Q&A with Regional Navigator: Crystal Buck

Crystal Buck with goats

Farmland for a New Generation New York Regional Navigators provide training and on-the-ground customized support for farmers and landowners in regions throughout New York. 

Featured Navigator: Crystal Buck, Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County

1. Where in New York State do you work? 

I work in Tompkins County in the Finger Lakes Region. Given that farmland searches are often broader than just one county, I help farmers seeking land throughout this region. 

2. What brought you to this work? What is your connection to agriculture? 

Growing up I secretly always wanted to be a farmer. I remember looking through old family photographs and finding one of my grandpa as a boy on his family’s farm. I wanted to be part of that world and felt the loss of his boyhood farm. The message I always got was that farms, especially small family farms, were a thing of the past. So instead, I went to graduate school and worked as a rural community planner helping towns to support agriculture and protect farmland. I found ways to connect with agriculture through my work, but still felt deeply unsatisfied. I started looking for land, with big dreams of running my own veggie farm. At every turn I met with people discouraging me from that path, from realtors that laughed at my ideas of what type of property I wanted, to family members who expressed their concern about the “frivolous” direction I was headed. It wasn’t until much later in life that I finally found farmland and the nerve to buy it. I feel incredibly fortunate to finally have land, but also sad that I didn’t find it while my body was still young enough to farm it full-time! I want to give young people with energy and enthusiasm for farming the opportunity to find farmland. And I want to make sure that people feel supported in pursuing their farming dream. Every person who has the knowledge, willingness, and energy to farm should have access to farmland! 

3. What is your area of expertise? In what ways do you typically work with farmers and farmland owners? 

I help farmers pursue their farming dreams, grow their farm businesses, and find land. Much of this work involves connecting farmers with resources or other service providers to answer questions they have or to expand their farming knowledge. For farmland seekers, I reach out to better understand what they’re looking for and help connect them with any farm listings that seem like a good match. For farmland owners, I speak with them directly to understand what land they have available and what type of land sale or tenure they have in mind. By making these personal connections I can better understand what everyone is looking for, which allows me to help make good matches between farmers and farmland. And then I can help with lease negotiations, connecting people to legal resources, and navigating through the steps involved in land acquisition.  

I’ve also been working to identify additional land that is available for lease or sale in Tompkins County. We have so many enthusiastic young farmers that are searching for land in Tompkins County, and very few farm listings! So, art of my work is reaching out to landowners to gauge their interest in selling or leasing land and helping to educate them about their options. I think a lot of people have land that they would love to see farmed, but they’re not sure what their options are in terms of leasing or potentially selling the land to a farmer. I also bring to this work a background in farmland protection and am looking for creative ways to use farmland protection tools to make land more affordable to farmers. I’ve been having conversations with farmers that are interested in protecting their land or are curious about what options they have for farmland protection as part of their long-term farm transition plan. 

4. Can you give an example of one farmer or farmland owner you are currently working with, the challenges they are facing, and how you are helping them work through those challenges? 

I’m currently working with a farmer that owns about 150 acres, of which 60 are tillable. He runs a small beef, poultry, and pig farm on the land, rotationally grazing the animals and selling meat through auction and direct-to-consumer. He’d like this to be his full-time job and is working hard to transition from part-time farming to full-time farming. The farmer had lots of questions about his own farming business relating to meat processing, marketing, pasture management, etc. I helped him work through these challenges by meeting with him in person to talk about his goals and by providing follow-up resources.  While he’s using most of this land for his own farming, he would also like to partner with someone interested in doing a veggie farm on some of the land that he’s not using. The land has a conservation easement on it which prevents further subdivision, and the farmer has no interest in selling the land. Farming the land cooperatively is one strategy he’s identified for making full-time farming more financially viable, and he also hopes that a more diverse operation will help to draw customers. But he’s had a hard time finding someone that wants to partner with him, in part because it wasn’t clear how to offer long-term, financially secure access to the land and farm buildings. We spoke in detail about his vision for the land and what his hopes are for farming the land cooperatively with another farmer. We spoke about different options, including offering land as a long-term ground lease with the option to own farm buildings associated with the ground lease. He had a real “ah ha!” moment when he learned about this option! Apparently, people have expressed interest in the past but have always backed out because they felt that they needed long-term access to the land and an ability to re-coup their investment. He wasn’t sure how to offer that before and is excited now to know how ground leases can help achieve these goals. Now my work is to find a farmer for the land, which given the number of farmers searching for land in Tompkins County should be the easy part! 

5. What is one piece of advice you have for farmers seeking land or farmland owners hoping to keep their land in farming? 

The Farmland Finder tool is super helpful, but you’ll get the most out of it if your farmer/farmland profile is detailed! Sometimes people only provide a very brief overview of what they’re looking for or what type of land is available. The more details the better! For farmers seeking land, it’s tempting to list lots of counties or regions that you’re interested in. And sometimes that’s the right strategy if you’re looking for something specific, like an organic dairy farm. But usually, it’s better to narrow your search down a bit (or a lot!). Where is the community that you want to be part of? What area seems like it has the best opportunities for the type of farm you’d like to have? Being specific about the type of land you’re looking for and the region/county you’d actually like to live in really helps you better connect with the resources out there. As a Regional Navigator, I’m much more likely to spend time getting to know you and what you’re looking for if you’ve narrowed your search down to a smaller geographic area. The farmers that have a really big area they’re looking for land in are more likely to fall through the cracks and miss opportunities they would have heard about if they had narrowed their search a little more!

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