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Land Access and Tenure Toolshed: Alternative Tenure Options

There are numerous tenure options available to new farmers. Farmers do not necessarily need to own or hold title to farmland into order to farm it. This page briefly describes the following options:

Additional land tenure resources are provided at the bottom of the page.

Lease Arrangements

Leasing land is the most common option for non-ownership tenure, allowing farmers to gain legal access to land for a time period agreeable to both land owner and farmer. Leasing allows beginning farmers without credit histories or financing to get onto the land with very little start-up capital. Depending on the situation, the land owner might not even charge money for the land rental. The farmer’s services alone, such as keeping fields hayed and manageable are sometimes benefit enough for the land owner. In some cases the farmer and land owner create a bartering arrangement. For instance, the farmer provides food in return for use of the land owner’s land. Lease agreements where the farmer pays cash for rent are common. In these cases, the rent amount can be a tax-deductable business expense for the farmer.

If certain criteria are met, leasing land can also allow the land owner to obtain considerable tax benefits by enrolling land in Vermont’s Use Value and Appraisal (Current Use) Program. As of 2007, about 23% of farmland in Vermont was leased. An annual “hand-shake” or oral lease is common, although these arrangements can leave both the farmer and the landowner vulnerable if disputes arise. Written leases are also often necessary for either the farmer or land owner for certain services or state programs.

Be sure to review the Important Questions To Ask Before Crafting a Lease Agreement webpage. It covers helpful questions and ideas for beginning farmers to ponder before crafting a lease.

  • Short Term Lease

    Leases from a one to five-year (1-5) duration are by far the most common alternative tenure arrangements found in Vermont. Most of these agreements are purely verbal, and often don’t last for more than a growing season. The short duration allows both the farmer and the land owner to frequently modify the terms of their agreement if changes are needed. Short term leases allow land owners to take on minimal risk and avoid some of the more far-reaching changes that might accompany a long term stay. Some farmers favor short term leases because they allow for the most experimentation with the least level of commitment. On the other hand, short term tenure does not give the farmer the assurance that they will see an economic return on investments in farm infrastructure or soil fertility. In cases where the land owner is also looking for long term stewardship of the land, short term arrangements might not live up to expectations.

  • Long Term Lease

    Lease agreements with durations of longer than five years are considered long term. Organic farmers or farmers whose operations depend on gradually building soil fertility, pasture quality, infrastructure, perennial plantings, or local markets benefit most from long term leases. Long term leases can offer the farmer significant flexibility in planning and modifying their enterprises. They are far more complex than short term leases. Both land owner and farmer need to spend time to determine their needs and acceptable terms. It is in the best interest of all parties to seek legal counseling from a lawyer familiar with long-term lease requirements.

  • Other Forms of Alternative Tenure

    • Community Land Trusts or Ground Leases

      Community Land Trusts (CLTs) have traditionally operated in urban and suburban areas to increase access to affordable housing. The Trust typically owns the land, while the housing and improvements such as barns and greenhouses are owned by its occupants. In some cases in the Northeast, CLTs own farmland and lease it to farmers for renewable 99-year terms. This mimics land ownership in the sense that the farmers can take advantage of long term improvements and the ability to pass tenure down to future generations when the lease provides for family succession. Farmers can build equity in the housing and infrastructure they own. CLT arrangements often have formulas that determine the resale value of the housing and improvements in a way that will allow for the farming opportunities to be kept affordable to future generations. The CLT model has the potential to be an excellent strategy for ensuring long term affordability and accessibility of farmland for Vermont’s beginning farmers.

    • Cooperative Ownership

      Cooperative ownership of farmland is where members own shares in the property.. Forming a legal Cooperative might represent a feasible strategy for beginning farmers to pool resources and purchase farmland. Vermont law regulates how cooperatives can be established, and details related to land tenure and stewardship can be specified when creating the cooperative’s by-laws that are submitted to the state. In some cases, another cooperative, such as a food co-op might own the land and lease the land to farmers.

    • Incubator Farms

      Incubator farm programs are typically run by non-profits, universities, or other organizations supporting farm start-ups. Beginning farmers can secure short-term tenure by leasing land owned or managed by the incubator program. The lease terms range depending on the specific program. Incubator programs enable beginning farmers to “jump start” their enterprise with access to land; but also often offer shared access to processing infrastructure, equipment, water, marketing channels, and other technical assistance related to production and marketing. Once operations mature, farmers are expected to move out of the incubator program and re-establish elsewhere. The Intervale Center’sFarms Program in Burlington, VT is a nationally known incubator program. It currently serves as a successful model for many other programs currently being developed in Vermont and around the country.

    Alternative Tenure Resources

    • Land For Good, a non-profit out of Keene, NH provides an excellent tutorial on Farm Leasing. It introduces you to the benefits and challenges of leasing, explains types of farm leases, and explains when to use them. Land For Good also publishes handbooks for public and private landowners on leasing. You may find it helpful to share these resources with landowners who rent farmland and to landowners exploring renting their land.
    • UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture published a “Lease Agreements Guide for Land Owners and Farmers,” covering the basics of what should be included in effective farmland lease agreements.
    • The Legal Guide to the Business of Farming in Vermont is available online and print version from UVM Center For Sustainable Agriculture, (802) 656-5459. Chapter III covers legal aspects of farmland tenure and leasing.
    • The Massachusetts-based non-profit, Equity Trust, provides various resources related to making farmland more affordable and for expanding the community land trust model:
    • Holding Ground: A Guide to Northeast Farmland Tenure and Stewardship is a comprehensive guide, offering models and mechanisms other than outright ownership for securing tenure on farmland in any U.S. region.Published in 2004 by the Intervale Foundation and the New England Small Farm Institute, itcan be ordered at the New England Small Farms Institute book store at www.smallfarm.org, or by calling (413) 323-4531.

    References: Table 65, Summary by Tenure of Principal Operator. Vermont State Level Data, USDA Agricultural Census, 2007.

    Last modified June 20 2013 09:45 AM