm or to expand their current operations should be a top priority within Vermont. The majority of farm support systems (technical assistance and resources, lending structures, and other financial tools) are set up for fee simple models of ownership. While a transition to a new owner might include a fee simple purchase with a conventional loan, farmers, service providers, funders, and communities are looking for ownership alternatives to help facilitate the volume of transfers on the horizon.
Alternative models of land access and/or farm transfer are tools that can be applied to achieve multiple objectives and goals. Land ownership can play an important role in generating wealth for future generations, yet it is inaccessible for many farmers. The Vermont Land Trust’s (VLT) Farmland Access Program is an alternative approach already in use in Vermont. The program assists both those who prefer fee simple ownership by one buyer and those who want to pursue ownership by multiple individuals looking for less-typical models. The program offers a variety of pathways to secure affordable land access to a much wider group of farmers.
Additional land ownership and access structures which might be considered alternative include long-term leases, leasing public land, lease-to-own, collaborative and cooperative ownership models, ownership of land by nonprofits including community-based land trusts, and the use of investor capital or crowd-funding capital to finance transactions. These and other models should be researched, promoted, and encouraged as they address a range of limitations among the existing, more frequently occurring option of fee simple purchase by a single farmer or family utilizing debt financing.