Older farmers in New Hampshire are retiring, and nine out of 10 don’t have someone from the next generation of farmers to take over, leaving a third of the state’s farmland to an uncertain future.
A study by the American Farmland Trust and Land For Good, organizations aimed at ensuring the future of farmland, analyzed how many principal operators of farms age 65 and older have any other farm operators in the younger brackets who would be the natural inheritors of the land. They found that of 1,338 senior farmers who operate a third of the state’s farms, 94 percent had no younger farm operators helping them.
“It was an eye-opener to see how few farmers age 65 and older had somebody under the age of 45 working alongside them on the farm,” Cris Coffin, policy director at Land For Good, said. “There’s an awful lot of farms where there’s nobody sort of being groomed who is clearly going to take on the farm.”
Many senior farmers who participated in a focus group organized by the researchers said they were worried about what would happen to their farm after they retire or pass away. Some are divided between keeping the land in the family or letting a next generation farmer take over.
“I’ve mentored some young people over the years, but when it came time for them to think about transitioning the farm, they didn’t have the money to buy it,” said one anonymous farmer.
For Coffin and other farm advocates, the broad fear is that the land will be bought by non-farmers and repurposed.
“That is a great concern, because ... a lot of farms and a lot of land goes out of farming ... when an older generation retires, sells the farm [or] dies and there isn’t a natural successor. Then the future of the farm is very much in doubt,” Coffin said.
For farmers, selling the land to a non-farmer like a developer is sometimes the only avenue when they become less productive and need money for retirement.
One way these farmers can get the money they need while preserving the farmland is through Purchase of Development Rights programs. State-subsidized PDR programs help finance farmers’ retirements while keeping the land in the hands of another farmer, who won’t have to pay as much for the land as they would otherwise.
“That was seen as a particularly big challenge in New Hampshire, which has not been putting much money into farmland protection,” Coffin said.
She says other New England states invest more money in those programs.
Another way the state could be doing more to help, according to Coffin, is through informational and networking resources that help get farmland sellers in touch with prospective buyers. New Hampshire is already participating in a “land link” website at newenglandfarmlandfinder.org, but Coffin says farmers, especially older ones, aren’t often plugged in to digital methods of matchmaking.
Meanwhile the demographic trends for farming don’t seem to be improving. In New Hampshire, the number of farmers age 45 and younger dropped by 15 percent between 2002 and 2012. The state does see an uptick in the youngest segment of farmers, age 35 and younger, but a significant drop in the 35-to-45 group might reflect a lack of economic resources despite some interest and energy early on.
“Folks might come in very young and be very enthusiastic and be able to start off but when they get to the point where they’re putting down roots — either they’re looking at trying to buy land or they’re having kids — the need for greater income and family stability grows. That’s where the economics of farming is still very challenging in the region,” Coffin said.
While New Hampshire seemed to have the smallest share of young farm operators helping senior principal operators compared to the other New England states, Coffin says that may be due to the high number of small farms, which may not have the capacity to require extra help.