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A farmer’s 10-year journey to finding land that she can call her own

Andal Sundaramurthy in January 2020 on her newly leased land in Wilmot, NH.

Every farmer’s story of getting securely on farmland is different. For this female farmer, her journey has been 10 years in the making. In January 2020, Andal Sundaramurthy signed a lease-to-own agreement on a 3-acre field in Wilmot, New Hampshire that will become a vegetable farm.

We first met Andal in 2010 at a workshop in which we discussed the benefits of leasing farmland before buying. Working as a farm employee, Andal could not envision saving enough money to ever buy land to start her own farm.

LFG was helpful in showing me possibilities I wasn’t aware of,” shares Andal. “I never heard of leasing and assumed the only way to run a farm was to buy one or become a manager.”

Learning from every opportunity

Andal reconnected with LFG in 2013 and started working Melissa, our former NH Field Agent, to find her first farm leasing experience. Together they discovered a two-year leasing opportunity through the NOFA-NH Journeyperson program at Two Mountain Farm. The farmer who owned and operated Two Mountain Farm for over a decade decided, along with the landowner, to make the farm available as a turn-key operation to a beginning farmer to gain valuable experience.

LFG was very encouraging. Melissa helped me clarify my farming goals and create a personal brochure that I could use to communicate with landowners about potentially leasing their land,” shares Andal. “Most importantly, Melissa helped me network in the local farming community and taught me how to use many available tools to look for land, like New England Farmland Finder and the web soil survey.”

Andal started with growing vegetables on 1/2 an acre of the available land, while continuing to work part-time off the farm for additional income. She marketed directly to consumers, retail outlets and institutions. Her chaotic first year was marked by many farmers markets and a lot of unsold produce. After cutting back to 1/3 acre and focusing on her most profitable markets, Andal had a more successful second year.

Overcoming barriers to land access

LFG is an asset to any farmer considering using land they don’t own,” recalls Andal. “With the extensive expertise of LFG, I avoided many of the common mistakes that result in a lease falling apart, such as poor communication, unfair arrangements, lack of secure tenure, etc.”

Andal Sundaramurthy in January 2020 on her newly leased land in Wilmot, NH.

In her search for land on which to establish a farm long-term, Andal encountered several obstacles. She was surprised to learn how little high-quality land, suitable for vegetable crops exists in New Hampshire. She visited, called, and sent letters to countless landowners, many of who lived out of state. While the majority of these landowners were happy to hear from a young farmer and supportive of agriculture, they were resistant to change and could not possibly imagine altering the current situation on their own land. One of her many land search strategies included placing an ad in the local newspaper.

I remained hopeful,” shares Andal. “Given the increasing amount of land in conservation, I hoped that with enough outreach and education, more landowners would start to consider opening their land to agricultural use and come to see how important it is for the health of our communities.

Often in areas of high competition for land, small parcels are sometimes the only thing available to new and beginning farmers. Depending on what their enterprise will be, it’s also often the perfect size to start on. There are many benefits to starting small. Many farmers run profitable businesses on only an acre or two of land. Eventually Andal found a 3-acre field owned by an open-minded couple who were supportive of local agriculture and willing to enter a new relationship with a young farmer.

Without LFG’s help, I don’t believe I would have ever found my first farm lease,” explains Andal.

Drafting a lease agreement

When the opportunity came up to lease land in 2019, she had no hesitation when thinking about who to ask for help. Andal contacted LFG and received guidance from Cara, our NH Field Agent. She worked with Andal and the landowners to address the importance of building relationships and good communication and putting plans in writing. It is important to strive for clear, open and ongoing communication right from the beginning of the relationship.

Andal also put into action many of LFG’s resources, reading materials, and online tools, particularly the Build-A-Lease Tool.

I found Build-A-Lease very useful to learn the certain sections that go into creating a strong lease. The owners of my land started writing our lease using another template they found online, which I continued to build upon and add any sections that were missing compared to the LFG version,” explains Andal. “It was easy to use and I would highly recommend it as a great way to start writing a lease and also just as a learning tool to find out what goes into a lease so that you are more prepared when you finally find your land opportunity.”

Cara reviewed the lease draft and offered suggestions. “As a field agent, I enjoyed the process of working with both Andal and the landowners,” shares Cara. “Our Build-A-Lease Tool gave Andal and the landowners the structure for the lease and a lot of freedom to custom design the content to specifically fit their situation.”

Cara worked with Andal and the landowners to establish a sound relationship and good communication, sharing goals and concerns, and identifying areas of agreement and disagreement. We helped Andal and the landowners put plans in writing to serve both parties and crafted a lease-to-own agreement. “Lease-to-own” refers to strategies to gain ownership of a particular property at a future point via specific legal transactions involving the property owner (landlord) and the buyer (tenant). Lease-to-own provisions are advantageous for farmers who cannot arrange for a conventional mortgage but are certain they want to own this particular property in the future.

Staying positive amid challenges

Amid the coronavirus pandemic Andal is doing her best to start building the foundation of her new farm business. It has been difficult as many services have been interrupted due to supply chain problems. She is reassured by the increased interest in local foods from small farms, and many people in her community have already begun to reach out hoping she will have vegetables for sale soon. Andal hopes farm supporters understand that active farmland production increases the availability of local, fresh food that is important for the health of communities, especially now.

It’s been a long journey,” reflects Andal.

After years of working on farms, and a two-year Journeyperson experience, she completely dedicated herself to searching for land in early 2017, finally finding the right parcel of land and signing a lease in 2020 that will lead to owning the land.

During that time, I had many leads that seemed promising but ultimately fell through. It was hard to stay positive and hopeful. I owe a lot to my friends and family for their support and will certainly need their help in the years ahead to make my farm a success.”

 

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