Grow NYC Report on Greenmarket Farmers: “Farmers on the Edge”

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Photo of the Grow NYC Greenmarket in Union Square (my personal favorite). You can sometimes spot me here on Wednesday evenings...

Last month, I had an opportunity to visit with someone at Grow NYC (who runs Greenmarket), who shared this report with me (funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation):  “Farmers on the Edge:  An Assessment of Greenmarket Farmers’ Needs, and the Growing Challenges of Keeping Their Farms Viable.”  I finally had an opportunity to review the report in detail.  It offers a lot of helpful insight into farms that make Greenmarket in New York City possible and general information about farmers who market direct to consumers.  203 small to mid-size farmers from New York (70%), New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts were surveyed for the report (with 158 responses).

Who are the Greenmarket farmers and where are their farms? The map behind the table of contents is very informative.  I found it incredibly interesting to study the geographic locations of the farms and the average price per acre of farmland in that region.  As discussed in the publication, the capital investment required to start a farming operation is cost-prohibitive for many producers.  Grow NYC did a nice job identifying the types of operations:  vegetables, orchard fruit, dairy, livestock/wool, poultry, plants/flowers, honey/jam/maple syrup, grapes/wine, seafood/aquaculture, baked goods, and mushrooms.

Who doesn’t love statistics? The report is chalk-full of useful stats.

83% of Greenmarket farmers own farmland (p. 6).  On Page 7, the publication states that 49% of Greenmarket farmers own only and don’t rent land while 34% of the farmers both own and rent farmland.  I thought it was interesting that 54% of the owners did not have a mortgage on their land (Page 12).  56% of the Greenmarket farmers who are tenants citing difficulty in finding suitable rental land as the biggest challenge (p. 6).

60% of Greenmarket farmers want to expand their business (p. 6).  I was recently having a conversation with a friend about the expansion of farming operations — he thought that more acreage was always better.  Expansion can take place in many different ways.  It’s always important for farms to grow at the correct pace.   Along these lines, 53% of Greenmarket farmers want to buy more land but cite certain barriers as the holdback (e.g., land tenure and access to ag financing).  As for land tenure, it is important to negotiate a long-term lease (more than 1/3 of the Greenmarket farmers stated a preference for a lease that will last for six plus years).

43% of Greenmarket farmers say they will retire in the next twenty (20) years and 58% of Greenmarket farmers say that succession planning is a priority area of assistance(p.6).  According to the survey, nearly 2/3rd of Greenmarket farmers have been running their farm for over a decade (p 7).  42% of the farmers intended to keep their property in agriculture production in the future but did not have a specific plan to do so (p12).   All of this emphasizes the need for farm estate and succession planning.  However, I noticed on Page 9 that many of the farmers complained of having ample time to “apply for loans, to look for land, to draw up succession plans.”  Succession planning is easy to put off – so I get it.  But please read this.

Some Areas of Need

Other than some needs discussed above (e.g., succession planning), page 13 highlighted additional desires:

52% of the Greenmarket farmers indicated confusion over the area of development rights (P 12) highlighting the need for more education in this area.

26% of the Greenmarket farmers cited a need for landl0rd-tenant mediation(P 13).  Well aren’t you in luck cuz I’m a available for private mediations!  All kidding aside, I strongly recommend that all New York farmers look into the New York State Agriculture Mediation Program and New Jersey Agriculture Mediation Program (I am a member of the roster)– similar programs are available in most states offering free mediation services to agriculture producers.

35% of Greenmarket farmers cited a need for lease drafting and negotiations. I’m very happy to hear that folks are thinking about this and the strong need to (1) have a written contract and (2) have the lease contain favorable terms.  Not surprisingly, I recommend that farmers seek a relationship with an attorney licensed in their jurisdiction that understands their agriculture business.  I think this is especially important when dealing with a non-farmer landlord, which can be problematic.

54% of Greenmarket farmers cited a need for a real estate lawyer to help with farm closings. Farm real estate closings have some unique considerations that differentiate them from other types of commercial real estate closings.  Most people do a basic price comparison when choosing a real estate lawyer; however, I urge my readers to also take into consideration that lawyers experience with commercial agricultural property and communication skills (e.g., responsiveness, clear communication).

Page 16 of the report also notes some additional needs of “start-up” farmers including (1) help with accounting/bookkeeping and (2) legal assistance in starting a business (i.e., business formation).  Every farm needs to have a relationship with an accountant.  If you don’t have one, ask your lawyer or friend for a recommendation.  You will want to work with an accountant that understands agricultural enterprises.

I highly suggest reading the report.  It has very helpful information for folks involved in the food/agriculture industry throughout the Northeast.  I would be interested in reviewing similar reports from surveys taken from other farmers’ markets in other regions of the country.  If you know of such report, please send my way.  Farm viability is a strong passion of mine because it is paramount that we have a farm economy that is sustainable for the long-haul.

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