February 8, 2015

There’s Nobody In Between

A housing bubble related issue from the Charleston City Paper. “‘Everything hinges on land,’ Celeste Albers says. She should know. Albers is one of the pioneers of sustainable farming in the Lowcountry, and she has been an instrumental figure in bringing good, local food back to Charleston’s restaurants and farmers markets. Ultimately, for Albers, it hasn’t been weather or labor or restaurant buyers that have posed the stiffest challenge. The biggest problem has been land.”

“According to a 2008 Clemson study, South Carolina has approximately 20 million acres of total land. Twenty-five percent of that area is considered farmland. But due to skyrocketing real estate prices, availability, and an expensive rental market, acquiring and actually growing crops on that farmland is growing increasingly difficult.”

“No one knows more about making sustainable farming scale than Will Harris, the owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga. Unlike many of the farmers involved in the good food movement today, Harris came to it not from the outside but the inside. Today, Harris employs 120 people to work some 2,500 acres of land, and he sells his meat through big retailers like Publix and Whole Foods. Harris had a leg up on most sustainable farmers, since he inherited 1,000 acres from his father. Since then, he has bought 250 more acres and leased an additional 1,250. But even his ability to scale is starting to reach its limits.”

“There’s plenty of arable land in south Georgia, he notes, but ‘it’s under someone else’s control.’ ‘We raise everything we process here ourselves except cattle,’ Harris says. ‘We raised about 700 calves a year, but that’s not enough.’ So he established a network of 15 other farmers to grow additional cattle for them, using his protocols and specifications, and he purchases, slaughters, and sells them under the White Oak Pastures brand. ‘We would love to raise all of them ourselves,’ Harris says. ‘The only reason we don’t is we don’t have enough land.’”

“Right now, land is indeed a limiting factor, but it’s not because we lack the raw acreage. A two-hour drive through any part of rural South Carolina or Georgia — mile after mile of farrow fields and pine timberlands — makes that clear. Clay County, where Harris farms, is the fifth least populous county in Georgia, and it has no shortage of land. The issue, Harris says, is ‘who controls the land, who’s handling the land.’”

“This problem is by no means limited to the South. In states like New Jersey, wealthy individuals find farmland attractive for its so-called ‘estate value’ — big homes with lots of adjoining land. Land prices are at an all-time high in rural farm states, too. The Iowa Land Value Survey, conducted by Iowa State University, shows the average price of an acre of farmland has more than doubled in the past decade, rising from $2,629 in 2004 to $7,943 today.”

“After the housing bubble burst, institutional investors, seeking a safer place for their money, started buying up farmland in the Midwest, effectively transforming farmland into a new ‘asset class’ seen as a reliable hedge against inflation. These investors typically lease the land back to farmers or hire farmland management companies to work the land via contract. In 2012, Brian Briggeman, a Kansas State University economist, estimated that a quarter of all American farmland purchases were made by investors, not operators.”

“Though Johns Island and Wadmalaw have traditionally been farming communities, things are different today. ‘Land values are way out of sight here,’ Celeste Albers says. ‘It’s crazy. People want to live here, which is great. It gives you a great customer base, but it also drives up the cost of buying land. You can’t buy any reasonable piece of land for less than $10,000 an acre, and you don’t have a prayer of selling enough to cover that.’”

“When Albers looks back at how things have changed over the past two decades, she is bothered in particular by the huge gap that now separates small, sustainable farming and large-scale commodity agriculture. ‘You have a lot of really, really small farms, a lot of people working on two, four, or six acres that really are producing foods for the community. Then there’s nobody in between. Where are the 20-acre farms, the 50-acre farms? There’s none of them left.’”

“‘There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to produce enough food to feed Charleston. Not just in restaurants but in kitchens,’ Albers says. ‘Where are the people feeding families and not just the boutique growers? It just goes straight to land, accessibility, and labor. That’s our problem, and I don’t know what the answer is to that.’”

Bits Bucket for February 8, 2015

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