The global food system is a house of cards. Here’s how to fix it.
May 2, 2014
You may not get to own it, but a patch of soil could be yours, young farmer–if you find the right tools and partnerships. This was a core takeaway message at last weekend’s Agrarian Trust Symposium in Berkeley, California. The gathering drew over 800 young farmers, food movement thinkers, and potential land patrons seeking to expand the discussion around land transfer and the difficulties facing many young farmers in search of a place to farm.
The symposium was a project of the Agrarian Trust, a group that hopes to see the next generation of sustainable farmers and ranchers gain access to land, as the current generation begins to age out. The trust is a project of the Schumacher Center for New Economics and the publisher of a booklet called “Affording Our Land.” [PDF]
“We certainly need a change in the discourse on land access, which includes land reform and more radical, and reciprocal approaches to land transfer,” said the Trust’s founder Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who is also the leader of the Greenhorns, an organization that recruits, promotes, and supports the next generation of young farmers.
As the average age of the U.S. farmer continues to climb (according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, it is now nearly 60), finding ways to successfully pass on land to farmers rather than developers or investors will be crucial the nation’s food security. “The problem is not a lack of enthusiasm, its a lack of access,” said Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute, who spoke at the gathering about about soaring land prices–up 13 percent in 2013 nationally–due to speculation by investors.
The Trust estimates that 400 million acres will change hands in the next 20 years, and much of that will need to go to young operators. A trifecta of rising land prices, waning interest by younger generations in industrial methods, and a complex bureaucratic landscape won’t make this an easy transition. As Fleming and others see it, that’s why connectors are necessary; beginning farmers need people comfortable navigating the world of easements, creative financing, and government programs, so that “greyhorns” and greenhorns can find a solution.
Generally, both parties are stuck. “While young people can’t get in, old people can’t get out,” farmer Joel Salatin told the crowd. “One is excluded unhappily, one is included unhappily.”
Salatin, best known for his cameos in the Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc., also gave a rousing talk that was full of advice, like investing in management and information instead of infrastructure. Salatin’s farm, Polyface, makes use of portable chicken coops and fences, and he explained how mobile infrastructure can make farmers less reliant on the land itself. He touted the creative potential of the next generation, who are pioneering what he calls “information dense farming” and creating new ways to develop income from each parcel.
Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute, also talked about the need for creativity in the face of destruction in the wake of industrial farming. He focused on carbon emissions as a way to place increased cultural value on the carbon storing virtues of sustainably managed land.
“We’ve got to entertain the necessity of putting a cap on carbon,” he said, “So that people will get back on the land as a consequence of necessity.” He lamented the damage done to our soil, air, and water, and the fact that young farmers bear so much responsibility when it comes to repairing the damage done by industrial agriculture. The goal, he says, is to move from an “extractive economy to a renewable one.”
But Jackson was not without hope. He reminding the audience of the story of David and Goliath: As an outsider to the battlefield, David could see innovation where others could not. He wasn’t familiar with the weapons of war, but he’d perfected the use of a slingshot, which he used to kill Goliath by hitting him with a stone between the eyes. The comparison to young farmers taking on industrial agriculture was clear.
The speakers moved seamlessly between local, national, and international ideas about what it will take to transfer farmland to new farmers. One of the most compelling models for land transition featured was Terre de Liens, a French organization raising funds from ordinary eaters to protect land and spread sustainable farm practices. In 11 years they have managed to acquire 2,200 hectares (or 5,400 acres) of land using 35 million euros issued by ethical investors and donors. Now, they’re focused on helping new farmers access this land.
Other speakers included Elizabeth Henderson, CSA pioneer and farmworker justice advocate, who founded Peacework Farms; Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director of Food First, who underlined how land is becoming a financial asset, instead of a productive one; Reggie Knox, Executive Director of California Farmlink, which provides technical assistance to farmers on both sides of the equation; Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth, who is making good use of forward thinking land policies in Richmond, California (pioneered by mayor Gayle McLaughlin who also spoke at the event) to farm on urban land and teach children about where their food comes from; and Kathy Ruhf of Land for Good, who gave a fact-filled and resource-filled talk on land transfer challenges and solutions.
Overall, the weekend was one of idea sharing. Fleming had several of her own ideas as well. “Imagine if every retiring organic farmer in this country signed a pact to keep their farms under organic stewardship, and we engineered a ‘land bank’ that paid out a retirement annuity to the elders, and allowed the youngers in on a ‘lease to own basis,’” she said at one point.
During the second day of the event, the Trust handed out post-its and everyone was invited to share, anonymously, how much money they could dedicate to this issue over the next five years. Once the numbers were tallied, the room was surprised that the total was $20 million.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, this weekend it became clear to many of us that the question of sustainable land tenure has finally gained enough traction within the larger food movement that we might begin to see more real solutions soon. And–if we want to continue growing food in this country–it’s not a moment too late.
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