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Virginia Farm Link

Program connects farmers with landowners
By Rocky Womack




Alex Shepley, a student at Ferrum College, said he has viewed the Virginia Farm Link database to see what farms are available for lease or to purchase.
Photo by Rocky Womack.

A Virginia agency is bringing mature farmers and younger ones together through a unique program. In 2001, the Virginia Farm Link program was established under section 3.2-202 of the Code of Virginia. It was started as an online database developed by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation (VAFB). "The primary component of the program, the Farm Link database, was originally released by Farm Bureau in 2004 and rereleased by the VDACS [Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services] in 2008," said Stefanie Kitchen, coordinator of the VAFB's Certified Farm Seeker (CFS) program.

A new beginning

In 2008, the VDACS began operating the program and database under the management of the Office of Farmland Preservation (OFP). "In November 2010, the OFP met with members of the VAFB Young Farmers to discuss concerns regarding the effectiveness of the Virginia Farm Link database and opportunities to better address the initial duties established for the Virginia Farm Link program," Kitchen explained.

According to the program's website (http://1.usa.gov/1oltzLs), it is intended to help two groups: "Farmers and landowners who are facing retirement and want to see their businesses continue and their land stay in production, and beginning and expanding farmers who are in search of business arrangements through which they can acquire land, equipment, experience and access to the knowledge of seasoned producers."

Gwen Casale, 73, who farms with her 82-year-old husband, Lindy, on West Wind Farm in Shipman, Virginia, read about the Farm Link program in the VAFB magazine. "It seemed like a great idea to keep farms [as] farms," she said. "The idea of helping young farmers find retiring farmers wanting to downsize seemed like an excellent solution."

Casale said they are in the right frame of mind to seek out young farmers to lease or buy their land. She likes direct dialogue with a potential farmer, allowing the two parties to cut to the chase about their aspirations.

One young person did visit the farm; however, Casale said it was not a good fit.

So far other inquiries have not worked either, but she remains optimistic. She noted that they are open to a lease or a lease with an option to buy, but would prefer to sell. "Ideally, we would like to sell most of the farm and retain our house on just a few acres," Casale added. "Another option we would consider is keeping a few acres of the farm and building a new, smaller house."

Their farm consists of 73 acres, several buildings and a house they designed and renovated, which is why they'd prefer to stay in the house. They grow some organic vegetables and fruit, including figs. In addition, they raise Katahdin hair sheep for the meat market, sell sheep to local farmers, and raise beef steers.



Gwen Casale said she and her husband, Lindy, want to lease or sell their farm to a person seeking a farming operation.
Photo courtesy of Gwen Casale.

Database buildup

Representatives underwriting the Virginia Farm Link program have worked to build up the database and locate farm seekers. Andrew Sorrell, the OFP coordinator, said, "Since 2003, the Farm Link program has been able to expand its activity to further meet its initial charge to provide assistance in the preparation of business plans for the transition of business interests; assistance in the facilitation of transfers of existing properties and agricultural operations to interested buyers; information on innovative farming methods and techniques; and research assistance on agricultural, financial, marketing and other matters."

With the help of the VAFB Young Farmers, Sorrell said the OFP developed a business plan and résumé for farm seekers. Additionally, the organization showed them how to demonstrate to landowners that they have on-farm experience. "This process, known as the Certified Farm Seeker program, uses five curriculum modules that are tailored to the individual experience level of the farm seeker," he explained.

In the database system, a farm seeker can look up general information about different farms that are available and then email the owner, Sorrell said.

Alex Shepley, a student at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia, often visits the Farm Link database. "It is an awesome resource for both young farmers and more experienced land seekers," he said. "I have found several farms that pique my interest within Farm Link; however, still being in college, I have not pursued these opportunities yet because I still have one and a half years of school left."

Shepley is scheduled to graduate in December 2015 with a double major in animal science and agriculture business, as well as a certificate in agriculture entrepreneurship. He knows his education can provide guidance in good business practices. "A college degree does not make you any better than anyone else in the job market. However, it better prepares you to understand and critically think through situations and how they will affect a business as a whole," he said. "Planning and goal-setting is one of the most important attributes that must be achieved if you hope to succeed in any business, and especially agriculture. Experience is necessary to successfully operate an agriculture enterprise, but a college degree assists in applying all aspects and tools necessary to be successful and competitive in the industry."

