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Community Land Trusts: Gateway to Farmland

By Stephanie Hiller 

The Oakland Institute, a policy think tank in Oakland, California, reports that huge pension funds, university endowments, banks, sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and new exchange-traded companies have invested an estimated $25 billion in U.S. farmland, with no guarantee that the land will stay in agriculture. At the same time, farmland near cities is under pressure of development for housing and related services.

“No Farms No Food,” shouts the webpage of the American Farmland Trust. Every day we are losing almost 40 acres of good farm and ranch land in the United States. Once covered with cement, good soil is gone forever.

troy gardens
Troy Gardens is a 5-acre community farm in Madison, Wisconsin.

Even organic food, with its premiums, the fastest growing sector in agriculture, does not always produce enough income to pay the mortgage. Could community land trusts offer a solution?

A crisis is on the horizon of which most consumers are unaware. We are also losing farmers. Fifty-seven percent of farmers are over 60 and getting ready to retire; but who will farm their land? Many young people would like to take up farming and have, but finding affordable land is another matter. Due to escalating prices from development and real estate speculation, land remains out of reach for most young farmers. The fate of our farmland is the fate of our food. It is also to some extent the fate of the planet.

Originally created to preserve open space, land trusts have begun to stretch their reach to include and support agriculture. But farming requires more intensive management than wild, open spaces, and not all trusts are able to provide that oversight.

One type of trust has included agriculture from its inception — the community land trust (CLT). A CLT emphasizes affordable housing for low-income, underserved communities; but its focus on whole communities has led to increased planning for family gardens, CSAs, urban farms and even small businesses in the mix.

“The focus of all CLTs is on community owned land and community control of the development and use of that land,” said John Emmeus Davis, a long-time advocate of this type of trust in Appalachia, where he worked as an undergraduate student.

Increasingly CLTs are recognizing that people’s need for food is as fundamental as their need for shelter, and the work of providing both can provide jobs, sustenance and self-esteem.

“An interesting conversation is just beginning about the conservation of community,” and that includes “conservation of the working landscape, that is, forests and farms,” says Davis, one of the partners in Burlington Associates which “supports CLTs and other shared equity strategies.”

By shifting from the concept of private property to the idea of the commons, where property is held in trust for the whole community, the CLT suggests a way out of the land speculation and exploitation that makes some people rich while so many others are stuck in poverty. The CLT depends upon cooperative self-sufficiency and interdependence, which could be a lifesaver in the future we may be facing as federal support becomes less available to communities.

Fortunately the groundwork for such an emerging new lifestyle has been laid by great agrarians like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson and the important permaculture principle of working with nature instead of despite her. Local culture and cooperative business ownership has emerged as the antidote to a commodified world.

Cooperative ownership of community land trusts with the help of a local, public bank might be the next step, as the challenge will be, as it has always been, how to find the resources to access and secure the land.

In a CLT, the community owns and stewards the land, leasing it to families and/or farmers with a lifetime, 99-year lease that can be passed on to offspring or transferred to other farming families. Community members share responsibility for the land, and their democratically elected representatives compose one-third of the CLT’s board.

The land is never sold. It is held by the Trust, usually a tax-exempt nonprofit committed to maintaining the land and ensuring that it is used for its designated purpose (for example, organic farming), and that the lessee makes his payments. Any profits earned from the leases goes back into the Trust to keep it functioning and to buy more land.

Community Land Trust Roots

The first CLT in the United States sprang out of the civil rights movement in southwest Georgia in the 1960s. Robert Swann was the founder of the Institute for Community Economics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His civil rights work in the South convinced him that African Americans would not be able to continue to fight for their rights unless they owned land. As tenant farmers, they had been discharged from their homes after standing up for voting rights.

Swann helped Shirley and Charles Sherrod to found New Communities on nearly 6,000 acres outside of Albany, Georgia. New Communities, often called the “first community land trust,” was modeled on the moshavim in Israel — agricultural settlements where the land is leased from the Jewish National Fund, houses are individually owned and agricultural production and marketing are done cooperatively.

new communities
New Communities is often called the first community land trust.

