Matchmaking… For Farmers??

January 25, 2013

Here's a preview of the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science. Over the past year, farmers and landowners have been coming together through the Pennsylvania-based Farm Lease Connection.

EHarmony. OkCupid. Match. JDate. In this modern day and age, online dating has become a common – and often preferred – method for bringing people together, helping participants meet a partner with similar interests and maybe even make a love match. Now, aspiring farmers are also giving this online connection format a try to meet potential business partners.

Over the past year, farmers and landowners have been coming together through the Pennsylvania-based Farm Lease Connection, part of the non-profit Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) whose mission is to support family farms and build community through food. The Farm Lease Connection is an online “matchmaking” site of sorts where future farmers can meet people who own underutilized land – and then lease that land for their farming endeavor.

Marilyn Anthony, PASA’s Eastern Regional Director, says that given that the average age of a farmer is 57, her organization started looking into the next generation of farmers, wondering where they would come from and asking the important question of how new farmers would tackle the challenge of procuring land for farming. Anthony says that no matter where surveys gathered data, aspiring and beginning young farmers pointed to access to land as their number one obstacle.

“Historically, you became a farmer because you inherited the family farm or you married into it and inherited the land. But that’s not where the next generation of farmers is coming from. The next generation of farmers comes from suburban and urban backgrounds, and they don’t have access to land. The concept of leasing from landowners turns out to be a viable business option and helps new farmers build equity more quickly while avoiding crushing mortgage debt,” says Anthony.

Changes in marketplace, Anthony points out, are driving consumer demand for locally produced food, and those eaters tend to be concentrated in and near metropolitan areas. So, if you are going to reach those consumers as a farmer, you need to be close to them, and land that is close to city centers is expensive. 

The benefits to farmers are clear – leasing land near cities enables them to reach their customers in an affordable way. Meanwhile, landowners are interested in teaming up with farmers because they are concerned about environmental stewardship and social justice. Many would like to improve the soil quality of their land and simultaneously help produce food for human consumption that will stay in their community.

“We are basically trying to reconstruct a regional food system, one that’s been dismantled and centralized over the past 40 to 50 years. We’re working on this notion that we used to have food hubs and we’d like to rebuild that system, however, we don’t expect it to replace the mainstream food system. Still, we’d like to see the local system become more robust than it is,” says Anthony.

Realtors have long worked with farmers who want to purchase land, but previously, there was no mechanism in Pennsylvania for farmers and landowners to come together for leasing. The Farm Lease Connection helps interested parties by both making the introduction and encouraging farmers and landowners to find a shared language. The program hosts educational seminars to teach farmers about running a business (many need to write a business plan), and to teach landowners about farming (many don’t know about farming seasons) – and everything in between.

“Ultimately what we’ve found is that both parties have something in common – they really care about the land. That’s where they find common ground,” says Anthony.

In the next couple of years, Anthony hopes the program will expand through the state of Pennsylvania and to other states in the mid-Atlantic region. She says it’s important to know that they are really focused on farming enterprises and encouraging the creation of farms that generate profit and create careers. Anthony is also hoping that their site can ultimately become a portal for other groups and regions to do their own regional support and matchmaking.

“We’d like to be the shopping spot for both farmers and landowners. This is hard and slow work, but when the process works, it’s so gratifying. The people coming into this program are just awesome, amazing people who want to make a difference, on both the landowner and farmer side,” says Anthony.