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The 2024 National Farm Viability Conference—A Field Trip to “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia!”

By Bonnie Warndahl




The lush, rippling mountains of West Virginia are exquisite—and harrowing to drive through. As I overheard one local say, “Nothing here is straight—except for the interstate.” In addition to seeming like they were scribbled by 3-year-olds, the winding, twisting roads in the southeastern U.S. are terrifyingly narrow. Driving requires serious attention to the road—which makes it harder to take in the beautiful landscape!  


In late April I was on my way to the 6th National Farm Viability Conference in Charleston, West Virginia, driving down from Cincinnati, where I had been visiting family. I wanted to see what farm country looked and felt like in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Would the vast corporate consolidation of farmland, so prevalent in the Midwest, be obvious here? No—not quite. Perhaps the hilly terrain makes that particular variety of sprawl difficult—and perhaps to the benefit of those who live there. Instead, the rural landscape is built of smaller farms with single homes dotted along the snaking roads—usually at the base of hills near creeks and streams where the land is slightly more flat. It’s quite beautiful. 


Over two weeks on an 800+ mile stretch between Cincinnati and Minneapolis I drove, observing along that route, thousands of acres of farmland either recently—or in the process of being—devoured by new housing developments and industrial complexes. Going into a national farm conference with this raw perspective challenged my enthusiasm for the future of farming in America. Thankfully the great minds gathered there were an absolute inspiration. 


The 6th National Farm Viability Conference was held over three days, with a full day of optional pre-tours to farms and tourism businesses in “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia,” a branding phrase we heard frequently from proud residents. Conference days two and three were dedicated to a full schedule of sessions and day four included morning sessions with an optional post-tour of yet another local farm. On day four participants engaged in one last block of group learning before having lunch and dispersing. 




In a session titled Leveraging Conservation: Agricultural Conservation Easements as a Business, Succession and Access Strategy participants learned about the role of agricultural conservation easements in farm and ranch viability and succession. A panel of service providers from across the U.S. highlighted ways that purchases of agricultural conservation easements and Buy-Protect-Sell (BPS) projects are supporting business investment and diversification, and facilitating farm transfer and succession. The panel shared recent examples of land protection and BPS projects. Left to Right: Yimmuaj Yang (Groundswell Wisconsin), Jan Joannides (Renewing the Countryside), Alison Volk (American Farmland Trust), Mike Ghia (Land for Good), and Ebonie Alexander (Black Family Land Trust).


The thing I appreciated most about this conference was the discussion format which seemed to be generally prevalent in sessions—and the fact that nearly every block included at least one session on Farmland Access & Transfer. With strong facilitators and carefully chosen topics, the conversations were rich and dynamic. Sessions were 1.5 hours each, leaving plenty of time (well, there is never enough time, but…) for questions and creative problem-solving. Also, Charleston, West Virginia is a stunning city.


Farmland Access session topics included: 


  • Farmland Access Pathways and Pitfalls

  • What a Lender Wants to Know

  • Family Land: An Introduction to Heirs' Property Challenges and Remedies

  • Advocacy 101: Learning the Basics of Influencing Policy and Why YOUR Story Matters

  • Farmlinking Roundtable

  • "But, I Don't Plan to EVER Retire": Working with Young Farmers on Retirement Saving, and Senior Farmers on Retirement Planning and Implementation to Support Farm Succession

  • Shifting Power to Farmers: Equitably accessing land and capital

  • “Can we fund a farm without generational wealth?” An Exploration

  • Emerging Farm Transfer Planning Models - A Discussion of Successes and Challenges

  • Working with white* farmland owners: addressing issues of land ownership and power dynamics

  • Leveraging Conservation: Agricultural Conservation Easements as a Business, Succession and Access Strategy



Farmland Access—A Personal and Professional Journey: Interview with Bonnie Warndahl on Hobby Farms Presents Growing Good Podcast


I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Lisa Munniksma, writer, farm and food advocate, and podcast host of Hobby Farms Presents Growing Good Podcast. This podcast, which I highly recommend checking out, is full of rich interviews with farmers, land stewards, and chefs. I am grateful that Lisa created this opportunity to put some focus on farmland access issues and solutions. I’d love to know what you think! Have a listen and send me your feedback at bonnie@rtcinfo.org


From the podcast notes: 


Warndahl talks about the Renewing the Countryside nonprofit that she works with as a farmland access specialist. From food hubs to farm-to-childcare and connecting farmers with farmland, the organization is building a regional network to prop up farmers of all kinds. The Farmland Access Hub helps assess farmers’ readiness for land access, guides farmers in their loan applications, and provides resources to help farmers with their land search and purchase.


Dive into the facts about why farmland access is so hard as well as why it’s so vital. “It’s important for people to understand how dire of a situation we are in, unbeknownst to so many people,” Warndahl says. She continues, talking about an impending food crisis facing the US, given the confluence of the advancing age of farmers, farmland real estate prices and fewer new farmers coming in to replace those who are retiring. Hear about federal and state policy solutions that may help ease some of the issues complicating the current farmland-access crisis.



