Beginning Farmers and Land Access: A Case Study of the New Entry Incubator Program
By Kevin Cody and Olivia Richards
“I probably would have started my own farm business without New Entry, but certainly not when I did. And I certainly wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't taken the path through New Entry to start the business.” – Incubator graduate
Incubator farms are designed to address critical barriers facing new farm entrants by providing access to resources and educational opportunities. New and beginning farmers learn how to craft a business plan, build networks with peers and service providers, and decipher what resources are essential for starting a small farm business. Access to land is certainly one of those essential resources, especially for beginning farmers.
Beginning Farmers and Land Access
Starting and sustaining a new farm business is a precarious undertaking. Yet, new and beginning farmers continue to enter the field, driving a movement to build local and regional food systems. In New England, beginning farmers accounted for 31% of all producers according to the 2017 USDA NASS Ag Census, slightly above the national average of 28%. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of beginning farmers, measured by years on any operation, increased 77% nationally. The rise in new and beginning farmers can be attributed both to the pull of increasing consumer demand for locally sourced food and the emerging gap in producers as farmers continue to age and retire.
The increase in numbers of beginning farmers, however, can sometimes obscure the challenges of sustaining a farm business over time. For example, a troubling statistic emerges when comparing census data from 2007 to 2017 that confirms that starting a new farm business is easier than sustaining one over time! This is significant.
While formal and informal training programs focused on improving technical knowledge and skills of beginning farmers have certainly improved opportunities for success, critical challenges remain to meet the high start-up costs associated with entering the field. A report from the American Farmland trust in 2014 found that, location and circumstances aside, common challenges faced by emerging farmers included, “securing access to land, qualifying for credit to develop farm infrastructure, acquiring equipment, seeds and/or livestock, determining the right mix of products, and developing markets.”
One of the most pervasive challenges among beginning farmers is finding, affording, and obtaining farmland. Changes in land prices, longstanding trends in land ownership, and lack of accessible information contribute to this issue. According to a 2011 report from the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), between 2000 and 2011 farm real estate and rent prices doubled. It comes as no surprise then, that 68% of the 1,000 young farmers surveyed by the NYFC in 2011 cited finding affordable land to purchase or long-term leases as the biggest obstacle faced by young farmers. Anecdotal evidence of outmigration from urban to peri-urban and rural areas during the Covid pandemic has put even greater pressure on remaining farmland. Unique land-based training opportunities have taken root around the country to address these perennial challenges facing new farm entrants.
Farm Incubators Address Critical Barriers
The incubator farm model addresses common barriers facing beginning farmers by providing access to land, infrastructure, equipment, training and technical assistance. Typically, parcels of land ranging from a quarter acre to ten acres are made available at low or no cost. Farmers often have access to shared farm infrastructure and equipment, including things such as irrigation, greenhouses, high tunnels, wash and pack facilities, cold storage, tractors and other equipment. In addition to physical infrastructure, participants often receive training and technical assistance on topics like crop production, food safety, and recordkeeping. Some incubator programs, like the one discussed below, also assist beginning farmers in creating a farm business plan and accessing markets. Additionally, incubator models expose beginning farmers to a network of program alumni, community-based organizations, local farmers, and a constellation of agricultural service providers.
There are at least 45 incubator farm programs in the United States, according to a national survey conducted in 2021 by New Entry. Notable examples include programs like Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in the California Central Valley and Viva Farms in northwest Washington, both non-profit farm business incubator and training programs.
New Entry Sustainable Farming Project: A Model Incubator
The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is a program of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. In operation since 1998, New Entry has been at the forefront of a movement to empower new and aspiring farmers with the resources and technical skills necessary to begin and sustain a small farm business. While programs have evolved over time, initially serving immigrant and refugee populations exclusively, the audience has expanded to include anyone interested in starting a farm business. The core of New Entry programming, skills-based training in starting a business and growing mixed vegetables for local markets, is most clearly demonstrated through the farm incubator.
The Incubator Farm Program started in 2005, first on properties in Dracut, MA, and since 2019 at Moraine Farm in Beverly, MA. Farmers on the incubator typically grow mixed vegetables, primarily for direct markets, on ¼ to 1 acre of land for a period of 1 to 3 years. In addition to the land itself, farmers have access to greenhouses, a wash station, cold storage, as well as equipment and the expertise of the farm manager and other New Entry staff. The experience provides aspiring farmers an opportunity to experiment with production methods and crop selection, build a customer base, and operate a new business in a relatively low-stakes environment.
Program Evaluation & Takeaways
New Entry recently conducted a comprehensive evaluation using surveys and focus groups of our incubator farm program to understand program outcomes, and how the experiences of incubator alumni may provide insights into beginning farmer trends and what might be done to ensure beginning farmers’ long-term viability. The most significant findings related to beginning farmers and land access, organized by business sustainability, the incubator model, and social networks each with a distinct takeaway.
