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As land prices climb, small farmers look to leasing as a way to stay in the game

For small-production farmers, buying land may be out of the question. But land trusts are a viable way for farmers to stay in business.

Deirdre Flemming and her husband, Trey Flemming, collect bell peppers at the Two Gander Farm in Downingtown, Pa. Wednesday, August 8, 2018. The Flemmings operate Two Gander Farm owned by the Brandywine Conservancy, a Chadds Ford-based land trust.
Deirdre Flemming and her husband, Trey Flemming, collect bell peppers at the Two Gander Farm in Downingtown, Pa. Wednesday, August 8, 2018. The Flemmings operate Two Gander Farm owned by the Brandywine Conservancy, a Chadds Ford-based land trust.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer .

While managing their produce farm in Berks County six years ago, Deirdre and Trey Flemming searched for open farmland and better schools for their kids. Ideally, they wanted to lay claim to land in Chester County.

But property in Chester County isn't cheap, and what's available is often quickly snapped up and converted into equestrian property or used for other commercial ventures. And like many small farmers, the Flemmings, who own the certified organic Two Gander Farm, couldn't afford to pay at least $1 million for just 20-some acres of land. Then a tip came their way: Did they know 10 acres of farmland was available in Downingtown?

The property, the Flemmings learned, was available for lease, and if they decided to take the land, their landlord would be the Brandywine Conservancy. One of the most prominent local land trust organizations, it owns and leases 365 acres of preserved land and, in cases of conservation easement, ensures that more than 20,000 acres are forever used only as farmland. The mission of the conservancy, the Flemmings say, matched closely with their own.

So in 2013, the Flemmings signed a lease with the conservancy and moved onto the property, becoming part of the land trust community in Pennsylvania (the state has 53 such organizations, according to land trust data), and joining thousands of others in the U.S. agricultural industry who rent farmland.

The conservancy is not permitted to disclose how much the Flemmings pay to lease the farmland, said spokesperson Nicole Kindbeiter.

"While the farmers are farming, they are also doing right by the land and waters," said Ellen Ferretti, director of the Brandywine Conservancy. "You will hear words like 'love of the land.' You will hear words like 'beauty,' protecting beauty. But there is an innate respect and, literally, a love for this place and the agricultural heritage of this place."

Instead of buying farmland, leasing is a viable option for newer or younger farmers, who generally have fewer resources than more established farmers but still face a competitive and expensive real estate market for farmland, said Wendy Jackson, executive vice president of the Land Trust Alliance.

"It was immediately attractive," Deirdre Flemming, 41, said of the land she and her family now occupy. "And where it was in the county was a major appeal to us. Because being close to Philly — being within an hour of a metro area — is the target to be profitable in this business."

>> READ MORE: Land trusts are a force in local development

Of course, partnering with the Brandywine Conservancy comes with some rules. They include: Keep fertile soil in place, limit the use of chemical fertilizers, and minimize pollution runoff.

Leasing land also has limitations, the Flemmings say. One concern is the lack of equity: After sinking years of labor and money into a farm they don't own, they said, if they decide to move on, they won't be able to profit from a land sale. (A potential remedy, Trey Flemming said, is making a lease a transferable asset.)

"When you own your own farm, you're basically able to sell your whole operation to someone else in the future when you're ready for retirement or decide you don't want to do it anymore," Deirdre Flemming said while sitting at a table on the porch of her family's farmhouse. "And farm equipment holds its value for a really long time, too. So we can build our equity in things that can be sold, but not in ownership or property. So that becomes a little challenging."

The 2014 Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land survey showed that "agricultural producers" rented and farmed 353.8 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service, although the figures did not show how many of those acres are owned by land trusts.

Ownership of about 91.5 million acres is expected to change in the next five years, according to the USDA, of which landlords are predicted to place around 48 percent into trusts. Also, 26 percent is estimated to be sold to a relative or given away as a gift, according to the agency's statistics, and 21 percent sold to nonrelatives. That would leave around 5 percent — or about 4.5 million acres — as farmland up for grabs by anyone.

In the mad dash for farmland, the Haskell family, long steeped in farming, has managed to protect its property — all 700 acres. It's been used and maintained as a farm since it was bought in 1910, said H.G. Haskell III, who operates Chadds Ford-based SIW Vegetables.

The heritage of the farmland was what Haskell's father, a Delaware politician and businessman, wanted to protect after inheriting it from Haskell's grandfather — so he placed it under conservation easement with the Brandywine Conservancy in the 1960s.

"He wanted to give it to his children, and he also wanted to preserve the land," said Haskell, 59. "So he did both by doing that."

Haskell, who rides around his farm in a towering orange tractor, farms vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Flatbed trucks lug the wares to a produce stand across the street, where customers mill about, examining petite strawberries, plump blueberries, edamame, peppers, and succulents.

Miles away, in Downingtown, the Flemmings say they sell their produce to about 150 customers who are part of a community-supported agriculture network.

"Working with the land trust is the way that we've found to make this happen," Deirdre Flemming said of her farm. "And it's the only way we're able to be here. If this farm was for sale and it was just a commercial property, it would just be completely out of our price range."