Online services link owners, aspiring farmers

Older farmers who start thinking about retirement can sometimes have a hard time finding the right person to take over the land.

Those obstacles can be even trickier to overcome if no family members are willing to stay on the farm.

Producers usually want the farm to remain as a farm, but where do they turn if they are in that predicament?

A growing number of programs are available to do just that. They are like dating websites but without the romance. They connect new entrants looking to begin their farming careers with older folks looking to retire.

One organization, called FarmLINK, is just one of many in Canada that are connecting the young and the old.

On its website, FarmLink.net, new entrants can view profiles of those looking to sell and vice versa. People can communicate online through the site until they are ready to meet in person. The site is available for farmers across Canada.

“Think of it as a cross between realtor.ca and eHarmony, connecting those looking for land with owners,” said Keeley Nixon, the program lead with FarmLINK.

“It’s really formulated to get folks to put their best foot forward.”

While FarmLINK doesn’t create specialized succession plans for its users, Nixon said it does at least get those conversations going. On its website, the organization points people to other resources they can use, such as succession checklists, information about legal agreements and webinars.

She said there have been a number of success stories. For example, she pointed to a match between Cathy McKay and Rob Alexander near Port Perry, Ont. The two never knew each other before linking up online, even though they lived only 20 minutes away from one another.

“She (McKay) really wanted someone to take over. She spent about five years trying to find someone to mentor before posting a listing on the site,” Nixon said.

“Once she did, she found someone fairly quickly. That’s the magic of it.”

However, FarmLINK isn’t the only service matching farm seekers with owners.

L’Arterre, an organization in Quebec, pairs aspiring farmers with current producers. The group has agents who ensure matches are compatible.

If all goes well, a business agreement can be signed between the two parties. L’Arterre works with a network of lawyers, tax specialists and advisers throughout the process.

As well, the Young Agrarians group offers mentorship programs in British Columbia and Alberta. While the programs don’t necessarily deal with succession, they connect aspiring farmers with current owners, providing them with an opportunity to see what farming is all about.

By the end of the program, new entrants should have enough skills for when they decide to purchase or lease land. In B.C., the Young Agrarians also has a land-matching program, which links new entrants with owners.

However, Nixon said while these connector sites are necessary, they aren’t the only tool that farmers require in order to have successful transitions.

She said other initiatives are needed to support succession, such as protecting prime farmland, tax incentives, financial support, training programs, community outreach and funding for new-farmer programs.

“This is just another tool in the toolbox of all the things we need to do to address succession,” she said.

“I don’t think we need more duplication of what we’re doing, but we should improve what exists and better tap into current resources, as well as identify the gaps.”

Sam Smith, a farm business specialist with the Intervale Center, agreed more tools are needed to help with succession. Intervale, which is based in Vermont, connects new entrants with owners and helps in the transition process.

“The face of agriculture is changing,” he said.

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