Business Sustainability: Are incubator alumni (still) farming?
A primary goal of the New Entry Incubator Program is to create sustainable farm businesses. Almost all participants hoped to continue operating a farm after the incubator and 84% succeeded at some point in time. However, only 58% were currently operating one, suggesting that not all businesses succeeded. We also wanted to know how long they farmed on their own. Those within 1 to 5 years post-incubator (50% of respondents) spent on average 96% percent of that time farming. However, those more than 5 years post-incubator only spend 63.5% of their time farming.
As one respondent put it, “Farming was very physically and emotionally draining without being financially profitable. I was really missing out on time with my family.” Another said simply, “It's hard to generate enough income for the time and effort required.”
The Takeaway: Farming is a precarious business even for the most well-resourced and knowledgeable individuals, so it’s not surprising that there is a decline in existing businesses 5 years post-program. While secure land tenure may not be sufficient to stem the tide of farmer turnover, it is necessary. Secure relationships to land may also promote better ecological stewardship encouraging longer-term investments in soil health and perennial crop production, for example. Organizations working to support new and beginning farmers should focus on access to land and also on long-term lease agreements, even as many as 99 years.
Incubator Model: What do incubator alumni say about their experience on the incubator?
A farm incubator, by design, lowers the most significant barriers to starting a farm business by providing access to land, infrastructure, and equipment and as such, 95% of respondents indicated this. In fact, 87% of alumni strongly agreed that the New Entry Incubator Program made it possible for them to start their business. Recent alumni said of the equipment and infrastructure made available: “What the incubator allowed me to do personally was figure out which of these things I actually needed.” Similar sentiments indicated: “A tremendous amount of resources is needed just to get the field ready to grow some food. [And the experience of growing on the incubator and developing a CSA customer base was] “the reason I was courageous enough to spend that money during this time.”
Takeaway on incubator model: There is no reason a similar mode of shared resources and infrastructure can’t be extended to farmers in more advanced stages of their operations to significantly lower the cost of production. Extending into alternative forms of land tenure, incubator programs ought to serve as models for farmers interested in forming cooperatives or landholders like municipalities interested in ensuring a productive agricultural base for the community.
Social Networks: How do relationships influence the farm business and incubator experience?
Being connected to a community of peer farmers, organizations, and other players within the food system can have positive correlations with land access and business sustainability. Based on the evaluation survey, 79% of alumni said they formed social networks with other farmers as a result of their time on the incubator farm. Groups of interconnected farmers can increase communication and the spread of valuable information. Networks built through the incubator extend beyond the valuable peer-to-peer learning to include other service providers and community members who support the farm business.
One alumnus had this to say about the process of looking for land to start his fledgling business: “I found some farms up in northern New Hampshire and Maine that were gorgeous, that were affordable, but in the middle of nowhere. And so then you think, well, can I take this farm and move it up there? And the answer for me was no…the value is in the network that I built, more than it was in the land, or the farm that I could have had up there.”
Takeaway on social networks: More than a strategy to promote peer-to-peer learning, social networks formed through the incubator resulted in social capital. In other words, these interactions can be converted into valuable resources like land and produce sales. Enhancing and enabling this type of network formation in spaces beyond the incubator could improve beginning farmer outcomes, including more secure access to land.
New and beginning farmers of all kinds have a critically important role to play in current and future food systems. While interest in farming continues to draw new farm entrants to land-based training and incubator programs, the long-term viability of new operations is jeopardized by structural challenges in the food system. And yet, New Entry is full of success stories, and now has statistics to confirm much of what we expected to be true about our incubator alumni: access to land, labor and capital remain key challenges; small-scale farming is a precarious endeavor in the best of circumstances; social networks and community ties are some of the most important intangible assets to sustaining a farm; and the incubator model is extremely effective in helping farmers start new businesses. How then, might we extrapolate from these findings to suggest ways of supporting beginning farmers more broadly? Here are just a few ideas:
- Build out a robust network of “wraparound” services from state and local governments to non-profit and community-based organizations to allow for better coordination and provision of services for new and beginning farmers. See, for example: Securing the future of US agriculture: The case for investing in new entry sustainable farmers, by the University of California Press.
- Actively engage landholding entities like municipalities, land trusts, and conservation-oriented organizations to develop incubator-like programs to reduce operating costs for farmers while providing access to land and critical resources. See, for example: Agrarian Commons and Boston Farms Community Land Trust, agrariantrust.org/initiatives/agrarian-commons/ and www.bostonfarms.org/
- Encourage small-scale farmers to explore cooperative business models, including the shared use of critical resources, See, for example: Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer, heated.medium.com/small-family-farms-arent-the-answer-742b6684857e