Land trust helps mint new farmers

Leasing program avoids the need for large capital outlays

Chloe Evans of Fayetteville plants spinach along with her husband Daniel Evans (not pictured) Friday April 28, 2023 at their farm, Honest Dirt Market Garden in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery.   (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Chloe Evans of Fayetteville plants spinach along with her husband Daniel Evans (not pictured) Friday April 28, 2023 at their farm, Honest Dirt Market Garden in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

Budgets can be tight for beginning farmers with minimal startup capital, but the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust is helping young farmers Daniel and Chloe Evans get their start.

Daniel Evans, 27, and and his wife Chloe, 23, were growing a small market garden in a friend's backyard in Searcy a few years ago when Evans heard about the land trust and contacted them as a prospective farmer. That led quickly to information about Northwest Arkansas properties that were available for farming.

The couple started Honest Dirt Market Garden in January, growing a variety of vegetables on approximately four acres they are leasing from the historic Woolsey Farm in Fayetteville. Produce from the farm will be be sold in area farmer's markets.

Daniel Evans has about four years of farming experience.

"I fully had the goal of having a farm and it's so difficult for young people, for people in general, to access land so it seemed like a great idea to put my name on a farm lease," he said.

Farming is often a multi-generational family business, but no one in Daniel Evans' family has farmed for a living for at least the last three generations; Chloe Evans' great-grandfather had a vegetable farm in central Arkansas.

The couple have a labor force of two for their farming business and both have part-time jobs.

"We have to work other jobs for rent, like to rent our house right now, so we wanted to start slowly," Evans said.

"If we jumped fully into it, for one thing, it would be going into a lot of debt and two, it would be tons of building infrastructure. ... We moved here in January and it's already time to start planting things in February, so we decided to take it easy this year and start small and we'll scale up slowly as we go," Evans said.

The number of farms in the United States decreased by 3.2% from 2012 to 2017 but the number of beginning farmers has increased by 10%, a 2022 University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture study titled "Beginning farmer and rancher credit usage by socially disadvantaged status" found.

"One of the promising things we found out about beginning farmers and young farmers is that the share of farm operators that are either beginning or young farmers is increasing by all race, gender and ethnicity groups, so I think that is a positive sign," said Bruce Ahrendsen, agricultural economics and agribusiness professor at the University of Arkansas, and lead author of the study.

"Beginning operators, there's a lot more because there are operators that are coming back, for example veterans, or others that are considering farming that are not necessarily young."

Beginning farmers and ranchers -- those with fewer than 10 years of farming experience -- may have a harder time covering startup costs because of fewer financial resources. Limited production history, a lack of credit history and less equity and assets make access to credit more difficult, the study found.

The study noted banks have become more consolidated and centralized; retail lenders are becoming less widely available to farmers and rural businesses.

About one in six mid-size family farm operations -- operations with $350,000 to $1 million in annual sales -- rely on either direct or guaranteed loans from the Farm Service Agency, and for beginning farmers and ranchers, that number is closer to one in four farm operations, Ahrendsen said.

"That's a fairly significant share of those indebted farmers and ranchers," Ahrendsen said. "Farm Service Agency is not there to compete with other lenders. The idea is that these are reasonable credit requests that they're trying to fill as far as making loans to these beginning farmers and ranchers that have a reasonable chance of succeeding and getting their start going and growing, whereas a private lender may not be able to make that type of loan.

"And what some other researchers have found recently is that actually some of the beginning farmer and rancher loans are not necessarily, it's hard to generalize as there is some perceived risk, but it's not always the case that they end up having risky loans," Ahrendsen continued.

Experts say one of the top expenses that new farmers and ranchers face is access to land.

"With land in east Arkansas ranging anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 an acre, if you want to buy 1,000 acres, it's pretty difficult to come up with that 20% down payment coming out of college, coming from the corporate structure, for anybody really, and especially today," Arkansas Farm Bureau director of state affairs Mark Lambert said.

Beginning farmers can access land through U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency loan programs offered across the country via direct loans from USDA targeting beginning farmers, and guaranteed loans from commercial lenders that cover farming costs or land purchases.

"Lenders would normally have a significant down payment towards that land purchase, whereas the Farm Service Agency has a couple of loan programs. One is a 5% down payment loan, but they also have some that could potentially have up to 100% of financing, and either at normal interest rates or lower than you may be able to get from another lender," Ahrendsen said.

Another method beginning farmers can utilize to access land is to lease it.

The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust is offering a land lease program to help three new or beginning farmers access land by offering farmers a sublease agreement for 15-acre tracts on dedicated farmland in Berryville, "focused on accelerating the production of fruits and vegetables for wholesale, so sales of crops to grocery stores, restaurants, and other institutions, making them more accessible to all residents in our area," the land trust's Farms Program Manager Susan Koehler said.

It is more difficult for new farmers to produce at wholesale levels because of high costs for land and necessary farm equipment across the country and in Arkansas, land trust Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Grady Spann said.

"At the same time, a generation of farmers are retiring. [Northwest Arkansas] is also losing vital farmland with healthy soils capable of sustaining specialty crops. These lands are being developed at a rapid rate due to the continued growth in our communities. We believe this new lease program will address these challenges to help ensure we have a sustainable local food supply."

There are 42,625 farmers in Arkansas and of those, 2.5% are under age 25; 14% are over 75; and 64% are over 55 years old, Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in March.

Koehler said the land trust aims to expand the Berryville program, which is unique among land trust programs because grant funding will cover some infrastructure and shared equipment.

"We are aiming to do more farmland leasing as well as to permanently protect more Northwest Arkansas farmland," Koehler said.

"We currently lease two other active farm properties. We oversee 5 acres of land owned by the City of Fayetteville currently leased to a farmer. The Land Trust also owns and leases 17 acres of farmland in Lowell."

The land trust also works with landowners interested in leasing or selling land for farming by connecting them with suitable farm seekers through the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust free Farm-Link Service, Koehler said.

The land trust -- founded in 2003 -- is a nonprofit conservation organization that oversees 6,700 acres of protected land with working historic farms in Northwest Arkansas, actively manages more than 1,000 acres for conservation and operates six public access preserves in Benton and Washington counties, Spann said. The service area of the Land Trust includes 13 counties in the northwest region, with a focus on Benton, Washington, Madison and Carroll counties.

  photo  Daniel and Chloe Evans of Fayetteville pull weeds from their kale crop Friday April 28, 2023 at their farm, Honest Dirt Market Garden in Fayetteville. Their crops include onions, beets, kale, potatoes, squash and cabbage. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)