USDA survey shows limited access to land for new farmers

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2015 - A new survey of land ownership in the lower 48 states illustrates some of the difficulties would-be farmers face in acquiring farmland.

The survey, by USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), shows that about a tenth of the 911 million farmland acres outside of Alaska and Hawaii - about 91.5 million acres - is slated for ownership transfer in the next five years, not including farmland that is in or expected to be put into wills.

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Landlords expect to keep or put nearly 48 percent of these acres in trusts. Some 26 million acres are expected to be sold to a relative or given as a gift, and only 21 million acres are expected to be sold to a non-relative. This means that only a small percentage of farmland - just over 2 percent - will be available for new entrants into the farming sector.

“Farmland has always been a valuable resource, but what we see in the most recent (survey) results is the emergence of farmland as a future investment,” said Joseph T. Reilly, NASS administrator. “More families are creating trust ownerships to make sure land remains in their family for farming or as an investment.”

Mary Bohman, administrator of USDA's Economic Research Service, which assisted in the survey, agreed.

“Access to land is one of the biggest challenges facing agricultural producers, particularly beginning farmers,” Bohman said. The survey, the 2014 Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land, or TOTAL, “gives us a chance to demonstrate the extent of the land access issue and provide realistic projections of future land availability for purchase or for rent.”

The survey showed that 353.8 million acres of land were rented out for agricultural purposes by more than 2 million landowners last year. This is about 39 percent of total farmland and consistent with the findings in the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Of the 2 million or so landowners, 13 percent were farmers and ranchers and 87 percent were landlords who do not operate a farm. The total value of the land and buildings on the rented acres was $1.1 trillion, NASS said. About 63 percent of the total land rented was for cropland and 34 percent was for pasture.

In addition to renting out the land, landowners also lease or sell various rights, for mineral and oil and gas extraction, for development and for wind rights and recreational rights. Non-operator landlords leased oil and gas rights on 31.9 million acres and sold those rights on 4.1 million acres. Out of total farmland, oil and gas rights were leased on 61 million acres and sold on 11.3 million.

There were about 1.4 million “principal landlords” - either individual owners or the principal in a partnership arrangement - among the 1.9 million non-operator landlords, according to the survey, with an average age of 66.5 years. The average age of principal farm operators was just over 58 years.

In terms of race, 97 percent of principal landlords are white and 2 percent are Hispanic, regardless of race. Some 54 percent of principal landlords are not currently in the paid workforce, 41 percent are employed outside of farming, and 45 percent have never farmed.

NASS said the survey - the only survey conducted by the agency that collects agricultural landlord data - is expected to greatly contribute to research and policy analysis. Farmland ownership and decisions stemming from ownership arrangements are key issues for which ERS serves as a primary source of information, NASS said in a release.

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