Seona Ban Ngufor, small-scale vegetable farmer and resident of Lowell, MA, signed a lease to use one acre of land that was identified through a new Farmland Identification and Outreach Initiative lead by the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. Through our initiative, Community Farmland Connections, we are working with and supporting local agricultural commissions, and other partners, to think creatively about how to support new and beginning farmers find land in the state. Using Geographic Information Systems, we can identify parcels of land suitable to beginning farmers wanting to farm and direct market in their own communities. Some of these sites are used for agricultural production already, but others are not.
Many sites prime for agriculture are already spoken for in Northeast Massachusetts, as development pressure is high in the region. The state has lost over 100,000 acres of farmland since 1982. Moreover, MA land is among the most expensive in the nation, with prices upward of $12,000 per acre. Although Massachusetts has seen a resurgence of interest in local food and farming, accessible farmland remains a formidable barrier to young and beginning farmers in the region, like Seona. Facing a dwindling supply and rising cost of acreage, many skilled farmers in the region are unable to procure farmland with which to grow food for their communities. However, with the resurgence of the local food movement, farmers are finding more and more often that leasing small plots of land can in fact make for a profitable vegetable business.
Seona Ban Ngufor came to the United States from Cameroon with ample farming experience but few resources. The Lowell resident works most of her days as a nurses’ assistant, but on the nights and weekends she runs her own farming business. After taking a business planning class with the New Entry and farming on their incubator farm sites for three years she has struggled to find secure land tenure. Seona approached New Entry’s Farmland Matching Service Coordinator for help finding a farm site within reasonable distance to her home in Lowell where she could grow vegetables. The Town of Groton fit the bill. Luckily, we had already begun working with this town.
In the spring of 2011, staff began to work with the agricultural commission in Groton, MA. We showed commission members a map of their town that I generated using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Using GIS, we overlaid the soils, land cover, and wetlands data in order to find parcels of land that are uniquely suited to agriculture. In towns like Groton, many of the small parcels that fit the criteria are found in the big backyards of suburban residents whose homes were built when a farm was sold and subdivided. For an established farmer with big farm equipment, these parcels are unusable. However, to farmers like Seona, an acre of fertile land can be enough to start a profitable vegetable farm business.
The commission members were excited about the outreach project. They had wanted to identify any available, unused farmland, as farmers in the region often come to them to find out if there is any available land in the town. Commission members approved a letter to be sent out to landowners, informing them of their unique agricultural resources and informing of them of the opportunity to rent their land to a beginning farmer. In addition, the commission encouraged New Entry to contact other organizations in town (like Groton Local, a buy-local group and the Sustainability Commission) to garner support for the outreach efforts. They also decided that just sending a letter wasn’t enough, but that the letter should also invite landowners to a workshop on how to lease land to a farmer. The commission members said the Groton Grange would be the perfect place to hold such a meeting.
With support from the Groton Agricultural Commission, the Groton Grange, Groton Local, and the Groton Sustainability Commission, the letters were sent in late September to all the landowners identified in the GIS analysis. In early November a workshop was held at the Grange. Staff from New Entry and Land For Good spoke about the realities and best practices of leasing land to a farmer. Seona spoke about her search for land and her farming business. Landowners came to the meeting from Groton and surrounding areas, some of them because they were curious about the letter they received, others because they wanted to learn how to do their part for sustainable agriculture in their area.
One of the Groton landowners who approached us at the end of the meeting was Susan Shay. She said she had received a letter about her land and was very interested in leasing it to a farmer. She had always wanted to do something with her few acres of land, though work and family obligations always got in the way. New Entry staff went out to see her land and meet with her to talk about the options. We mentioned that Seona was looking for land and I wanted to connect the two of them. We gave Susan some more resources about renting land to a farmer, that Land For Good had developed as a part of their collaborative Land Access Project which New Entry is a part of. With those resources, the two of them were able to talk through the details of the farm business and come to an agreement about the use of the land.
Through this innovative approach to making farmland connections, we were able to successfully place a farmer on land that was once thought lost to development. Though as many of you know, securing land is just the beginning of Seona’s challenges. Turning a field once in grass and sod to productive farmland won’t be easy. She will also need to set up an irrigation system and may need to borrow capital for other infrastructure projects like a hoop house. However, without access to land, she wouldn’t even have the opportunity to farm to grow food for the region.