By MARY ESCH
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- When Schuyler and Colby Gail were trying to get started in farming, they ran into an obstacle common to many fledgling farmers: Land was expensive and hard to find.
They turned to a local land conservancy, which matched them up with a landowner willing to sell at an affordable price. Now, they raise pigs, lambs and poultry on their farm in New Lebanon, 25 miles southeast of Albany near the Massachusetts border.
"We were able to come to a better financial agreement because the landowners were excited about what we were doing," said Schuyler Gail, who launched Climbing Tree Farm a year ago with her husband, a carpenter. "It wouldn't be the same if we bought land off the regular real estate market."
To keep land in agricultural production and help a new generation start farming as older farmers near retirement, land conservancies and other farm preservation groups have launched a growing number of landowner-farmer matching programs like the one that helped the Gails.
About 25 states have FarmLink programs that match new farmers with landowners, and the programs vary in how involved they are in matches. For example, Connecticut has made only about a half dozen since it began in 2007 but staffers aren't allowed to get involved in leases, spokeswoman Jane Slupecki said. The opposite is true in California, said Central Valley coordinator Liya Schwartzman. In Maine, the program has facilitated 82 matches since it started in 2002, a spokeswoman said.
More than 60 percent of farmers are over 55, and the fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers is those over 65, Census figures showed. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has set a goal of creating 100,000 new farmers within the next few years.
In New York and New England, where nearly a quarter of farmland is owned by farmers 65 and older, a new generation is eager to produce the locally grown organic vegetables, fruit, meat and milk that are in high demand at urban greenmarkets and restaurants. But the proximity to population centers that creates demand for local farm goods also pushes land prices out of reach for fledgling farmers and makes selling to developers a tempting option for farmers looking for a retirement cushion.
New York state has lost almost half a million acres of farmland to subdivisions, strip malls and scattered development in the past 25 years, according to the American Farmland Trust.
The organization started a series of projects to address the problem, including a network of organizations linking farmers with landowners, and developing creative leasing arrangements to make land affordable, said the trust's New York state director, David Haight. Land prices in the Hudson Valley are around $10,000 to $30,000 an acre, he said.
"While we can't control the price of land, we can help farmers obtain land," said Marissa Codey of the Columbia Land Conservancy south of Albany that helped the Gails find their land. The conservancy's matching program has grown quickly through word of mouth since it began in 2009, now counting about 85 landowners and 65 farmers.
"There's a pretty steady flow of new people to the program," Codey said.
Some of the landowners are urbanites who bought former farms as second homes and would like to lease some acreage to someone who'll farm it. Others have had their land in production for generations and would prefer to pass it on to a new farmer rather than see it developed.
The Columbia Land Conservancy's primary focus is on facilitating leases rather than sales.
"Leasing land is not a new concept," Codey said. "The change we're seeing is that so many farms are now participating in the local food movement."
While a casual, short-term lease may be fine for a farmer looking for some extra grazing pasture, it's not good for the new generation of farmers interested in organic vegetable farms and orchards. Those farmers need the security of a formal, long-term lease if they're going to invest the time and resources needed to develop their operations.
Landowner Larry Steele said he and his wife, Betty, had wanted their 89-acre property to be an active farm since they bought it 15 years ago, but they knew nothing about farming. They joined the Columbia Land Conservancy's matching program three years ago and interviewed about a dozen farmers before signing a lease with 29-year-old Anthony Mecca, who grew up in the New York City suburbs and became interested in sustainable agriculture as a young adult.
"We were looking for someone who was committed, who had a great work ethic, who was passionate about what he did," Steele said. "Someone with integrity that we could build a long-term relationship with." They negotiated a lease where Mecca pays no monthly fee until the farm reaches a specific level of annual sales; when lease payments begin, the Steeles will reserve half of each payment for improvements on the farm.
For some landowners, the incentive is more spiritual than financial.
"We felt almost a moral obligation to use the land the way it was intended," Steele said. "It was originally a farm in the late 1800s; we wanted to resurrect it and have it be operational again."
Now in its third year, Mecca's Great Song Farm is a community-supported agriculture operation that feeds about 95 families.
"We couldn't be happier," Steele said.
Climbing Tree Farm: http://climbingtreefarm.blogspot.com
International Farm Transition Network: http://www.farmtransition.org
American Farmland Trust: http://www.farmland.org
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.