Swann later became the founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, now the Schumacher Center for New Economics in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

With his partner Susan Witt he organized the formation of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, which now includes residential properties.

“We hope to advance a broad social movement supporting community ownership of land by developing a culture of philanthropy — a land gift movement — to return land to the community commons,” says their website.

Land ownership is the cause of poverty, wrote Henry George in 1879 in his bestselling book Progress and Poverty, because landowners profit from their investment without doing any beneficial work for the community, while the workers receive no benefit from rising prices; the landowner’s “unearned income” as John Stuart Mill called it, is the source of economic inequality.

But it’s the community that actually creates the value of property, with its schools, roads, hospitals, restaurants and other businesses that make that location attractive. The idea of “the commons,” which is given to all of us to protect and share, has its origin in the colonies of New England, so it may not be coincidental that the Northeast has been fertile ground for this movement.

Susan Witt still lives in the 900-square foot garage that she and Robert bought for $10,000 from the newly formed Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires in the small town of Egremont, Massachusetts, outside Great Barrington. They share the 11-acre property with three other homes, a library and an orchard.

They renovated and repaired about 85 percent of the garage, spending approximately $125 per square foot; the building is now worth $112,500. “We have a great view. The market rate of the property might be $450,000, but that’s not value we created.” Her family is “not tempted to sell,” but if they did, “We’d get a fair return, not a speculative return.” The price does not include the land, which is permanently held by the CLT.

The trust owns three other properties: Forest Row, a neighborhood of 18 households near the center of Great Barrington; and the 17-acre Indian Line Farm, which runs a CSA and the newly acquired Bow Wow Farm. Unlike other CLTs, the CLT in the Southern Berkshires is not organized as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

Swann did not want to be bound by the rules governing charitable organizations that have a 501(c)(3) designation, believing (erroneously, according to CLT historian Davis) that low-income residents could be forced to leave if their incomes later rose past a certain level.

Not being a nonprofit limited the trust’s ability to accept donations of land or dollars. A solution was found when a second organization was formed in 2015 that can receive tax-deductible donations but does not own or manage the land. Witt is very excited about this dual organization, calling the arrangement “pretty beautiful … It means we have set up a vehicle for broad based land reform, with community control, allowing the community to purchase back its commons and redistribute access to people who are building that local economy including Main Street retail space.”

The model seems to be working. The town of Great Barrington was named the “Best Small Town in America” by the Smithsonian Institute in 2012.

This principle of localizing the economy in such a way that money flows back to the people who actually do the work of the community has become a rallying cry for a number of organizations seeking to transform society by changing the way business is done.

Inspired by the principles of permaculture, ecology and systems theory, these “new economic” systems taking shape in pockets across the country have an authentic, organic feel that reflects the work of great elder agro-statesmen like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry to rebuild the culture of what Berry called “home economics” based on relationships among people with the land.

CLTs, though known principally for creating affordable housing, have always included farming and “any other human activity that occurs on the land,” said John Emmeus Davis, one of the cofounders of the Burlington CLT in Burlington, Vermont.

In 1983, the Bernie Sanders Administration seeded the Burlington CLT with a $200,000 grant, the first CLT to be initiated by a municipal government. The City then hired Davis to come to Burlington to help get it started. Now named the Champlain Housing Trust, it has grown to be the largest CLT in the country, managing a portfolio of nearly 3,000 permanently affordable homes and over 100,000 square feet of commercial space and nonprofit facilities.

Urban Farming

Somewhat paradoxically, it’s urban farming that has proven to be adaptable to the CLT model. Troy Gardens was a community garden on city-owned land for 15 years when in 1995 the state of Wisconsin put the 15-acre site on its list of surplus land, opening it to development. Concerned about losing this valued resource, neighbors got together with community organizations and the Madison Area Community Land Trust to protect it. MACLT purchased the property in 2001.

