Middle Tennessee's Aspiring Farmers Struggle To Find Affordable Land

Jul 12, 2017

Aspiring farmers face a long shot to earn a living on the land, and that’s partly because land itself is getting so expensive. And since new farmers have to supplement their income with outside jobs, they also can’t afford to move too far out of town where property is more affordable. It's a conundrum for young people in the Nashville area trying to get back to the land. 

Sara Kelley spends her days working unpaid, harvesting and bundling vegetables as a volunteer at Six Boots Collective Farm in the Bells Bend area of Nashville. At night, the 30-year-old works for cash as a bartender.

“Finding a job that is actually a living wage in the farming industry is very difficult,” Kelley says. “You don’t get into it for the money, for sure.”

She’s learning farm skills and saving up with the dream of eventually starting her own small-scale farm. But it could be a while.

Competing With Cash-Carrying Homebuyers

If you want to be a farmer but didn’t inherit land, you basically have to enter the housing market. That’s because it’s much harder to get a loan for a patch of dirt than it is if there’s also a house on the property. But that means new farmers compete with other potential homebuyers, and they’re often competing where the market is most intense: just outside of fast-growing urban centers like Nashville.

"A lot of people don't really want to sell to people who get government loans because you have to jump through a lot more hoops for that as opposed to just selling it outright to someone who has cash."

“There’s just been so many people from out of state coming in and buying houses for cash,” Kelley says. “A lot of people don’t really want to sell to people who get government loans because you have to jump through a lot more hoops for that as opposed to just selling it outright to someone who has cash.”

While property sellers can be hesitant to work with buyers who depend on special agriculture loans, the government and even fellow farmers are eager to bring some youth into an aging industry. The USDA set up a website to help beginners navigate federal resources. The University of Tennessee Extension is hosting workshops for people with little or no farming background. Recently, longtime Middle Tennessee farmer Jeff Poppen organized a landowner-landseeker matchup session.

“I've been starting farms for the last ten years in the Davidson County area, where most people that own land now have no clue about farming,” Poppen says. “So they're, you know, doctors, and politicians, and lawyers, and they have other careers that they're really good at but they don't know anything about agriculture.”

According to the USDA, 40 percent of all farmland in the U.S. is rented, but many consider that second-best to owning. Nashville real estate agent Bob McKeown, locally known as Bull Run Bob, says he rarely sees local farmland sold to actual farmers.

“Every time I get the chance to place somebody on a farm in this area, I love to do it,” McKeown says. “I think the more of that that occurs, the less likely we are to have wholesale development in the area. I guess as a realtor I should be all in favor of development every day because that's what pays my bills, but there's enough land being developed in the city of Nashville.”

"Every time I get the chance to place somebody on a farm in this area, I love to do it. I think the more of that that occurs, the less likely we are to have wholesale development in the area."

Farms disappear when children sell their inherited land to pursue more lucrative city jobs — and that seems to be happening a lot. The most recent federal agriculture census showed that the number of new and beginning farmers in the U.S. declined by nearly a third between 2007 and 2012.

A couple of years ago, Bull Run Bob helped place Heather Sevcik and her partner, Jon Ramirez, on a farm just half an hour north of Nashville. Sevcik and Ramirez raise mushrooms, vegetables, bees, and goats. The couple say they won their property despite other buyers offering above the asking price.

“We made it clear we were planning to farm it. That ended up being one of the variables that kind of pushed them in our favor,” Sevcik says.

Outside Jobs Are Essential

The selling family supported Sevcik and Ramirez’s intentions to keep farming the land, even if it meant lower profit. As twenty-somethings still paying off student loans, Ramirez and Sevcik otherwise couldn’t have afforded the property. Their options were limited because they had to be near town for Sevcik’s midwife job in Nashville.

“Having one of us have that kind of stable source of revenue is extremely helpful, and I've seen a lot of young farmers kind of rely on that,” Sevcik says.

In fact, most of the money made by small farmers comes from an off-farm job. USDA reports that on average, off-farm income accounted for 83 percent of farm operator household cash income in 2011. In a typical year, most small farms lose money.

But the need for an off-farm 9-to-5 drives the property cost even higher since the closer to town, typically, the higher the price of the land. It’s all part of the increasing financial challenge for those individuals who want to grow food for themselves and others.