The Future of Food: A Nation of Tenant Farmers?

America’s farmland is up for grabs. With two-thirds of the nation’s farmers retiring in the next 20 years, 400 million acres will change hands. Who will control what happens to that land?

tractor in a fieldLand is in huge demand. Highly sought-after by developers, pension funds and rich refugees from Silicon Valley seeking country estates, yet another buyer has arrived on the scene: the investor.

According to the Wall Street Journal, institutional investment into U.S. farmland topped $2 billion from 2013 to 2015. These investments are being purchased through brokers called REITs — Real Estate Investment Trusts — touted as a stable long-term investment in a shaky market full of flimsy financial instruments. In the long run, land is bound to go up because it is limited, and food consumption worldwide is going up. Plus, it speaks to a long-held cherished belief that property is the safest place to put your money.

According to the authors of “Down on the Farm,” a 2014 report by the Oakland Institute, “This is the beginning, not the end, of a land rush that could literally change who owns the country and our food and agricultural systems.”

Summoning up images of mechanical industrial farms pumping pesticides and fertilizer onto depleted soils to maximize profits for shareholders, the report warns that “if action is not taken, then a perfect storm of global and national trends could converge to permanently shift farm ownerships from family businesses to institutional investors.”

Who Will Work the Land?

Tenant farmers, of course. Already, nearly 40 percent of farmland is leased or rented, according to a 2014 study by USDA.

Yes, says Neil Thapar, Food and Farmland Attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, blogging about the new land grab on the SELC website: “Many investors … are seeking alternative, stable investment opportunities.” But, he writes, “From community land trusts to real estate investment cooperatives to worker ownership” we can start “to grab the land back.”

But can we? Thapar had just returned from a conference in Denver sponsored by Land for Good and USDA. Titled “Changing Hands, Changing Lands,” its focus was land tenure. Of the many panel and discussion groups listed in the program, only one focused on the community land trust.

Keynote speaker Neil Hamilton, professor of agricultural law at Drake University Law School, wrote in an article accompanying his talk that land tenure is “one of the most critical issues shaping the performance of American agriculture,” especially the “increase in the amount of land farmed under tenancy or lease relations … and the impact of short-term tenancy on stewardship decisions.”

The farmer’s incentive is just not the same under these circumstances, Hamilton notes. “There is nothing inherently wrong with farm tenancy … but it is important to recognize few people wash rental cars.”

Could the family farm become a thing of the past, just when the “food revolution” has renewed America’s appreciation for fresh, local food?

Will the culture of CSAs and farmers’ markets vanish under the blade of a giant rototiller?

“What we need is an alternative conceptualization, both legally and culturally, of farmland as a commons,” writes Thapar. “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.”

Small is Beautiful

The community land trust was conceived by Robert Swann, founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society (now the Schumacher Center for New Economics) E. F. Schumacher is famous for his book, Small is Beautiful.

The Society upholds the view “that a fair and sustainable economy is possible and that citizens working for the common interest can build systems to achieve it.”

The community land trust is such a system. Envisioned as a rural community with farms, small businesses and residences, the CLT rests on the belief that we cannot own the land because we did not create it: it is a gift.

The CLT uses a dual ownership model. The trust owns the land, and the farmer leases it for up to 99 years (depending on state law) and owns the buildings and improvements he made to it, which he may pass on to the next generation or sell when he retires.

The land can never be sold; by taking it off the market, the CLT helps keep land prices in check.

The CLT of the Southern Berkshires, spearheaded by Swann and his partner Susan Witt, has flourished. It owns three separate parcels of land near Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

There are 23 homes all together on that land — all owned by individuals who lease the land from the CLTSB. There is one farm business on land owned by the CLT, Indian Line Farm, and two other businesses that have leaseholds with it plus another farm, Bow Wow Farm, that is a collaborative effort between the Sheffield Land Trust and the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires.

Witt continues to live in the house she owned with Swann. The CLTSB is well established in the region with 49 acres all told.

This model inspired others, principally Chuck Matthei, who applied the concept to the creation of affordable housing through his Equity Trust in Amherst, Massachusetts. The mission of Equity Trust “is to promote equity in the world by changing the way people think about and hold property.”

Most of the 260 CLTs created since Swann introduced the idea have been about building community around affordable housing.

