Reclaiming The Farmland Commons
The Sustainable Economies Law Center works to create and replicate social, economically, and ecologically just legal models for long-term farmland stewardship so we can live in a world where farmers have secure tenure on land that is affordable and where farms contribute to, instead of harm, the health, economy, and ecosystems of local communities.
The security and sustainability of our food systems depends on the permanent availability, affordability, and conservation of farmland. Yet, increased development pressures and consolidation of corporate ownership threaten our ability to permanently steward farmland in the United States. Two important factors include the aging population of farmers and skyrocketing land values in agricultural communities.
The average age of farmers in the United States is approaching 60 years old, and nationally, an estimated 400 million acres of farmland is poised to change hands over the next two decades. This projection begs the question: who will be there to receive, and continually steward, this land to produce the food and fiber we all depend on? There is no doubt we need more, and more diverse, farmers. Indeed, in recent years many more young people, women, and people of color are entering agriculture. And yet, there are likely as many people entering agriculture as there are barred from farming because they do not have access to affordable land.
Conversion of farmland for development, increased focus on export-based agriculture, and the fracking boom are some of the main contributing factors to the increase of farmland values in the last decade. As a result, Wall Street investment firms are increasingly pouring money into farmland ownership as a stable, income-generating financial asset. Absentee ownership of farmland by these profit-driven investment firms has led to even more environmentally destructive, export-oriented, and water-reckless agricultural uses. The higher land values rise, the more likely a retiring farmer will be forced to sell his or her land to the highest bidder, and the less likely that person will be a new or young farmer committed to sustainable stewardship of that land into the future.
Since our economy privileges accumulated wealth and pushes back against those without it, we face a difficult challenge within the existing system to ensure a sustainable future for farmland in the United States. What we need is an alternative conceptualization, both legally and culturally, of farmland as a commons. Treating farmland as a commons radically transforms the way we prioritize the economic and social considerations regarding farmland. Instead of seeing land as a commodity, we begin to see land as a common resource. The highest and best use of the land is not based solely on its economic potential, but its potential to serve the needs of surrounding communities, its role in the local watershed, and its ability to preserve wildlife.
Our Farmland Program seeks to develop and replicate socially, ecologically, and economically just models of long-term farmland stewardship on commons-based principles. Working to reform the current legal system as well as establish a set of principles to guide a new legal conceptualization of farmland, we are:
- Building innovative models of farmland ownership that prioritize permanent affordability,
- Supporting existing farmland conservation policies,
- Researching legal barriers to cooperative ownership of farmland, and
- Advocating for state policies that support alternative financing for farmland acquisition.
Agrarian Land Trust - We are working with Agrarian Trust to develop the legal structure for a new land trust with the goal of preserving farmland as a commons. Drawing from the work of Tierre de Liens (linked page is in French!) in France, community land trusts, and agricultural land trusts, Agrarian Land Trust will focus on permanent affordability, local food economies, and partnerships to support new and beginning farmers.
Bay Area Agricultural Conservationists (BAAC) - BAAC is a coalition of organizations that works to preserve Bay Area farms and ranches. The Sustainable Economies Law Center joined this coalition in 2015. Currently, the coalition is working to expand the funding and scope of the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation grant program administered by the California Strategic Growth Council.
Black Belt Justice Center - BBJC is a legal and advocacy nonprofit organization that serves African American farmers, landowners, and communities in the Black Belt region in efforts to retain and increase landownership; to create sustainable land-based cooperatives and entrepreneurial businesses; and to ensure intergenerational and community wealth. BBJC offers legal services, engages in research and policy, and provides community education throughout the Black Belt region.
California FarmLink - California FarmLink's mission is to link independent farmers and ranchers with the land and financing they need for a sustainable future. In addition to offering a directory for land opportunities and providing technical assistance to small farmers, FarmLink is also a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that offers direct lending services to small and mid-size California farms.
Equity Trust - Equity Trust is a nonprofit organization that focuses on land ownership that balances the needs of individuals with the needs of communities, the earth, and future generations. Their program areas include: alternative ownership structures for farmland, operating a revolving loan fund for community investors, and education on socially equitable forms of property ownership.
If you have questions or would to get in touch about our Farmland Program, contact Food and Farm Attorney Neil Thapar at Neil@theselc.org.
Photo credit: Ellen Burke