Assistance with generational transfer is a growing concern as the U.S. farm population ages.

Over the next 20 years, 400 million acres of farmland is expected to change hands, according to the Agrarian Trust. Meanwhile, the number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987, with new farmers currently making up just 10 percent of the total, according to the Center for Rural Affairs, based in Nebraska.

Many states already operate some type of land link program aimed at bringing retiring and prospective farmers together. Colorado, for example, has three that are listed in the Center for Rural Affair's online directory, including Guidestone and LandShare Colorado.

Cade Rensink, a district livestock and natural resources agent for central Kansas, is concerned that Kansas lacks a cohesive initiative of its own.

"Kansas doesn't have an organized land linking program at this time," he said recently at a conference in Wichita. "We had one back in the 1980s that was pretty short-lived, but we're having discussions now to get a new one started. How it will look, we don't know yet. It could be very simplistic, but ideally the goal would be a full-service, educational, transitional type thing."

Rensink, who has worked as an ag lender in addition to his current role, said he's always had a keen interest in the issue.

Lately, he feels encouraged to see the topic getting more attention within his home state.

"We've got a large percentage of the rural population that has done zero planning, in terms of wills or business planning, and the average age of the farmer is going up every year. We're seeing very few people coming back into the industry, not from lack of wanting to come in, but just because of the lack of an open door to do that," he said.

How a land link program is structured is different in each state, and some programs have been more successful than others, according to an Indiana University study that looked at 42 programs in the North Central region ranging from bare bones to full service.

"It could be as simple as putting out a classified ad, whereas if you have the funding, staff and support, you could be doing education for both the retiree and the land seeker," Rensink said. "That might include doing the work to get them qualified for farm loans or doing mentorship on actual farming practices. That's a pretty big goal to have, because it takes a lot of resources. Of the 42 programs surveyed in the research report, only three or four of them were at that scale."

One of the most unique and successful efforts is the farm ownership advantage program, offered by the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. It prepares students to obtain their own farm or ag-related enterprise through a series of workshops, seminars and field trips. The associates of applied science degree culminates with putting together a beginning farmer loan application.

"We'd like to mimic that program and make it our own for Kansas," Rensink said, adding that K-State is likely to have a role in whatever the state decides to do.

Land trusts and easements are another tool that can help with transferring property, even if they get mixed reviews within the agricultural community.

"Easements are very much a niche product. I'm fully aware that some people are against them and other people are for them," Rensink said. "But the beauty is they are voluntary, which means they are not being pushed on anybody."

Once an easement is put in place it diminishes the market value of the land by roughly a third as developmental rights are curtailed, he explained.

"Here's the link: if a trust can take possession of a piece of property, the landowner gets the development value of land through the easement, then he can turn around and sell the land for less to a young farmer. That gives them a hand up," he said.

Suzan Erem started one such land trust program in Iowa. The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust doesn't buy land outright but takes donations from aging farmers who want to see their property continue as a farm. Her program currently maintains three easements and is helping to facilitate matches between young farmers and aging landowners.

She cautions that the work is not easy, which is why some high profile groups, such as the American Farmland Trust, have stopped accepting new easements and are transferring existing contracts to other administrators.

"It's an incredible amount of work to do something like this," she said recently. "We're like every farmer in Iowa: land-rich but cash poor."

Making a successful match between beginning and aging farmers can often feel quite random, she added. "It's like winning a pinball game," she said.

The federal government does provide some resources to help facilitate farm transfers, such as the Farm Service Agency's beginning loan program and transition incentives tied to expiring Conservation Reserve acreage contracts, Rensink said.

While the government has room to expand its role and increase funding, Rensink said maintaining flexibility is important.

"I think it's always exciting when a new farm bill is generated to see how much the government will support the idea. But I don't think there could ever be one national program for doing this. It's important that everything be state specific or even regionally specific within states," he said.

The current depressed farm economy is likely to have mixed implications for transitional programs, Rensink noted. The need for direct payments to support existing farmers will likely limit how much FSA has available to spend in other areas, he observed, while at the same time the number of forced retirements or farm transfers could rise.

"We need to have a plan for what happens next," he said.

Rensink said he is encouraged to see a collaborative effort underway among many different groups in Kansas, ranging from the Kansas Rural Center to the Kansas Livestock Association and Farm Bureau.

"There are a lot of tools, and I'm excited about them all, but the biggest thing I'm excited about is that a lot of people are talking about this, and we are finally getting them all to the table," he said.