INTERVIEW BY SARAH STEBBINS
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENJAMIN WILLIAMSON
In 13 years as a matchmaker for Maine farm owners, Sue Lanpher has never seen such intense wooing. As Maine Farmland Trust‘s Farmlink coordinator, Lanpher helps connect landowners with potential buyers or renters, who introduce themselves via profiles with photos of their smiling faces on the nonprofit’s website. The buyers, in turn, can browse available properties. But as with the Maine real-estate market writ large, demand for farmland — driven by a pandemic-fueled urban exodus — is far outpacing supply. Currently, Lanpher’s site has 56 farm seekers and only 16 listings, most of them priced twice as high as they were two years ago. Hundreds more interested buyers visit the site daily. “The word I’d use is discouraged,” Lanpher says. “Watching property evaluations go through the roof, it really limits what an incoming farmer can afford.” Even when she sees a possible match, it can be tricky to get off the ground. “You might have a landowner offering XYZ and a farm seeker saying, ‘we only want PQR.’ It’s like, why can’t we just make these fit together?”
Why do farmers need a matchmaker?
In 2002, the idea morphed out of a desire to help landowners who didn’t have anyone to take over their land, but who didn’t want to see it sold off for development or have it taken over by someone who wasn’t going to use it in the way they saw fit. With our program, you have someone screening for buyers and lessors with like-minded goals versus just working with a real-estate agent, who may not have specific agricultural knowledge. I also talk through selling and leasing scenarios with landowners. Not all are ready to sell right away. The seeker profiles on our website allow them to see what interest is out there, while helping buyers promote what they’re looking for.
What types of buyers are you seeing?
Since the pandemic, one of the biggest trends we’re noticing is people from out of state purchasing large tracts to parcel out and put houses on for their parents, in-laws, aunts, and uncles who want to be in a less populated area. That’s been hard to watch. There’s also this trend where people who have been working 9-to-5 jobs are looking to slow down their lives and, at the risk of sounding crass, they think farming sounds like fun. The number of buyers with agricultural backgrounds, looking to upscale or start a business, is probably the same as when I started here. But now they are getting pushed to the back burner because people are coming in with cash in hand. And that’s not really the best for agriculture in the state.
For the serious farmers, what are the most desirable properties?
Twenty-five to 50 acres is the typical mid-size property most are looking for. Maybe it has one portion that’s good for pasturing animals, another with good soil for growing vegetables, and a nice little woodlot — multiple opportunities are what most buyers want. We have a listing on our site that’s a cranberry operation. A great opportunity, but it’s going to take somebody specific to carry on a cranberry business.
Can you describe a successful match?
Last week, I was in communication with an owner who has had her Cape Elizabeth property posted with us for a couple of years. She didn’t have to find a match, but she wanted to see her land used for more than the home gardening she was doing. Through our site, she connected with an agricultural-minded individual who started a composting business there. Now, a young couple with farming experience in Seattle and Hawaii are starting a CSA business on the property. A win-win, and potentially a win-win-win, as there is still a three-acre wooded area that would be great for someone looking to grow mushrooms.