|Will O’Meara, co-owner of Hungry Reaper Farm and LFG’s Connecticut Field Agent, shares his land access story. Photo credit: Hungry Reaper Farm|
As a young, first-generation farmer in Litchfield County, Connecticut, I know firsthand that land is deeply intertwined with all aspects of farmers’ success, and it does not just impact farmers—land access is critical to the health and well-being of our environment, economy, and communities.
During my tenure as a farmer, I have experienced a multitude of challenges related to real estate and land access. In my decade as a farm worker and eventually farm manager, my colleagues and I often struggled to find adequate, affordable housing near the farms that we stewarded. Working in rural towns in Litchfield County, there was an abundance of short-term rentals for weekend and/or summer homes that commanded many thousands of dollars per month, and a dearth of apartments and homes for rent that would approach affordability on a farmworker’s wages. I found myself commuting over an hour each day to the city of Waterbury in order to break even on my monthly budget.
This would continue through starting my own farm on leased land in Morris and the problem was compounded by the pandemic housing boom and subsequent housing crisis we find ourselves in currently. Our current employee had to expand her search up to an hour away before settling in a spare room in our rental house. While many are familiar with long commutes, farming is perhaps the most essentially place-based occupation there is, and even our “days off” require multiple trips to the farm to water seedlings, run irrigation, open and close greenhouses, scout for pests, etc. In the last year of our commute, it was not unusual to spend two hours in the car to accomplish an hour or so of chores spread out throughout the day.
Furthermore, many of my peers and I grew up in Litchfield County and are finding ourselves displaced or burdened by rural gentrification. The transformation of rural towns into seasonal playgrounds for wealthy vacationers places these communities at risk in a number of ways. Housing stock commands a premium that no full-time resident working in the community can afford. Public school enrollment plummets in favor of private school attendance, a return to a primary residence, or an inflated population of retirees or people with adult children. Engagement with crucial public services such as volunteer fire departments, EMT’s, and civic organizations decline. Economic and food system infrastructure that supports agriculture, including food processing facilities, slaughterhouses, feed dealerships, and local distributors, shutter or are pushed past their maximum capacity.
I believe that individuals and families have a right to live near where they grew up or where they work and go to school affordably and with dignity. The commodification and speculation of rural land for estate value threatens that right, and I believe class solidarity between rural and urban communities subjected to gentrification is long past due. A coordinated, modern agrarian vision for our rural communities has the ability to empower both communities and provide an essential public service by creating resilience in our food system in an uncertain economic, climate, and gastronomic future.
My fiancé and I decided to start our farm in October 2019 when we got the opportunity to sublease land from a dear friend and fellow farmer who had an underutilized corner of his farm that he was able to operate his livestock operation without. This nearly free lease was instrumental in providing us the opportunity to start our business and make initial investments in equipment and infrastructure.
The pandemic challenged our two farming businesses in different ways, but the ultimate challenge would come when the landowners put their property on the market for double the most recent appraisal during the pandemic boom. We had begun to negotiate a lease-to-own arrangement with the property owners with the hopes of selling the development rights on the land through Connecticut’s Farmland Preservation Program in order to bring down the purchase price, but the 2+ year timeline was longer than they were willing to consider. As a result, we were both forced to essentially vacate the property at the end of the growing season. We would go on to find another year-long lease up the road, and our friend would ultimately choose to shutter his business between the difficulty with farmland and a lack of adequate meat processing infrastructure in our region.
With only the following year of land tenure guaranteed, my fiancé and I began looking for farmland to purchase. While half a dozen properties we could afford with the growth we projected for our farm, we were not able to purchase a property due the lack of affordable credit we could access. With only one year of business history, we were limited to farm ownership loans through USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). FSA is a lender of last resort, meaning that borrowers must not qualify for other types of credit for investments in land, infrastructure, and equipment. While their interest rates are typically among the lowest, approval requires a signed purchase and sale agreement and often comes with a six month timeline for approval. These constraints made it impossible for us to compete in an incredibly fast-paced real estate market full of cash buyers and buyers with more established financial history. This also allowed prices to be driven up with many offers coming in above the initial asking price.
When it became clear we were not in a place to outbid or outpace other buyers, we settled into our lease and commute, and did the best we could managing our farm with a yearlong lease and no guarantee of a long-term home for our business. In September of 2021, however, we got a call from a friend letting us know that the price had dropped significantly on our original farm. While still out of our price range, we strategized and decided to call Dirt Capital Partners, a farmland investment firm that purchases farms on behalf of farmers, executes long term leases with the option to purchase, and provides technical assistance with regards to business planning and the sale of development rights.
Within two weeks, they put an offer in on the farm and we were able to move there in April 2022. We held on to our annual lease and pursued another in order to access crucial infrastructure we would not have time to build as the growing season was already underway. The fickle nature of annual leases persisted, and another wealthy landowner terminated our lease just two weeks ago for no default or cause on our part, but simply a change of mind. Thankfully, we are secure in our lease on what we now call the “home farm.”
Unfortunately, stories like mine are not unique. Research from the USDA shows that across the country, the current generation of farmers is aging out of the profession–the average farmer in the U.S. is nearly 60 years old–while prime farmland is being lost to development at a rate of more than 2,000 acres per day. Over the next twenty years of my life, nearly half of U.S. farmland is expected to change hands, and young farmers are leaving agriculture because they cannot secure land. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers), finding affordable land to buy is the number one reason farmers are leaving agriculture, the top challenge for current farmers, and the primary barrier preventing aspiring farmers from getting started.
This is why I’ve worked for Land For Good since 2019. Through our Farm Seekers program we support new and beginning farmers in their search for appropriate and affordable farmland and in crafting leases that promote secure farmland access and longer term tenure. Our Farm Legacy program can also help to move the needle by creating opportunities for farmers to recruit successors who will steward the land for the next generation. Building the food future we want and deserve starts with the land and supporting those who work on it day in and day out.