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New farmers struggle to buy land

Cost, availability prove obstacles for younger generations by ADAM BELZ STAR TRIBUNE | November 10, 2019 at 1:44 a.m.

ORONOCO, Minn. -- Kristin Pearson is that rarest of breeds: a young farmer in Minnesota on the cusp of buying land.

The 31-year-old grows organic vegetables on a few acres near Rochester and wants to buy land near Lake City. It hasn't been easy.

To get the loans she needs, she must rent out most of the acres she hopes to buy to the current farmer. And her boyfriend, who has a full-time job, must sell his house. Even with all that, her application could still be denied.

"It feels like an uphill battle," Pearson said. "But between my boyfriend's salary, the business growing over the next couple of years, and renting the land to the current farmer, we'll cover the mortgage on the land. On paper I think we meet all the criteria."

Farmers and the people who own farmland in America are aging, but they and their heirs are consolidating their grip on the nation's arable land. And it's nearly impossible for a beginning farmer to buy land.

To start with, land is scarce, prices are high and it's difficult to know when acres become available. Marketing is more often by word of mouth rather than conventional listing.

"We don't make new farmland," said Thom Petersen, Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture. "In fact we lose farmland every day, so it's a real challenge."

Meanwhile, trusts keep farmland with families even after a farmer dies. New farmers must also contend with the high costs of farm equipment.

Compared with other states, Minnesota does a lot to assist beginning farmers. The state offers a tax credit of up to $32,000 to buy land or other assets, low-interest loans through the Rural Finance Authority and subsidies for financial management education.

Yet only 6% of Minnesota farmland is owned by people under 35, Petersen said. Even buying a modest plot of land is excruciatingly difficult, as Pearson has discovered.

Pearson, who grew up in Rochester, got the "bug" for growing food in college. She worked at a couple of farms after she graduated, managed a farm in Maine for four years and then returned to Minnesota to start her own farm in 2017.

She rented 4.5 acres north of Rochester and started Pearson Organics, where she grows more than 50 types of vegetables that she sells directly to consumers through a community-supported agriculture program.

She's built two greenhouses for growing seedlings and a cooler where she stores washed vegetables. On a cool day in late October, she and Jay Acker, her only employee, pried bunches of carrots loose in the soil with a pitchfork and knocked the dirt off before tossing them into buckets. Most of the year's vegetables had been picked or pulled from the ground by then. Some scallions, lettuce and Brussels sprouts remained.

"We maxed out 4 acres quickly, and now we need more land," Pearson said. "It's either move the farm to a large piece of leased land, or just move the farm to somewhere we own, which makes a lot more sense."

Earlier this year, Pearson found 100 acres for sale on Zillow near Lake City. She knew from the beginning that she wouldn't be able to make a down payment on the land. She would have to get a loan from the Farm Service Agency.

"The first thing you have to do to qualify for an FSA loan is be denied by a bank," Pearson said. "So I called three different banks and just kind of gave them the outline, and they said, 'Oh, you don't have $130,000 to put down? Goodbye.'?"

In late June, she first applied for a loan from the Farm Services Agency. It turned out that since the land is bare, she had to make plans to build a home on it and include an estimate in the agency application. So she hired architects. A new home also requires a well and a septic tank, so soil conservationists had to make sure the land isn't a wetland.

And since she won't be able to scale up her farm from 4 acres to 50 in a year, she'll have to continue to rent the land to the current farmer and gradually take more land for her own operation. That requires a variance from the Farm Services Agency, which she had to request.

Recently, she was waiting for an estimate on the home she wants to build so she could finalize the Farm Services Agency application. It looks like the financing will be a joint loan from the agency and Compeer Financial, she said.

"My project for this afternoon is to print everything I need, so that when I get the estimate back I can file the application immediately," she said.

If everything goes well, the deal will close in 2020.

Pearson is buying land with the help of Brett Olson, a farmland access navigator who works for a Minneapolis organization called Renewing the Countryside. The group, several government agencies and an agricultural lender -- Compeer Financial -- have created a Farmland Access Hub to help beginning farmers think through their business and their borrowing options, then help them find land to buy.

Olson said high land prices are the biggest obstacle for beginning farmers. But there are others. Often, he said, farmland will be sold before anyone knows it's on the market.

"It just doesn't come up for sale," Olson said. "People sell it to their neighbor, or they hear at church that someone's looking, so it just never hits the open marketplace."

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