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Resource Guide: Access to Farm Land

By Debra Heleba, UVM Extension

One of the steps you face as a new farmer is gaining access to farmland. If you were not raised on a farm, you may not have access to family farmland. In Vermont, like the rest of the Northeast, land prices are steadily rising and development is reducing the amount of available farmland, so finding an affordable farm to buy can be a serious challenge. Sale of development rights programs have helped some new farmers acquire farmland, but given the high start-up costs of some farm businesses, purchasing a farm is simply not the best first step in starting an agricultural business.

If you were raised on a farm and are hoping to take over the family farm someday, you may face slightly different although significant challenges. In attempting a farm transfer, you and your family need to ensure the ongoing viability of the farm business while maintaining positive family relationships and communications. Land needs for you, as a beginning farmer within a family transfer, may include new farmland for expanding the business, diversifying the farm, and/or siting additional housing.

Start with Your Goals

Finding the right piece of land on which to start a new farm business begins with a look at personal and business goals. Personal and family values and goals will focus farmland questions around location (do you need to locate close to family members and/or an off-the-farm job?), and type of farming opportunity (i.e., will you become a self-employed business person or a farm employee / partner?). Farmland selection will also be influenced by business goals. Your selection of farm enterprise(s), farming practices, and markets will all play a role in farmland choice and use.

Site Assessment

When looking for a suitable parcel for a new farm business, the following factors must be considered:

  • Size and Location. Does the parcel have the right number and type of acres (i.e., tillable versus pasture, etc.) needed for the new enterprise? Is the farm located in the right area to access markets and support services, as well as fulfilling personal and family needs (including proximity to family, friends, off‑farm employment, etc.). Is the farm located in a "farm friendly" community? Is the land zoned for agricultural use? The local town clerk's office can provide information on size and property boundaries through tax maps. Zoning information is also usually available through the town clerk's office.
  • Ownership. Who currently owns the property? The town clerk's office can also provide information on property ownership, as well as property tax rates.
  • Soils. Consideration should be given to soil type(s) on the parcel, its fertility, slope, and drainage. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides, by county, inventories of the state's soils through soil surveys. The surveys contain detailed soil maps and descriptions. Hard copies of the surveys are available at libraries, NRCS offices, or other agricultural agencies. NRCS also provides soil data and information on the internet as part of the interactive Web Soil Survey. Some farm‑specific soil information is also available from NRCS. For more information visit the NRCS website. In addition, the University of Vermont Agricultural and Environmental Testing Lab conducts soil fertility testing on a fee‑for‑service basis.
  • Water Availability and Quality. The source, quantity and quality are all factors to consider, whether starting a horticulture business or a livestock farm. The Vermont Association of Conservation Districts Agricultural Resources Specialist staff can provide you with an assessment of water quality or water discharge issues related to agricultural activities. As part of the AEM (Agriculture Environment Management) program, staff can offer free water testing for farm wells to provide information on bacteria, nitrates and common pesticide levels. If a water quality problem is found, staff will assist the landowner in trying to determine the cause of the contamination and to find the best solution, as well as providing free technical assistance and information to help farmers meet Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets regulations.
  • Climate. New farmers need to take into account the elevation of the property, number of frost-free days, averages for temperatures and rainfall, exposure and wind patterns. Consult the Vermont Hardiness Map to get a sense of the different climate zones within the state.
  • Access. How will the farmer (and customers) access the property on a routine basis?

The Vermont Farm Assessement Checklist can be used to help you examine and evaluate properties. While it was designed to help new farmers assess leasing opportunities, farm seekers have also found it helpful in evaluating properties that are for sale.

Land Use Regulations and Restrictions

In addition to zoning lands to clarify their approved uses, there are other regulations associated with land in general, as well as specifically to agricultural lands. Before you purchase or lease a farm, it's a good idea to learn about farmland use regulations and specific restrictions that may be associated with the property. The following are some common farmland use related restrictions and regulations.

  • Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs). These are regulations designed to reduce agricultural non point source pollution and are handled by the state through the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Examples of AAPs include the ban on spreading manure on frozen ground, and vegetative buffer strips maintained between cropland and adjoining waters. For more information about AAPs, contact the Agency of Agriculture at 1-802-675-9873 or visit their web site at www.vermontagriculture.com/ARMES/awq/AAP.html
  • Act 250. The Land Use and Development Law, commonly known as Act 250 requires certain development projects to obtain a land use permit. This law was passed in 1970 as a way of reviewing development plans that might have significant environmental, aesthetic, and/or community impacts. The Land Use Panel of the Vermont Natural Resources Board manages the Act 250 permit review process. Farming and forestry uses are exempt from Act 250, unless they occur above the elevation of 2,500 feet.
  • Easements. These are land use restrictions attached to the title of the property. An easement is a right or interest given by the landowner to a third party. In farming, a conservation easement is held by a land conservation organization (a land trust) that permanently restricts development of the land. A right of way, another type of easement, allows a party the right to travel across your land.
  • Current Use. The farm and forest use value appraisal program, commonly called the "Current Use" program, provides an incentive to keep agricultural and forest land in production by taxing the property according to its use value. As of 2009, farmland eligible for the program must be at least 25 contiguous acres in active agricultural use or smaller parcels which generate at least $2,000 annually from the sale of farm crops. The Vermont Legislature periodically reviews and makes changes to the program. To get the latest eligibility requirements, or for more information, contact your town clerk, lister, county forester, or the Property Valuation and Review office of the Vermont Department of Taxes at 802-828-5860.
  • Getting on the Land: Tenure Options

    There are numerous tenure options available to new farmers. As Kathy Ruhf points out in Farmland Transfer and Protection in New England, the word “tenure” comes from the Latin "to hold," and farmers do not necessarily need to own or hold title to farmland into order to farm it. The following are some tenure options available to new farmers.

  • Purchase farmland. New farmers can buy farmland through cash purchase, standard debt financing, owner financing, installment sales, etc. The challenges of purchasing land include the high cost of real estate, limited equity of new farmers, and limited farming experience. Land conservation organizations can help reduce the purchase price of some parcels by placing a permanent conservation easement on the property at the time of the sale (see Vermont Land Trust. When purchasing property, new farmers should consult with a certified realtor, appraiser, and/or attorney.
  • Leasing. Short term rental and long term leasing agreements can be an affordable way to get on the land. New farmers may lease from retiring farmers, farmers with additional land, and non farming landowners. A signed, written lease over at least a three year term qualifies farmers and/or landowners for certain programs like current use, and USDA conservation and lender programs. For an example, see the The Intervale Center, which leases certified organic land to new farmers.
  • Partnering with Another Farmer. Working with another new or experienced farmer is an additional way to get on the land. New farmers could access farmland by becoming an employee, leasing from a farmer, or entering into a business arrangement (partnership, corporation or Limited Liability Corporation) with the farmer.

Finding Farmland

The following organizations offer an inventory of farmland properties.

  • UVM Extension New Farmer Project hosts a The Vermont Agriculture Land Access Database (LAD). The "LAD" is designed to help people looking for land and farming opportunities with farmers and other landowners who have land for lease and or purchase, as well as other opportunities and arrangements.
  • Real Estate Agencies. The Vermont Association of Realtors maintains a listing of realtors on their website.
  • Land Trusts. Occasionally, land trusts will sell properties. Visit the Vermont Land Trust for more information about their organization and a listing of more than 30 other land trusts working in Vermont.
  • USDA Farm Service Agency. On occasion, the USDA FSA will offer government owned or foreclosed properties to new farmers. These properties are listed on FSA's "Real Estate for Sale" website.
  • Word-of-Mouth In addition to contacting the above organizations to find farmland, consider talking with farmers or service providers in the area where you would like to farm. Vermont is a small community and often local folks can be extremely useful in helping you identify available farmland.

What about Forested Lands?

About 78 percent of Vermont is forested so there is a strong likelihood that some of your farm will include forested lands, and/or your farmland will abut forests. Our "What about the Woods" section gives some helpful information about forested lands on the farm.

Additional Resources

Keeping Farmland Working in Vermont: A Lease Agreements Guide for Landowners and Farmers, by Debra Heleba, with David Major and Bill Snow. This fact sheet provides farmers and landowners with some of the basics involved in putting together an effective agreement to keep the state’s “working landscape” open and productive. Includes descriptions of three types of agreements verbal, lease, and letter of agreement, and considerations on liability, current use taxation, and Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs).

Farmland Transfer and Protection in New England: A Guide for Entering and Exiting Farmers, by Kathryn Ruhf. This booklet includes strategies to transfer farms as well as ways to protect farm¬land. It includes worksheets, sample documents, and additional resources. Published by the New England Small Farm Institute. Available for $15 by calling 413-323-4531.

More information, tools and links are available at our Land Access Toolshed.

Last modified July 05 2011 11:45 AM

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