Q: What challenges do beginning farmers face?

Maggie: They face a lot of hurdles: securing financing, working off-farm jobs to supplement farm incomes, increasing costs of supplies, a changing climate, and, especially acute right now, finding employees. But the biggest challenge is access to land, and this has been true for a long time.

Q: What is VLT doing to help farmers buy land?

Maggie: About 20 years ago, we started actively helping beginning farmers buy land because they were unable to afford it. Through conservation, we could reduce the price of a farm by 30-50%. We’ve since helped get more than 120 farmers onto land of their own. However, land costs have gotten higher and continue to rise. We’ve developed a variety of approaches now because the problem continues to get worse.

Access is part of many of our new farm conservation projects; conservation brings down the price so young farmers can afford a farm.

When owners of conserved farms are ready to sell, we help them advertise, connect them with farmers looking for land, and sometimes add conservation protections that ensure the property stays available to farmers. This last approach can lower the purchase price as it attracts grant funding.

We also work directly with farmers who are in the early stages of their search. We have a growing list of people who are looking for farms. Many don’t know where to start and what to do.

I recently met a couple who established a small farm on their homestead. They’ve become really successful and have outgrown their space. I’m talking to them about how conservation works and how we can support their purchase of a new piece of land.

Q: What have we learned, and how is our work evolving?

Maggie: Some of our early farmland access work involved buying land, holding it for a year or two while we conserved it, then selling it to a farmer at reduced cost. But we’ve learned that some farmers need more time—about three to five years—before they’re in a position to get a mortgage.

So, in addition to our standard approach using conservation, we’re developing a new approach as resources allow: We buy a farm and lease it to a farmer with the option to buy the land within an agreed timeframe. We work closely with them as they develop their business.

When they’re ready, we enter into a purchase and sale agreement. Our end goal is a successful farm business on land that the farmers are securely settled on. Our focus is how we can best use our resources to create a pathway to farm ownership for the next generation.

Q: What other organizations are helping beginning farmers?

Maggie: While we focus on conservation and farm affordability, we collaborate with great partners who provide the other expertise and services that farmers need. The Farm & Forest Viability Program and the Farm Viability Network help new farmers with business planning, employee management, technical assistance, marketing, and more.

Our policy partners are also essential: some include the Vermont Farm to Plate, Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, American Farmland Trust, and the National Young Farmers Coalition. Their advocacy for needed policy changes at the state and federal levels is important.

Q: What do you find most challenging and most rewarding?

Maggie: The most challenging thing is that right now, being a farmer is really difficult. Rising costs of goods, challenges with employment, the regulatory environment, competition from corporate interests—it’s just so hard. People aren’t getting their basic needs met: housing, healthcare, childcare.

The people I get to work with and the passion they hold for their work are the most rewarding part. I feel lucky to spend time with people who are connected to the land, doing what they’re passionate about even though it’s difficult, and doing a lot for their communities. Being surrounded by these people and their spirit is very rewarding.

Q: Where is this work headed? What does success 10-15 years from now look like?

Maggie: A lot needs to happen: Someone who wants to run a farm in the future should see a clear pathway to owning, or at least securing access to, land. I hope they will be able to get the support they need to make this happen.

It would be great if farmers who are looking for alternative approaches to land access, such as collaborative and cooperative models, have better, more affordable, options.

I hope we have policies that address the climate challenges farmers are facing. Until we figure out ways of compensating farmers for clean water, clean air, open space, community richness and education, it’s going to be difficult for farmers to continue to be viable.

Q: How did you come to work on farmland access?

Maggie: While studying community development and economics at UVM, I joined their college-run vegetable farm, Common Ground. I became really interested in how farms are tied into communities, and how they define the culture of where they are located. After college I wanted to get immersed in farming, so I worked at Luna Bleu Farm in South Royalton for two seasons, which was a formative experience. Later, my husband and I ran our own farm on family land in Ferrisburgh. For a year, we pasture-raised turkeys, broilers, lambs, and pigs—while also working on another farm. It was hard, and a very interesting experience. And I grew interested in the idea of supporting start-up and beginning farmers after going through it myself that season.

So I got involved with farm services, first with Vital Communities in White River Junction and then Burlington’s Intervale Center where I got into farm business planning and farm access. While managing Vermont Land Link, the statewide web service for farmers looking to sell or buy land, and working directly with farmers on land access, I realized that I wanted to work on land access. I wanted to get immersed in more technical and specialized work around owning land and buying land. And that’s exactly what I get to do now at VLT.