EITHERLivia Cleveland misses her farm: the chickens, the donkeys, the smell of earth, and the way the wind blows at three in the afternoon. For nearly three years, Cleveland, 30, lived on a farm in northeast Alabama owned by her then-husband. She spent her days doing hard physical labor, cultivating the land she loved dearly, but she didn’t own anything on paper. So when Cleveland and her husband divorced in 2021, she lost everything.
Since then, Cleveland has spent the last two years rebuilding and working to buy his own farm in his home state of Tennessee.
But Cleveland, now the southeast organizing manager for the nonprofit National Young Farmer Coalition, still can’t afford the median price of farmland in Tennessee, which has risen 10% in the past year. 15, 10 or even five years ago, Cleveland says, he could have bought a piece of land. “But in 2023, it’s very hard to find that,” he says.
In April, Cleveland finally found a small cabin and an acre of land where he plans to grow his own food.
Nationwide, the cost of farmland is the highest it has been since the 1970s. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, the value per acre increased 12.4 percent and now averages $3,800 per acre, according to the Department of United States Agriculture (USDA). In some states it’s even higher: Last year, farmland in California averaged $12,000 an acre. These record prices make it almost impossible for young and emerging farmers to break into the industry. With the current generation of farm owners approaching retirement age and with more than 40% of the country’s farmland (approximately 400 million acres (162 million hectares)) expected to change hands in the next decade , there are thousands of young farmers ready to take over. But with limited financial resources and farmland prices continuing to rise, many are unable to access land to grow food.
According to a survey conducted by the National Coalition of Young Farmers, finding affordable land to purchase is the number one challenge for farmers under the age of 40. Limited access to capital, student loan debt and healthcare costs make it increasingly difficult for young farmers when trying to build a farm.
Most young farmers are also first-generation farmers, so they don’t have access to farmland or resources that may have been inherited by a family member, says Carolina Mueller, coalition manager at the National Farmers Coalition. Youths.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, insurance companies, hedge fund managers and developers have increasingly viewed farmland as a stable investment with high returns amid a volatile market. They began buying farmland at prices the average farmer couldn’t compete with, according to a report by the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). These investments, along with high prices for commodities like wheat and soybeans, have contributed to a 75% increase in the price of farmland over the past 15 years.
The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, an investment fund that manages pension funds for public employees of various institutions, for example, owns an estimated $4 billion worth of farmland in the US, and Bill Gates is now the nation’s largest private agricultural landowner, with more than 250,000 acres (101,000 hectares) in dozens of states.
Jordan Treakle, the national coordinator for the program at the NFFC, a coalition representing farmers, ranchers and advocacy organizations in 42 states, says that with so much land expected to change hands in the next decade, it is essential that it move to hands of young farmers instead of investors or developers.
“If 40% of agricultural land falls into corporate ownership as a speculative asset class or as a way to park money, instead of that land being used to support rural economies in our local food systems, I think that has Big implications for national security, for our food security as a nation and the vitality of our local rural economy,” he says.
Investors may not consider how their property will affect communities or the environment, says Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Small farmers, on the other hand, often prioritize stewardship of the land for the next generation.
For farmers like Cleveland, land is much more than an asset. “For me, any opportunity to steward that land, whether through gardening, farming, or living, is an honor,” she says.
This is a view shared by many young farmers, 97% of whom say they use sustainable growing practices like cover crops, drip irrigation, and perennial planting. However, establishing these methods and building the necessary infrastructure can be very difficult without long-term secure access to land. These practices take time to establish, but they are essential to preserving the viability of soil and other resources, Mueller says. Secure access to land not only benefits farmers, it also benefits the climate.
“I think that’s what makes it so frustrating that farmland is seen as a commodity,” says Mueller.
With land purchase out of reach, many are turning to leasing farmland as a more affordable option.
According to the USDA, 40% of farmland is now leased, with the majority of leased land owned by “non-operator owners,” meaning a person who is not actively involved in farming, such as a financial investor. A non-operating owner and a farmer often have different values for the farm, often making it difficult for a farmer to establish sustainable farming methods. It can also create an unreliable dynamic between farmers and owners.
Nyema Clark, 35, the director of Nurturing Roots, an urban farm in Seattle, Washington, has been leasing land from a non-operating owner, Bethany United Church of Christ, for the past eight years. On March 1, she was served without notice that she had 30 days to vacate the property.
In an emailed statement to The Guardian, Bethany United Church of Christ said Nurturing Roots failed to give the required 90-day notice to renew its lease before it expired. She also said the church has been renting to Nurturing Roots at a “well below market rate,” which she estimates has resulted in a $300,000 subsidy for the farm.
“We have put in a lot of effort to help Nurturing Roots. We wish Nurturing Roots the best,” the church said in the statement.
In February of last year, Nurturing Roots made an offer to buy the land from the church, but was turned down.
For nearly a decade, Clark says she has worked to build a space where community members can grow food using organic practices, so she is devastated to lose the land she worked so hard to farm.
“We have been taken advantage of for generations. And so because of what I’m going through, I feel like, wow, this is lasting trauma,” Clark says.
Clark is referring to a long history of land loss among black farmers through discriminatory practices that still exists today. Between 1910 and 1997, black farmers lost approximately 90% of the farmland they owned. To this day, Davy says black farmers continue to be exploited by credit lenders at the local level, making it difficult for them to access and maintain ownership of land. Today, 97% of farmland is owned by white people. These systemic barriers make it disproportionately difficult for young black farmers to access land and capital.
While land ownership may be ideal for many young farmers, private ownership is not the only route to secure access to land, says Mueller of the National Young Farmer Coalition. Community ownership and urban agricultural cooperatives are increasingly used throughout the country.
The Agrarian Trust is an organization that works to decommodify pieces of land and place them under the control of local communities. Through this model, called the “land commons,” land is owned by a community board and leased to farmers at an affordable price for as long as the state allows, which in most cases is $99. years.
This gives farmers the chance to build the infrastructure they need without fear of losing access to their land, says Kristina Villa, director of communications for the Agrarian Trust, who also uses the agrarian commons model to lease her own farm.
This year could shape the future of land ownership for young farmers as the Farm Bill, a package of laws that is passed every five years, is scheduled to be voted on. Organizations across the country, including the NFFC, the Agrarian Trust and the National Young Farmers Coalition, say this is a critical time for Congress to increase equitable access to land for young farmers.
“A lot of funds right now are spent on technical assistance or training for farmers and producers. But, like, people know how to farm,” says Villa. “They just need land.”