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 Terre 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.
Farmland Investment Cooperatives - In addition to nonprofit models of land ownership, we are researching and piloting land investment cooperatives to promote democratic community control and ownership over local farmland, invite community investment and engagement in the cooperative, and support long term land stewardship by farmers and ranchers. One such project is H2H Cooperative, which aims to grow a large base of members who help finance farmland acquisition, particularly for communities that, historically, have been dispossessed of land. The Cooperative makes land affordable to farmers and stewards by, among other things, developing natural burial grounds on parts of the land. Billions of dollars per year that Americans spend on conventional cemeteries could begin to finance a movement for land justice and conservation. Read more about H2H Cooperative here.
Small Farm Financing - The Law Center researches grassroots financing strategies for small-scale, direct-to-consumer farms that harness the collective wealth of everyday people. These strategies include (1) re-directing retirement savings into local investment in farms, (2) developing regional loan funds, (3) expand access to direct public offerings, and more. To read more, download our Grassroots Financing Guide for California Farmers and visit our Grassroots Financing page.
Brief Guide to Transferring Land - This short guide summarizes various options for landowners interested in transferring land to another person, group, or community. Landowners who are particularly interested in transferring ownership to nonprofit land trusts, indigenous tribes, and community-based organizations will find this guide most useful.
The CLT Technical Manual (National Community Land Trust Network, 2011) - The National CLT Network put together this guide to support the community land trust community and those interested in starting CLTs. The comprehensive guide covers the ins and outs of starting up and operating community land trusts. The focus of this guide is primarily on CLTs that provide housing, but the information is very relevant for agricultural CLTs as well.
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.
Poudre Valley Community Farms - The purpose of Poudre Valley Community Farms, based in Colorado, is to facilitate farmland succession, promote local food security, and foster economic growth. It is a multi-stakeholder land cooperative that purchased agricultural land and provides long-term access to farmers and ranchers.
Photo credit: Ellen Burke
Revised: February 23, 2018