 

Convos, Storms, and Cows—Great Lakes Farm Navigators Gather in Green Bay for Learning and Planning


The Great Lakes Farm Navigator (GLFN) program was launched in early 2023 by American Farmland Trust (AFT) to aid in protecting the Great Lakes watershed by supporting farmers in land access and conservation efforts. In four states—New York, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—navigators assist land-seeking farmers with gaining tenure, landowning farmers with ownership transfer, and both groups with implementing conservation techniques to improve soil, air and water quality. These navigators, who are already working in the farmer support space through their respective organizations, gain extra resources and training from AFT to excel farmland access and conservation work in their communities. 


In Wisconsin, four navigators participate in the GLFN program led by state regional coordinator Angie Doucette, Midwest Farmland Protection Manager at AFT: 


Kirstin Jurcek, Glaciereland Resource Conservation & Development Council

Brooke Patrick, Golden Sands Resource Conservation & Development Council

Shelly Rothman, Foxhead Regenerative Agriculture Project

Bonnie Warndahl, Renewing the Countryside


On Tuesday, May 21st, our Wisconsin GLFN team, gathered at an Airbnb in Green Bay, Wisconsin to identify resource needs and strategize methods of strengthening the regional network of service providers. In a facilitated discussion with Mia Ljung from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, the group created a SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) Analysis of our water shed region. This exercise helped us to identify existing resources and resource gaps to be addressed. 


We were later joined by You Lee, Project Specialist at NEW Hmong Professionals. You assists farmers in coordination and logistics through the farm programs and leading the Hmong Enrollment Network. She introduced our team to the work that happens through New Hmong Professionals and provided her perspective on successfully working with Hmong Farmers.


We later gathered for dinner and socializing at Rustique Pizzaria + Lounge in nearby Suamico, Wisconsin where we were joined by area farmers and members of the Great Lakes Protection Fund—the primary supporter of the GLFN project. 



Post-dinner the GLFN team returned to the Airbnb amid severe weather alerts. As we wound down for the day a strong storm wound up, forcing us into the basement as a large tree fell on the house we were staying in. Thankfully no one was hurt and we ultimately only suffered the minor inconvenience of an overnight power outage.






(Left): Storm damage. in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during a Great Lakes Farm Navigator training retreat.





The following morning everyone trekked over to the Oneida Nations Farm where we observed the tribe’s bison and beef herds and received a tour of their lush (already in May!) rotationally grazed pastures.



The Oneida Nation Farm is one of the largest farms in northeast Wisconsin with more than 6,000 acres in production. The grassfed meat produced on the farm feeds tribal members and is sold for public consumption. We couldn’t leave, of course, without purchasing some of that tasty, locally produced grass fed meat sold right on site!



Great Lakes Farm Navigators and GLFN support staff tour rotational grazing pastures of the Oneida Nation Farm in Seymour, Wisconsin. (Forefront: Bonnie Warndahl, Background: Shelly Rothman and Mia Ljung).






Curious heifers from the Oneida Nation Farm in Seymour, Wisconsin.



Upcoming Events: 


Minnesota Hub In-person Meeting

The Minnesota Farmland Access Hub will be holding an in-person meeting at the Minnesota Farmers Union headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. MN Hub members please RSVP to bonnie@rtcinfo.org


20th Anniversary Celebration and FUNdraiser, Renewing the Countryside


The Farmland Access Hub is a project initiated by Renewing the Countryside. The work being done by our organization and our partners is all in an effort to create a safer, more profitable, and more just local food system in the Upper Midwest! Please join RTC staff and supporters for a fun and casual affair at Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul. on Thursday, June 27th from 5:30-8:30 pm. Great food, fun games, a silent auction, an opportunity to meet old friends or make new ones... and learn about what RTC has been up to for 20 years! 





Details:

Thursday, June 27

5:30 to 8:30 pm

Dodge Nature Center, West St. Paul, MN

Tickets range from $25 to $100 (and are partially tax deductible).

- Here is the link to the event page where you can purchase tickets 

- If you can't come, but would like to make a donation, link here

- If you'd like to make a donation to the silent auction, or have other questions, please contact Marlene Petersen at marlene@rtcinfo.org or 651-272-7238


 

Coming up in next month's newsletter: a look at the recently released 2022 United States Census of Agriculture.


Interested in making your land available to farmers?

Are you a landowner interested in renting your land or selling/transitioning your farm to the next generation? You may want to consider featuring your farm’s profile on the new “Available Farms” page on the Farmland Access Hub website. It is our hope that this page will become a central resource in the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa tri-state area for farmland owners hoping to connect with interested farmers regarding the transfer of land and farm businesses. To get the word out about your available farmland, please fill out the intake form on this page or contact Bonnie Warndahl at bonnie@rtcinfo.org or 612-462-9311.



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