Matthew Fitzgerald was at the wheel of a tractor last week near Hutchinson, Minn., flames from a customized cultivator trailing him as the last step in his efforts to rid the grass and weeds from the rows of organic corn plants.
The unusual cultivation is one of several techniques that are growing in favor as millennials and others push farms away from herbicides toward organic production. Fitzgerald, 25, describes it as a “giant grill for weeds,” and he and other young farmers are changing the industry, from embracing new methods to sharing information through social networks.
Their numbers are still small — only 4 percent of principal farm operators in the state are under the age of 35 and the average age is 56, according to federal census numbers. But Fitzgerald is part of a movement of young farmers to increase their ranks. The National Young Farmers Coalition considers a recent law passed in Minnesota to be a major win for its cause.
The law, a first of its kind in the U.S., aims to give beginning farmers a leg up — or at least a fighting chance — to get access to farmland by providing tax credits to the landowners who sell or rent land or farm equipment to them.
“The No. 1 barrier for beginning farmers is access to land,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s lots of good workshops and resources and programs that can help people who are interested in farming, but ultimately when it comes down to it, you need to get on some soil to be a farmer.”
Over the next 20 years, 573 million acres of farmland across the country will change management, according to the coalition.
To be sure, availability of land is not the only barrier that has given the farming industry a 6-1 ratio of producers over 65 to those under 35. Coalition members, including some from Minnesota, lobbied in Washington, D.C., last month for Congress to consider young farmers’ needs in the next farm bill.
“Unless we tackle affordable land, student debt and health care now, few of these young farmers and ranchers will make agriculture a lifelong career,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, the coalition’s executive director, in a statement.
Details of how to implement the Minnesota law are still being worked out by state departments of agriculture and revenue, but an early estimate predicted that it could help 370 farmers annually — half renters, half buyers — once it takes effect in 2018.
The law offers landowners a 5 percent state income tax credit if they sell land or machinery to new or beginning farmers, 10 percent if they rent land or equipment and 15 percent if they set up a crop share agreement. To be eligible for the program, the beginning farmer needs to have farmed for 10 years or fewer and must take an approved farm management course. Landowners could not qualify for tax credits if they sell or rent to their own family members.
Iowa and Nebraska offer similar tax credit programs for land rental, but Minnesota will be the first state to also allow the credits on land sales.
Nolan Lenzen, a small organic dairy farmer near Eagle Bend in Todd County in central Minnesota, wishes a tax credit program had been available when be began farming 15 years ago. Lenzen, 35, said he was lucky to find a barn to rent from a family friend but he was turned down by four banks when he searched for capital to buy cows. He eventually received a loan from the Farm Service Agency through a federal program for beginning farmers.
Banks are skittish about lending to farmers with little equity, Lenzen said, and landowners hesitate about selling or renting cropland to those with little farming experience.
“Cash in hand for them is better than taking a risk, even though that same farmer will tell you they want to see beginning farmers on the land and want to help them out,” Lenzen said.
Rob Holcomb, University of Minnesota Extension educator and agricultural tax specialist, said there’s a certain number of retiring farmers who would like to see younger people get a start in farming.
“Instead of just selling to somebody in their middle or late career in farming that has all the cash to buy the land outright, it gives retiring farmers the incentive to maybe help out a beginning person just getting into the business,” he said. “There’s a lot of land in this state that’s going to change hands in the next 15 years.”
Siri Gossman, a 31-year-old in her first year of raising free-range heritage turkeys in central Minnesota, said she’s noticed the same issue.
“A lot of farmers that are aging out have the mind-set that they want to see the land go to good use, but they also don’t want to lose money when they sell it,” she said.
The new law is a step in the right direction, said Pakou Hang, executive director of the nonprofit Hmong American Farmers Association in St. Paul, and she hopes that the incentives will help minority farmers who often find it even more difficult than others to rent or buy farmland.
“From an immigrant farmer perspective, this can be a game changer,” Hang said. “But we still need to consider that a lot of beginning farmers don’t have a lot of capital.”
Fitzgerald and other beginning farmers who galvanized support for the new tax credit law through the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition use Facebook, Instagram and other social media to share their successes and failures, trade information about crop insurance and where to buy supplies, advocate for farm policies and arrange meetings at local brewpubs or potluck dinners at each other’s farms.
“It’s challenging socially to live isolated and far away from people your own age, so finding community is really important in small rural areas,” said Amelia Neaton, 35, a member of the group who switched careers to vegetable and flower farming after five years as a professional architect. Neaton founded the Sweet Beet Farm in 2014 on land she and her husband purchased near Montrose, just west of the Twin Cities.
“I’m really interested as a farmer to see what the future of this rural landscape around me is going to look like in another 10 or 15 or 20 years and who my neighbors are going to be,” Neaton said, “because I want to stay here and I want to raise my family here.”
Sophie Vranian, farm manager at the Loon Organics vegetable farm near Hutchinson, has been on the lookout to buy land of her own and thinks the new tax credit law may be helpful.
“It makes it more inspiring to keep looking for land and not give up,” she said. “It seems like an overwhelming task that’s very daunting, and it’s encouraging to me as a young farmer to know that there’s a policy to incentivize farmers to sell or rent to someone like me.”
Also in the market to buy land is Devon Ballinger, who is in her fourth year of growing vegetables on rented property near Rochester. She has been looking for two years without success, and wants a place to expand her business into fruits and berries. At age 32 with one young child and another expected in December, Ballinger said she and her husband, who works off the farm, are ready to set down roots.
“I definitely see the need for more young people returning to rural communities, and a policy like this can maybe help,” Ballinger said. “We love small towns, and we’d be happy to find one to make our own.”
Ballinger credits the Minnesota nonprofit Land Stewardship Project for its efforts over the past two decades in training new farmers and working with other farm groups for the past 10 years to pass the beginning farmers tax credit law.
“It’s a public good because one new farm family is going to be there for the rest of their life — going to church, going to school, being on the township board,” said Land Stewardship Project policy director Bobby King. “Getting a new farmer out there on the land really makes a big difference and means a lot to a rural community.”
Neaton said she’s already feeling welcome by the mostly older farmers who live near her.
“It’s a little intimidating sometimes when you buy new land and you don’t really know your neighbors that well and they just drive by and look,” she said. “And then all of a sudden they pull up by the side of the road and say: ‘Hey, you guys are doing a really good job. Keep it up.’ That’s encouraging.”