Future of Vermont farming uncertain due to lack of young farmers

MONTPELIER — A year-long study sheds new light on what will be needed to aid the transition of farms and farmland in Vermont to the next generation of farmers, and at no point is farming’s future more at risk.

The study was conducted by American Farmland Trust and Land For Good. The goal was to learn more about what crops they are farming, their vision of retirement, and what challenges they see for the future.

According to the analysis, nearly 30 percent of New England’s farmers are likely to exit farming in the next 10-20 years, and 9 out of 10 of them are farming without a young farmer alongside.

Based on focus groups with farmers of New England, the study documents that older farmers are concerned about retirement, especially those farmers without a next generation farmer or owner to take over.

In Vermont, farmers age 65 and older operate 28 percent of the state’s farms, totaling 363,600 acres or $1.2 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure. Of these 2,076 senior farmers, just 9 percent of them have someone under age 45 managing the farm with them.

The study also found that Vermont had 19 percent fewer young farmers under the age of 45 in 2012 than in 2002.

“It was a real wake-up call to see how few farmers age 65 and older have a next generation working on the farm with them,” said Cris Coffin, Policy Director for Land For Good, who directed the study. “How and to whom this land and farm infrastructure transfers will have an enormous impact on the future of farming in New England.”

Farmers are also unsure about how to find a younger farmer who can afford to buy their land. Many also want help to make sound transfer agreements.

“The 1.4 million acres they manage and $6.45 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure they own will change hands in one way or another,” said Coffin. “To keep this land and infrastructure in farming as it transitions, we will need better policy tools and increased support services to exiting and entering farmers.”

Older farmers who participated in the focus groups all want to see their land remain in farming, though most see financing and future economic viability for younger farmers as an obstacle.

Farmers identified their needs for help to navigate the complex process of choosing the right succession strategy and finding a suitable successor. Many also want technical assistance on specific aspects of farm succession and transfer.

“Some senior farmers may have a plan for their farm’s future,” said Jesse Robertson-DuBois, New England Director for American Farmland Trust. “But we learned through this study that many do not. A large number of older farmers are worried about their ability to retire and to find a younger farmer who can afford to buy their land.”

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