Agricultural Business Uncategorized

Navigating Farm and Ranch Transfers to a New Generation

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An ambitious program supports land access as many farmers approach retirement, posing challenges for America’s food system.

  • American Farmland Trust

The Nelson family of Oroville, Washington, says that as they weathered hard economic times in the cattle business, they often felt pressure to subdivide their land.Shawn Linehan/AFT

This content was written by Randi Druzin, and paid for by American Farmland Trust; it was not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mother Jones’ editorial staff. See our advertising guidelines to learn more.

Through her work with American Farmland Trust (AFT), Megan Faller was introduced to a cattle farmer who had inherited land in Louisiana that his grandfather had purchased after being emancipated from slavery. Faller met the farmer in 2022, not long after Hurricane Ida had cut a path of destruction through the farm, destroying barns and uprooting trees. The land holds deep meaning for the farmer, and he hopes to keep it in the family and in agriculture.

Now in his mid-60s, he would like to retire, but he doesn’t have any heirs ready to take his place. At the same time, he is experiencing sustained pressure from developers that would like to purchase the land and build housing projects on it. That would destroy the family’s farm and erase its history.

“I was inspired by his family’s story and his resilience to keep looking for solutions, but I was also heartbroken that I couldn’t offer him more,” says Faller. “I still wish that I could help him find some substantial financial support and a dedicated person who could coach him through the process of finding a successor.”

Many farmers and ranchers have found themselves in a similar predicament, and the result is chilling. In recent decades, agricultural land has given way to urban sprawl. The US is losing farmland at an alarming rate: About 2,000 acres are now being lost every day. Projections suggest that over 18 million acres of agricultural land could be converted or compromised between 2016 and 2040.

The crisis is only expected to worsen because many current farmers are moving toward retirement and new farmers are struggling to access land and financial capital. The future is uncertain for about one-third of American farm and ranch land—making intact food systems vulnerable.

Change is needed to secure the wellbeing of the food system, and it must happen quickly. AFT has responded. Through a partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, it has established the Land Transfer Navigators program, which aims to preserve farm and ranch land by helping to bridge the gap between producers leaving the profession and those who aspire to enter it.

AFT’s Land Transfer Navigators Program Sets Ambitious Goals for Next Four Years

Building on the work of other AFT programs and partners, AFT is training three dozen land protection organizations and their staff to serve as navigators in their communities nationwide.

Every navigator is a trained professional who can provide one-on-one tailored support to farmers, ranchers, and other landowners at every stage of their careers who want to learn about the complexities of land access and land transfer.

Navigators will connect with each other to gain the skills, tools, and resources needed to do this work.

AFT’s Land Transfer Navigators cohort meets in Savannah, Georgia, for the first in-person training in January 2024.

Megan Faller/AFT

Transfer planning ensures that ownership and control of a farm and business assets shift smoothly, allowing the outgoing farmer to retire with confidence and ensuring the incoming farmer has a real chance of success. It assures that land remains in agriculture, which supports a resilient food system.

Transfer planning involves shifting management of an agricultural operation, building new management capacity, and transferring farm assets (i.e., land, buildings, equipment, and livestock), as well as establishing a long-term plan to ensure financial security and peace of mind for current and future operators. All of this takes careful communication between the retiring and aspiring farmer or rancher. Sometimes, this process is quick. Other times, it takes years to complete.

An important part of AFT’s new program is the expansion of communities of practice for individuals who play pivotal roles in the transfer process. In addition to navigators, this group includes lawyers, appraisers, real estate agents, financial planners, and lenders, among others. They are meeting in regional forums to build networks that ultimately will support transfers where they live and work.

AFT is also creating an interactive online hub that will include step-by-step resources to help farmers and ranchers in the land transfer process. It will provide a directory of programs, services, and contact information for navigators, along with a national Farm Link Finder that will point to Farm Link programs throughout the country. The resources will be housed at the Farmland Information Center, the nation’s largest online collection of information on farm and ranch land protection and stewardship.

This comprehensive approach to the problem of disappearing agricultural land is reflective of AFT’s broader approach to conservation. In building resilience for future generations, it takes into consideration the land, the people, and their practices.

