In the wide-open midwestern states, especially in places like Lamberton, Minnesota, there is no danger of commercial development of farmland. Still, young agrarians like Ryan and Tiffany Batalden face the very real challenges of land access and land tenure.
Ryan is a 5th generation farmer who now runs a successful 350-acre organic farm, but making a living as a full-time farmer in Lamberton, where the population is less than 1000, was not always possible. Batalden Farms sells certified organic beef, pork and chicken. They also grow a variety of crops for seed along with other grains, tofu-grade soy, popcorn. Without large growers like Batladen Farms, organic farmers across the country would have a hard time finding organic seed for cover crop and forage.
In the Batalden’s area of Minnesota, about 50 miles north of Iowa, farmland goes for about $10,000 an acre. “If a farmer buys, let’s say, 80 acres at that price, that’s $800,000 . . . they’re not going to make that back very fast.” That’s if they can come up with nearly a million dollars to begin with, which Ryan and Tiffany could not.
So, Ryan began making a try at full-time farming in 2003 as a sharecropper. “I think, at least in our area, sharecropping is an overlooked way of helping a young farmer get started.” He went on to explain that with this arrangement, the farmer pays no rent up front, but at harvest time the land-owner is given 40% of the crop.
Even with the 80-acre parcel he was able to sharecrop on, he still had to work other jobs to make ends meet. When he received an email from his organic certifier about a land opportunity with New Spirit Enterprises, he didn’t hesitate to contact their founder, Robert Karp.
The budding project had the vision of creating a way to invest in farmland that was socially responsible. Many phone calls and several auctions later, New Spirit managed the purchase of a ¼ section parcel of land, or about 158 acres.
The land is owned by the investors, but leased by the Bataldens through New Spirit. The terms of the lease require that the farm be confirmed as a sustainable practice by a 3rd party, in their case this is the organic certifier. In exchange for this Batalden Farms gets a rental rate Ryan describes as, “Significantly less than what the landowner would get at a rental auction.”
What makes the arrangement more beneficial is the 15-year length of the lease, which Ryan explains allows him to make capital investment in equipment and in the land. “It gives me the confidence to invest soil-building crops and green manure, which on a year to year lease would be hard to justify.”
A couple years after the original property was acquired, New Spirit secured another parcel that Batalden Farms now also leases. The second parcel has similar lease provisions. Both parcels are in close proximity to the Batalden home, as well as the farm that Ryan’s parents raise a small herd of stock cattle.
When asked about his arrangement and how other young farmers could benefit from such arrangements, Ryan said, “Lately when I think about it, I think about the word value, about really showing land-owners all the different value their land has, not just financial. The land has value to the community, to wildlife and to agriculture.”
His message to landowners: “Don’t be afraid to put financial value below all those other values.”