In fall 2012, Shepley heard about the CFS program at a meeting of the college's Agriculture Club/Collegiate Young Farmers group. The idea was a no-brainer for him. "Knowing the struggles of both retiring farmers who do not have family to leave their pride and hard work to, and the challenges faced by young people like myself to enter the industry from scratch, I thought this was an opportunity of a lifetime," Shepley said. "The idea of partnering a young farmer with a seasoned farming professional sounds simple, but certified farm seekers allow you to explore the opportunities and logistics of doing so through training and helping you prepare your thoughts."

Shepley didn't work on a farm where he grew up in Winchester, Virginia, but he has worked for agricultural operations since he was 15 years old. Those operations include an organic community supported agriculture farm and nursery; a commercial brood cow-calf operation; a beef operation in Clarke County, Virginia; and a vegetable, fruit, dairy and beef operation in Frederick County, Virginia.

CFS Trent Tebbe of Leesburg, Virginia, believes he has benefited from the Farm Link program. "I have used the material in the Certified Farm Seeker program to gain a better understanding of the business side of farming," he said. "I've also used it to connect with landowners for potential partner arrangements. The first attempt fell through. That couple decided to work with an established farmer whom they were familiar with. I've been talking to a second landowner through the Farm Link program recently and believe we will probably come to an agreement."

Tebbe became a CFS to express his serious intent and commitment to farming. He found the program while looking into starting his own farming operation. "I thought that the certification would be a way to indicate to the farming community that I was serious about starting my own operation," he explained. "I'm not a city slicker without a true understanding of the work that goes into a farm. I'm a farmer looking for a farm. I think any farmer who is looking for a partner will be looking very closely at those prospective partners. It will not be a light decision for them to start working with a new person."

He moved to Virginia from Indiana, where he grew up on a large grain farm and attended the University of Notre Dame, earning a bachelor's degree in computer science.

Currently, he's a software engineer and farms part-time on 14 acres under lease at Three Monkeys Farm. He wants to prove to himself that his business model and farming operation can replace his engineering income. That will require flexibility and growth. "Once I switch to full-time farming with a core business in grains, I'll look to diversify the operation with livestock, or a partner who runs the livestock operation while I focus on crops," he noted.



Alex Shepley believes the Virginia Farm Link program offers Certified Farm Seekers an opportunity to farm and farm owners a chance to pass along an existing operation while they seek retirement.

For Tebbe, farming comes from his heart. "I know lots of people use the words 'want' and 'need' interchangeably, but I do not," Tebbe said. "I don't think I can fully articulate the why behind that need. Probably the best way for anyone else to understand it would be as follows: Think about the thing that you're really passionate about. Why are you passionate about it? Maybe you're good at it. Maybe you find it to generally be fun, exciting or interesting. But, to take it a level deeper, why do you keep doing it when it is hard? Or why do you keep doing it when the going gets rough? I'm not really sure why I'm willing to spend my weekends doing what other people would call hard labor. I'm not really sure why I stay up to the wee hours of night researching and planning my farm operation, other than to say I just need to. It's just part of who I am."

Sorrell said the Virginia Farm Link program currently has seven people who are fully certified and about 60 going through the CFS process. The cost-share offers participants 75 percent reimbursement of eligible expenses, up to a total of $500. So far, one CFS has taken advantage of it.

Incentives

A number of incentives are offered under the program, such as farm owner and CFS events, workshops and cost sharing for certain fees incurred as part of a farm transition process.

Sorrell said the workshops "enhance the relationships between farm seekers and farm owners, while also exploring [the] steps in successful farm transitioning. Additionally, OFP allocates funding for farm transition workshops designed to help farm families and their service providers transition farms and farming operations to the next generation. For 2014, $15,000 has been allocated to the Virginia Cooperative Extension to fund such workshops across Virginia."

Transitioning

Once a CFS and landowner connect to discuss their goals and finally decide they're a good fit, they must take certain steps to transition the farm. The first step begins with a vision from both parties and examines what resources are available. Sorrell said both parties must decide what their needs are and how they envision the end result. In addition, they must manage risks, communicate better with family, and develop goals and objectives for the family so they can agree on one workable vision.

The second step looks at the legal aspects and what tools are available. Sorrell said evaluating farm resources involves looking at the farm's natural resources, farm buildings and infrastructure, community infrastructure, net worth of the farm assets and human resources.

Sorrell said people must better understand the tools available to transfer the farm, including basic estate planning ones such as wills, trusts, gifting and estate taxes. They must understand the various business models that a farm business can follow, such as partnerships and corporations, as well as land agreements like buy-sell agreements, farm leases and conservation easements, which keep the land in agricultural and/or forest production.

The last step involves meeting with professional advisors: attorneys, accountants, insurance agents, trust officers, financial planners and forestry professionals.

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.