Access to farmland was one of the key issues brought forward in the Plan. In 2020 farmers, land organizations, municipal agencies, and farm support organizations identified access to and protection of farmland as the most important issue facing both established and beginning farmers. Some 45.5% or 409,000 acres of farmland in MA has been lost since 1964, and 77% or 1,491,000 acres since 1940. Unfortunately, even with land protection programs in place the loss continues. In the 5 years between 2012 and 2017 an average of 122 acres a week, or about two farms of the state’s average size have been converted out of farming.
This loss creates significant competition for and greatly increases the costs of remaining farmland to the point where owning farmland, a key component of generating capital for farm growth, is out of reach for the majority new and beginning farmers. Coupled with systemic racism, it means BIPOC farmers have particularly limited access to farmland.
When turning to renting farmland as the alternative to ownership, farmers face multiple barriers created by current agricultural land policies and regulations, such as zoning restrictions, acreage requirements that prove financially untenable, lack of infrastructure and inability to invest in infrastructure, high property taxes and rental rates on parcels under 5 acres, lack of housing in proximity to the farmland, and competition for other use, in part fostered by municipal preference for tax revenue rather than a focus on and preference for the higher net tax revenue associated with farmland. These conditions are a large part of why the average age of farmers in the Commonwealth is nearly 60 years old, some two years more than the national average.
Studies of farmland market activity reveal that sales of farmland are often forced due to death or retirement (Raup, 2003). Therefore, critically for Massachusetts, public policy that fosters the transfer of farmland to our next generation of farmers, including BIPOC farmers, will be required in order to maintain our local food supply, the food security it has proven it can support throughout the COVID pandemic, and the $450 million economic engine it creates. To be effective and efficient, farmland policy must be systemic and incorporate and coordinate with public goals for climate change, renewable energy, food security, clean water and air, and other goals around the environment.
The focus of the Collaborative’s advocacy on farmland access and protection has been advocating for the state to develop a farmland action plan as recommended in the Food System Plan. That planning process has begun, and more information will be available about it in early 2022.
Collaborative position papers and other resources
For more information contact Jeff Cole.