“Organizations across the country are providing critical expertise on land protection, transfer, and access, but capacity and coordination are limited. That makes it difficult to help farmers, ranchers, and landowners through unique, complicated processes,” says Erica Goodman, director of AFT’s Farms for a New Generation initiative. “Yet it is this grounded, one-on-one assistance that can help transform land transfer challenges into land access opportunities.”

Partners Around the Country Excited to See Land Transfer Planning Results

The Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC), a local land trust that supports transfer through an AFT-led navigator partnership network in New York, works with landowners to establish agricultural conservation easements—legal agreements between conservation bodies and landowners that determine how land can be used—with affordability covenants.

With an affordability covenant, the value of the farmland becomes the appraised agricultural value—a dollar figure lower than full market value. That makes the land affordable to a potential buyer interested in farming or preserving the legacy of the working landscape.

CLC can apply for a state grant to pay the owner the difference between the full market value and the appraised agricultural value. This helps the retiring farmer meet future income needs.

Cameron Hastie-Etchison, a conservation programs associate at CLC, says she is pleased her organization is involved with the Land Transfer Navigators program and is impressed with its broad scope. “This initiative has brought together people doing this work who otherwise would not have had a connection or platform for communication,” she says. “This is complex work, and hearing how someone in another state is addressing a similar challenge can potentially open up a new path for my work. AFT staff are very responsive to the needs that arise. They’re listening and responding with resources needed to further this work. I am excited to see all that we can accomplish together over the next four years.”

Farmer Joe Thompson of Cedar Grove, North Carolina, worked with Black Family Land Trust to protect his farmland with a federal agricultural conservation easement that keeps the land in farming for future generations. Black Family Land Trust is a partner in AFT’s Land Transfer Navigators program.

Shawn Linehan/AFT

About 3,000 miles west, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space) is also involved with the navigator program. The California-based organization—which protects agricultural, natural resources, and scenic open-space lands—has rolled out a program in which it buys property from landowners that is attractive to most agricultural land-seekers and then protects it with a conservation easement.

Each of those easements comes with an affordability covenant to ensure the property remains affordable for incoming farmers and an agricultural conservation covenant, which stipulates that agriculture continues to be practiced on the property in perpetuity.

“For people like me, who don’t have a background in real estate, succession planning, estate planning, or related topics, the Land Transfer Navigators program really clarifies the process of land transfer, including how it can go wrong and lead to negative outcomes, and how we can support a better process that leads to positive outcomes,” says Mary Chambers, an agricultural specialist with Ag + Open Space.

She notes that more than 95 percent of agricultural land is owned by white people. She is pleased that AFT acknowledges the lack of diversity in farming and, in its navigator training sessions, looks at what can be done to support more equitable land access.

About the training sessions, she says there is “strong emphasis on getting to know other folks working on the same topics within our state or region, which is helpful because regulations, market pressures, and types of agriculture vary so much between different regions of the country. I think that participating in the navigator training program will likely inspire more work in this area. I’m excited to see what we’ll be able to do next.”

Goodman is excited that AFT has launched a program that helps individuals like the cattle farmer her colleague met in Louisiana. “By training conservation leaders across the country to help farmers with the succession planning process and encouraging them to consider it now, we hope that fewer difficult conversations about the future of the farm will be delayed until it’s too late. We believe the program can improve land transfer processes, help both aspiring and retiring farmers, and keep more land in agriculture in the process. I wish my own family would’ve had a navigator to work with when my father’s generation decided to sell the family farm.”

AFT’s hallmark is its focus on growing the capacity of farmers and ranchers, and the community that surrounds them, to protect their communities and to build resilience in the local food system. Through a national program tailored to local needs, AFT is ensuring future generations of farmers and ranchers find land to produce the food, fuel, and fiber that sustain us all.

Since it was founded in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect nearly 8 million acres and spread conservation agriculture practices to 300 million acres of farmland in the US. Beyond that, AFT is building the peer networks needed to provide new resources, tools, and access to land for future generations. Read about AFT’s Land Transfer Navigators program at