“Equity Trust has borrowed from the CLT world,” said co-director Jim Oldham in a phone interview. “It has taken shared ownership and applied it to farmland protection. Any time you’re trying to permanently protect farmland requires some sort of subsidy so that the value of the property can be accounted for.”

To raise the funds, different packages are put together, sometimes including public funds, but it often requires charitable contributions from the community. One of Equity Trust’s most recent accomplishments has been to assist Good Humus Farm in California’s Capay Valley near Sacramento obtain an easement to protect their farm from development. Contributions from members of the farm’s CSA have been sought to pay for the $400,000 easement through a project called “One Farm at a Time.” It is not a CLT but it shares the CLT spirit.

“Right now, those of us holding up alternative ways of holding land represent a tiny alternative voice,” Oldham said. “To really address the issue of land ownership would require policy level changes in our legal structure — certainly in our political system.”

Conservation land trusts came into existence to protect open space from development. Increasingly, as the demands on farmland mount and prices continue to rise, trusts have begun to seek tools for protecting working lands. Some, like Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, have looked to Equity Trust for information and guidance.

Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, also in Massachusetts, has been protecting farmland since 1986. This summer it completed its first CLT, Red Fire Farm.

Jamie Pottern manages the farm conservation program of the trust, working with private landowners to help them navigate the process of conserving farms. “Farmers typically think they’ll be farming until the day the die,” she said. “We straddle two counties, Worcester and Franklin, the poorest county in Massachusetts, considered a food desert by USDA.” The Trust, which is one of the largest in the region, is trying to rebuild the local food network. It runs the Greater Quabbin Food Alliance, which brings together stakeholders throughout the region and has helped protect 11 farms.

The Trust also worked with 10 families to protect adjacent farms totaling 700 acres, called the Mormon Hollow Working Lands Corridor Project, which was recently completed after seven years; that project was accomplished using easements, with funding from the state, which has had a unique Agricultural Preservation Restriction program since 1979.

A new organization in Iowa called the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) has been adapting the CLT model to preserve farmland. Iowa is losing 25 acres of farmland each day to development, and suffers some of the worst water quality in the country due to soil erosion and agricultural runoff. More than half its farmland is owned by farmers over 65, many of whom have not made plans for their farm’s future.

“The CLT model is new for Iowa. We’re putting it out there to people who are looking for something other than selling to a neighbor or a developer, landowners who want to leave a legacy of cleaner food in a cleaner Iowa,” said founder and executive director Suzan Erem, who came to Iowa with her husband to retire and was moved to form a trust to save Iowa’s farms. “We’re offering 20-year renewable leases, the maximum Iowa allows.” Erem cites Schumacher, Equity Trust, Slow Money and many others as her mentors.

As corn country, Iowa, like the rest of the Midwest, is definitely desirable to investors, who like to invest in large farms growing commodities like corn and soy, with corn particularly valuable for making ethanol, according to another report by the Oakland Institute, “Betting on World Agriculture;” currently 40 percent of the crop is grown for that. That may be good news for organic farmers, whose farms tend to be smaller and more diversified — if, that is, they can find a parcel.

The Food Commons

One ambitious project attempting to design an innovative food model is the Food Commons. Founded by farmer James Cochran, whose California strawberry farm follows a cooperative model, and Larry Yee, whose career in agricultural management ranges from the Kellogg Foundation to the national Association of Family Farms, with board members of varied expertise, the Food Commons aspires to create an alternative model which will move organic produce from farm to market. It is currently developing its pilot farm in Fresno, right in the midst of the California industrial farm belt.

In practical terms, the Commons seeks to buy fresh organic food from its farms and transport it (in its own trucks) to its own various outlets using a model that strives to fulfill some of the goals outlined in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an evaluation sponsored by the UN, the World Bank and the WHO (2008).

“The IAASTD study confirmed what the good food movement was saying,” said Executive Director Jamie Harvie. “We have to democratize the global food system.

There’s too much concentration of power. People don’t have a voice in their food systems. We are offering a model for communities, to create a community-owned food system. At its core, we have a trust, which owns a for-profit corporation, which allows the corporation to attract money and can hold the land — but the trust owns it.”

On all fronts — food, oil, geopolitics, health care — we are engaged in the battle of the millennium. Will the common good take precedence over the greed of the few? How we grow food will determine in no small part what kind of world our children and grandchildren will live in

By Stephanie Hiller. This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

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