It’s a tough time for aspiring small farmers. On top of start up capital, they need land, which is next to impossible to find at a reasonable price. This situation has only been made worse since the 2008 economic crisis by a surge of investor interest in farmland. On top of wealthy individuals, large hedge funds, pension funds, and university endowments have all gotten in on the act, treating land, “like gold, with yield.”
In times of growth, U.S. agricultural land is often sacrificed for housing, industrial, and retail development: the dreaded sprawl. In times of recession, this continues, but at a slower pace. On average, around an acre of American farmland is lost every minute.
Luckily, a handful of efforts have emerged around the country to take agricultural land out of speculative markets, and put it into the hands of beginning farmers looking to produce food sustainably at a small scale. While none of these projects can claim to have ‘solved’ the problem, they all serve as promising experiments at a time when many solutions are needed.
1. The Agrarian Trust highlights a range of efforts to preserve agricultural land by sharing useful case studies, model policies, and innovative legal and organizational forms being developed around the world that can be applied inside the U.S. The Trust worked with the Greenhorns to publish Affording Ourland: A Finance Literacy Guidebook for Young Farmers [PDF] and plans to convene a kind of “young farmers’ congress” to collectively draft and set down a list of land agreement principles. (The Trust is also hosting a symposium at UC Berkeley in April.)
2. Food Commons may be the most innovative, creative, and ambitious nonprofit dedicated to helping new farmers access land. Not only does the project’s ‘Food Commons Trust’ address land, its preservation goals extend to the whole system around land, from input production and post-harvest processing to retailing. The project also contains embedded mechanisms for community ownership and management, through its ‘Food Commons Fund’ and ‘Food Commons Hubs.’
3. Land for Good takes a “systems approach” to preserving land in New England, with an eye towards spreading successes to the rest of the nation. In other words, they go beyond simply supporting farmers, farmland owners, and farming communities in their project-to-project work of securing tenure. They also “work toward changes in the social, economic and political ‘systems’ that will improve how farmers access, hold, and transfer farmland.” Land for Good’s activities include education, low- and no-cost consulting, and the creation of policies for farmland access, tenure, and transfer in collaboration with communities.
4. Equity Trust uses a revolving loan fund, similar to Food Commons, to enable “socially conscious lenders and donors” to support alternative approaches to land ownership and management. The trust also supports individual farmers and communities seeking legal frameworks for maintaining farmland in sustainable production, and has developed some of the most innovative “affirmative easement” conservation contracts available in the U.S., meaning that the land under easement must be farmed. One thing that makes Equity Trust radical is its focus not just on the active preservation of land, but on the challenge of evolving social values about what property ownership should look like.
5. Farmland LP, a for-profit investment firm, is somewhat of an outlier in this bunch. Instead of finding ways to remove land from speculative real estate and investment markets, Farmland LP uses investors and profit-driven investment to convert existing farmland to more sustainable management practices. In their own words, “Farmland LP’s management practices have a positive social and environmental impact while generating competitive returns.” This statement is by no means false, as evidenced by the 6,750 U.S. acres currently in transition to organic certification. Farmland LP’s website refers to how returns are generated from both farming and “long term appreciation,” which is essentially the money to be made from resale.
However, because the value of farmland in production can never compete with farmland sold for development, Farmland LP may be the least promising route to preserving agricultural land for the long haul. No matter how driven the investors at Farmland LP are by their values, they are not legally or contractually accountable to anyone else in the decisions they make about their land, because they own it, in the traditional capitalist sense of the word. And until we develop other means of ‘ownership’—more community-based, profitable but not profit-driven, and sustainable over the long haul—it is likely that profits will trump values, and agricultural land will continue to get paved over.
Luckily that is precisely the work of the other four projects described here, and with expanded financing and support, it seems likely these efforts will yield much more sustainable ‘returns.’