By MARY ESCH
ALBANY (AP) - When Schuyler and Colby Gail were trying to get started in farming, they ran into an obstacle common to many fledgling farmers: Land was expensive and hard to find.
In this Thursday photo, Schuyler Gail feeds pumpkins to pigs at the family’s Climbing Tree Farm in New Lebanon. When Schuyler and husband Colby Gail were trying to get started in farming, they ran into an obstacle common to many fledgling farmers: Land was costly and hard to find. They turned to a local land conservancy, which matched them up with a landowner willing to sell for an affordable price.
They turned to a local land conservancy, which matched them up with a landowner willing to sell at an affordable price. Now, they raise pigs, lambs and poultry on their farm in New Lebanon, 25 miles southeast of Albany near the Massachusetts border.
"We were able to come to a better financial agreement because the landowners were excited about what we were doing," said Schuyler Gail, who launched Climbing Tree Farm a year ago with her husband, a carpenter. "It wouldn't be the same if we bought land off the regular real estate market."
To keep land in agricultural production and help a new generation start farming as older farmers near retirement, land conservancies and other farm preservation groups have launched a growing number of landowner-farmer matching programs like the one that helped the Gails.
About 25 states have FarmLink programs that match new farmers with landowners, and the programs vary in how involved they are in matches. For example, Connecticut has made only about a half dozen since it began in 2007 but staffers aren't allowed to get involved in leases, spokeswoman Jane Slupecki said. The opposite is true in California, said Central Valley coordinator Liya Schwartzman. In Maine, the program has facilitated 82 matches since it started in 2002, a spokeswoman said.
More than 60 percent of farmers are over 55, and the fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers is those over 65, Census figures showed. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has set a goal of creating 100,000 new farmers within the next few years.
In New York and New England, where nearly a quarter of farmland is owned by farmers 65 and older, a new generation is eager to produce the locally grown organic vegetables, fruit, meat and milk that are in high demand at urban greenmarkets and restaurants. But the proximity to population centers that creates demand for local farm goods also pushes land prices out of reach for fledgling farmers and makes selling to developers a tempting option for farmers looking for a retirement cushion.
New York state has lost almost half a million acres of farmland to subdivisions, strip malls and scattered development in the past 25 years, according to the American Farmland Trust.
The organization started a series of projects to address the problem, including a network of organizations linking farmers with landowners, and developing creative leasing arrangements to make land affordable, said the trust's New York state director, David Haight. Land prices in the Hudson Valley are around $10,000 to $30,000 an acre, he said.