Case Studies

California FarmLink: Preserving farmland through thoughtful succession planning

California is the most populous state in the US. Land is hard to come by, and is frequently offered at premium prices that limit the number of potential buyers. Small- and mid-scale farmers, especially those just getting started, are thus faced with significant financial barriers to purchasing their own farmland in California. Based on a survey of 1,000 young and beginning farmers, the National Young Farmers Coalition reported in 2011, access to land and capital are the most significant challenges faced by farmers interested in establishing their own operation.

California FarmLink (FarmLink) is working to keep farmland in production and out of development for housing and other industries by strategically responding to these needs. FarmLink began in 1999 as a service provider linking retiring farmers and their land with new and landless farmers. FarmLink’s work has since deepened in the area of increasing access to land and expanded to include access to capital for new and socioeconomically disadvantaged farmers. Today, its mission is to link independent farmers and ranchers to the land and financing they need for a sustainable future. FarmLink’s Farm Succession Planning is one of many ways the organization is addressing these needs. Succession planning is vital to retiring farmers, but not limited to farmers transitioning their farms to new owners. FarmLink believes that farmers should ideally consider succession planning from the time they start their farm business, and the organization provides resources and training to help facilitate these endeavors.

Value of the land and habitat

American farmland is currently in the hands of increasingly older farmers. In 2012, the average age of farmers in the US was 58, and age of ownership has been on an upward trend over the last 30 years. Since the 1950s, many small- and mid-size farms have consolidated into larger farms in the US. This has made it more difficult for remaining small to mid-size farmers to stay in business and be profitable. Markets, along with federal policies, have largely favored large-scale farms, leaving other farms to find alternative ways to finance their operations. Additionally, farmland is worth more than ever. The United States farm real estate value, a measurement of the value of all land and buildings on farms, increased by 8.1 percent from 2013 to 2014, up to $2,950 per acre for 2014. Cropland value increased by 7.6 percent to $4,100 per acre from the previous year.

Retiring farmers are thus faced with the option to sell their farmland at its highest and best-use value, particularly to development interests, or find ways to keep it in production–either within the farmer’s family or otherwise. For retiring farmers wanting to keep the land in production and also realize the land’s financial value, FarmLink is able to facilitate the transaction in ways that benefit the farmer and promote conservation.

Conservation concerns

California is known for its fertile valleys that produce much of the fresh food Americans eat. According to the USDA, more than a third of the country’s vegetables, and at least two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are cultivated in California. A growing concern is the availability of water for agricultural use.

As California experiences an ongoing drought, perhaps the worst in its history, every act of land conservation is vital to mitigate further development and drive smart growth. In avoiding the conversion of agricultural land into other uses such as housing and commercial development, FarmLink is contributing to habitat conservation, supporting the functions vital to retaining soil moisture, and avoiding additional land degradation.

What’s being done and how

California FarmLink takes a diverse approach to farm succession planning. Transitioning ownership of a farm can be an emotional and complicated process. FarmLink’s model acknowledges this intricacy with both sensitivity and strategy. When it comes to passing down the family farm, a simple estate plan cannot fully cover the intricacies of the transition.

Farm succession planning requires:

  • Careful visioning and goal setting. This requires patience and good communication among all stakeholders.
  • A thorough evaluation of the senior generation’s retirement needs and the formation of a retirement plan.
  • Honest appraisal of the value of the business and careful transfer of business management and operations to the younger generation.
  • Appraisal of the land and other assets, and careful estate planning to successfully pass on ownership, fulfilling the senior generation’s wishes to treat heirs fairly, and manage taxes.

California FarmLink can provide tools to help clarify goals and facilitate family discussions about the future of the farm business, and referrals to professionals to compose a transition team.

Some of the professionals who may need to be on a farm transition team include:

  • An accountant or CPA to advise on financial and tax management
  • An agricultural appraiser to value the farm business and property
  • A lawyer to assist with the estate planning and legal documentation
  • A moderator or facilitator to ensure honest and respectful communication and shared understanding of the goals and wishes of each generation

There are also consultants and organizations specializing in family dynamics, family meetings, and financial planning that can help the process proceed smoothly. FarmLink’s Conservation Case Studies highlight how land trusts have supported past transactions and demonstrate ways the conservation community can play an important role in strategic stewardship of working agricultural lands.

No two farm succession plans are alike, which means that no one sale or lease design will serve all interests. FarmLink supports both traditional and innovative strategies for transferring land and business assets, including sale and lease structures such as simple sales, leases, and leases with options. Leases with options typically include opportunities to eventually purchase the land.

While facilitating intergenerational and intra-family farm transitions, California FarmLink also advocates for farmland conservation and smart growth. The organization encourages use of careful estate planning, conservation easements, and other tools to help structure sustainable farm transitions. FarmLink recognizes that farmers committed to stewardship of their land still must honor their responsibility to take care of family financial needs. For this reason, they emphasize strategies that blend farm transfers and conservation in a manner that makes financial sense for family farmers in California.

Current Implementation Status and Next Steps

Farm transitions are nearing a watershed moment. A large number of farm turnovers are expected to take place in a relatively short amount of time. To meet growing demand, FarmLink has broadened its impact by positioning itself as a resource hub for anyone interested in such work, in addition to providing direct service. FarmLink offers farm succession workshops, assists other organizations in planning their own workshops, and provides free resources online. FarmLink, along with the Center for Land-Based Learning and the University of California Cooperative Extension, published the Farm Succession Guidebook, with funding support from the 2011 USDA Risk Management Education and Outreach Partnerships Program. The guide provides a roadmap for the succession planning process, and includes links to articles, worksheets, and professional consultant lists.

To date, FarmLink has assisted more than 3,000 farmers and ranchers throughout California and successfully developed more than 183 leases and purchases tailored for the specific needs of new and retiring landowners.

Key Partners

Partnerships are vital to FarmLink’s work. FarmLink works with a network of professionals to whom they refer farmers throughout the Farm Succession Planning process. Such professionals include accountants, appraisers, attorneys, and facilitators.

FarmLink also connects and collaborates with other organizations in the field that are thought leaders, advancing the same or supportive topics of access to land and capital for farmers. Such organizations include:

Lessons Learned

  • Cultural differences and communication styles can contribute to difficulties, misunderstandings, and frustrations. Communication early and often is essential. Utilize any resources that may support effective communication such as translators, moderators, and mediators.
  • Proper paperwork and reporting is essential to a successful farm transition. Beginning, Immigrant/Refugee and ESL farmers find this to be a greater challenge. Limited computer knowledge can exacerbate this difficulty. It is important to familiarize the next generation farmer with all available resources for building computer and reporting skills.
  • Working with multiple stakeholders adds an additional component to the transition process. It is important to be prepared for a potential delay in decisions and planning. Realistic timelines can help ensure the expectations of all parties are met and unforeseen challenges can be addressed.