Now, the 31-acre Troy Gardens has 30 mixed-income homes, the community garden, a 5-acre farm and preserved prairie open space.

“People don’t only need housing, they also need food,” said Greg Rosenberg, former executive director of Troy Gardens. The model works well for mixed-use housing with farming.

athens land trust
The Community Agriculture Program strives to support Athens Land Trust’s commitment to neighborhood revitilzation by developing a sustainable local foods system in some of Athens’ most food insecure communities.

The farms may include a community garden that feeds the community and a commercial farm selling its produce at farmers’ markets or through community-supported agriculture, a model of buyer-supported agriculture that has become popular since the ’80s. In his essay on Troy Gardens, “The Accidental EcoVillage,” Rosenberg writes: “The real power and potential of the CLT model is that it leads us to think in more holistic terms … not figuring out the most financially profitable returns from the land, but which uses will benefit the community the most.”

Nancy Stangle, co-founder of the Athens Land Trust in Athens, Georgia, also uses the word “holistic” to describe her approach to land use. “Land is essentially the basis of our shelter and our housing, and it’s how we grow food but we tend not to think about it. We tend to not realize how important it is.”

Stangle came to Athens with her family in the 1990s to join in the creation of a co-housing project, the Kenney Ridge Community, a 132-acre parcel 5 miles from town and about an hour’s drive from the city of Athens. There were 25 families, each with 1 acre.

“Everyone had their own house and then shared resources. To me, that made a lot of sense.” They knew about conservation easements and protected about a third of the land. “Now we have protected over half of it. We haven’t had too much turnover … It’s like a big extended family. We have a weekly potluck at our community center, a community garden to raise food for ourselves, a lot of wonderful things. We love the land and we’re committed to stewardship.”

The Athens Community Land Trust came into being a few years after Kenney Ridge. Stangle was in Atlanta when her car broke down. The woman who gave her a ride into town took her to the office of the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative; she told Stangle that she would never have been able to own a home in Atlanta without the land trust.

Just a few months later, Stangle and her partner Skipper StipeMaas founded the Athens Community Land Trust, in which she served as executive director until she retired.

The ACLT now holds conservation easements on 14,000 acres, according to Heather Benham, ACLT’s current Director. It stewards 60 properties for single-family homes and also owns 126 apartment units. It manages 6 acres for agriculture, 5 at Williams Farm, a few miles outside Athens, which they own, and another acre right in the city, where they run the West Broad Farmers’ Market for the sale of local produce. The Market is also the setting for community events with live music, activities for children, cooking demonstrations and more in the Hancock Corridor Community.

“The housing program is larger than the conservation program,” said Benham. “It’s a lot of work. We buy properties that have title problems, clean them up, find tenants and then we manage upkeep on the property.”

The ACLT manages all this with a staff of 18, seven of them interns from

Vista and the help of “strong relationships in the community.” The Board is made up of community members, one-third low-income residents, one-third farmers, ecologists and environmentalists and one-third developers and affordable housing planners.

“We work with the city government” (a city and county government combined) — “a relationship that has taken a long time to build up.”

The city is growing (it’s now about 120,000) and like all attractive places it is under pressure for development.

Students at the University of Georgia require housing; and when they graduate, they often want to stay.

“It’s kind of scary when you hear about how hectic they are to find properties. Five hundred different investors owning a share of this low income area!”

Asked where the Athens CLT gets its funding, Benham hesitates before answering. “About 60 percent is from federal funds — HUD, USDA and EPA programs.”

The Community Development Block Grant program that helped them during their early years, for example, was due to be eliminated.

Private foundations, memberships and individual donations make up the rest of the budget for Athens and other land trusts. The high cost of land will continue to be a challenge but in the midst of so many unknowns in today’s political climate, trusts will continue to provide innovative solutions to assist new farmers seeking access to land. We will look at those possibilities in a subsequent article.

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.