Land Link Montana, a new program meant to help farmers and ranchers find fertile ground in Western Montana, was officially launched today.
The impetus behind the program, which is part of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, is simple: As the average age of the Montana farmer or rancher continues to increase, so does the pressure to sell farmland. At the same time, a new generation of farmers is emerging. Land Link Montana was formed to act as a matchmaking service between the two and as a resource base to help with the transition.
The point, says founder and coordinator Paul Hubbard, is to “ensure that farm and ranch land can stay in agriculture from generation to generation.”
Many retiring farmers, despite the pressure from development, want to keep their land in agriculture. But, the options can look slim, especially when the price they can get for selling to non-agriculture interests looks enticing. A lot of people assume, Hubbard says, that there’s a lack of demand for ag land — no new farmers to sell to — but that’s not true anymore.
“There’s a whole host of young farmers wanting to get started out there,” he says.
“The limiting ingredient,” for those farmers, Hubbard said, “is the land.”
Hubbard first started researching the program three years ago. In 2006 and 2007, he researched similar programs in seven other states, including in Pennsylvania, Vermont, New York, Iowa, New Jersey, California and Washington. The last year has been spent dealing with the “nuts and bolts” and tailoring the program to fit with Western Montana.
Already, the program has enrolled a handful of farmers and landowners who just heard about the program by word of mouth and were quick to get in. Open enrollment, however, starts today. Land Link Montana’s territory includes Flathead, Granite, Lake, Missoula, Powell, Ravalli, and Sanders Counties — basically from Kalispell south to Hamilton and east to Deer Lodge.
The types of transitions will vary, Hubbard says. Some will involve a few acres for vegetables near town, others might be huge spreads in one of the region’s more remote counties. Some might involve outright sales from a retiring rancher to a beginning farmer, others might be leases involving an owner of a 20-acre ranchette with no ag experience wanting to lease his ground to a neighboring hay farmer looking to expand.
The program really has two parts: The matching, and then what comes after. Once landowners and farmers find each other through the matching service, Land Link Montana will help both parties navigate the transition, which can be sticky for all kinds of reasons.
For the sake of full disclosure, and to shed some light on the program, the latter is something my husband and I are already taking advantage of. Beginning farmers ourselves (although I did grow up on a farm), we’ve been working with a farmer in Central Montana on a lease-to-own transition on 260 acres. Although the land is outside of Land Link’s matching service territory, and we made the connection independently, we’ve been using the program for legal and technical advice in figuring out the whole thing — including how to work the lease, how to structure the business and how to best plan the finances (the Montana Community Development Corp. has also been very helpful in the business planning, by the way).
Hubbard says eventually the program could extend to the entire state, but for now, it will focus on Western Montana, where the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition is based (and has resources for things like helping with marketing and production strategies) and where available fertile ground is disappearing quickly.
Part of CFAC’s mission is “to make sure farmers and ranchers are still able to steward the land,” Hubbard says, and Land Link is a great tool in helping with that.