November 12, 2016 02:06PM
By Catherine Hewitt
Sun Staff writer
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Available farmland is scarce in Rhode Island but new farmers can often get started by leasing acreage from landowners. Reaching out to these landowners and extolling the benefits of leasing has become a passion for Tess Brown-Lavoie, Rhode Island field agent for Land For Good, a nonprofit whose mission is “to ensure the future of farming in New England by putting more farmers more securely on more land.”
Brown-Lavoie led a workshop on the subject Wednesday at the South Kingstown Land Trust Barn. “Statistically, 40 percent of farmland in the United States is leased and 80 percent of farmland owners are not farmers,” she told the audience of about 20. “You’ll want to consider things like infrastructure, water sources and supply, access to the area of the property, insurance, depreciation, and taxes.”
The group offers leasing models to get people started, and encourages landowners to consider their long-term vision for their properties and to find a farmer with compatible goals. Brown-Lavoie, of Providence, is a farmer herself and rents land in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. “Landowners need to have flexibility, knowing that farmers’ businesses change over time — as long as there’s some level of trust then that’s a good foundation to build on for both the farmer and the landowner.”
Judith Samson, of South Kingstown, a landowner, said she leases space to a horse-boarding operation, permits University of Rhode Island professors to keep pigs on the property, rents space to one neighbor who raises turkeys and goats, and leases other land to a neighbor who raises cattle and to another who is a certified organic farmer.
“Everything that’s happened on our farm, just happened,” she said. “We didn’t look for any farmers — everything was word of mouth,” Samson said.
Samson said that her leasing arrangements were less formal than what Brown-Lavoie recommended, but she saw the value in delineating specifics in a lease to keep communications clear.
Providing a farmer’s perspective was Bob Payne of South Kingstown, who rents 5 acres in Exeter that he has named Little River Farm. Payne grows vegetables that he said provide his sole source of income.
“The landlord is a family friend — he doesn’t come over and we respect his space,” he said. “There are some missing pieces that I would want in the future — there’s no electricity on the site, for instance, so we can’t run fans and there’s no heated space.”
Payne said the upside for landowners was watching the farm changing, growing and producing. He said that some of the downsides to consider were engine noise, animal odor and compost, and the general messiness of the work.
“As many tons of vegetables that go out, there’s tons of things that come in, like compost, hay and all sorts of deliveries are happening all the time,” he said. “But it’s really cool to see food grow and it’s a really wonderful thing to see the seasons progress, the fields change through our work, and it changes every single day.”
The workshop was the second of its kind. The first was held on Aquidneck Island about a month ago, said Rupert Friday, director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.
“Rhode Island has one of the highest costs of farmland in the country,” he said. “You can’t buy land on the open market here and make enough money to pay the mortgage because the values are so high, but farmers can make a living leasing land.”
Friday also said that much of the state’s farmland may change hands in the next few decades and it was important to keep that acreage in agriculture.
“Rhode Island has lost 80 percent of our far land since the 1940s and we have about 40,000 acres left and about a quarter to a third of that is protected,” he said. “About a third of our farmers are over 65 years old and they have the larger farms, so there’s going to be a big transition changing hands in the next 10 years, so we started working on ways to keep farmland that’s in production, in agriculture.”
Joanne M. Riccitelli, land protection director of the South Kingstown Land Trust, said, “We’re just getting the idea out there that you don’t have to have a big farm to have your land used for productive farmland. Smaller farmers don’t need 40 acres, they need 3 acres to start and this workshop is trying to take some of the mystery out of the process.”
For more information about leasing farmland, go to www.landforgood.org.