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  • Posted September 28th, 2023

    Beyond Conservation: The Farmland Commons 

    Beyond Conservation: The Farmland Commons 

    For a moment, close your eyes and picture your idealized vision for agriculture. Imagine lush green spaces producing abundant crops that provide adjacent towns with fresh, nutritious food. Imagine generations of farmers caring for the land, the experienced ones sharing knowledge with the new farmers eager to continue the work. Imagine a supportive, caring network of advocates, customers, and neighbors all participating in an inclusive food system with the goal of long term sustainability. Beautiful, isn’t it? The farmland commons. It feels like a world in which we can all thrive, where we are in harmony with the ebb and flow of time and are connected to nature and to each other. This ideal vision begins with the land, but not only in terms of conservation. Building such a world also means that farmland is accessible to all who wish to grow food, and that the management of the land is ecologically, economically, and socially resilient and regenerative.

    At The Farmer’s Land Trust, we are committed to a new paradigm of farmland protection and land access for farmers and communities. Our vision prioritizes inclusion, shared power, and sustainability for generations to come. The work we do focuses on the creation of Farmland Commons, which are democratically-run, decentralized, not-for-profit land holding entities that are established specifically to support place-based, community-led, and farmer-centered control of land. 

    The concept of “common land” is rooted in Indigenous wisdom and has a long history in cultures and societies throughout the world. Before European colonization of North America, indigenous peoples practiced varied forms of subsistence agriculture and wild lands cultivation, and organized around community land stewardship. We owe our foundational principles to Indigenous communities and to all historically oppressed peoples who have organized around land as an act of liberation, such as New Communities Inc., which was founded in 1969 as a farm collective to provide a safe haven for black farmers in the South and is the very first community land trust in the United States. 

    In Europe, there are about 18 organizations currently facilitating a commons-like model. One of them, Terre de Liens in France, has since 2003 overseen the acquisition of 220 farms for a nationwide commons. Today, as we face the multiple crises of climate change, the rapid disappearance of agricultural land to development, and the aging of farm land owners and agricultural knowledge holders, The Farmers Land Trust believes the Farmland Commons is a way to preserve working agrarian communities, nurture all life, and create climate resiliency.

    With the average age of US farmers approaching 60, and nearly half of US farmland being put up for sale in the next two decades, supporting a new generation of farmers is essential for a healthy and robust food system and for conserving our natural resources. In 2022, the National Young Farmers Coalition conducted a survey of over 10,000 young and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color farmers across the country. Access to farmland is the number one challenge for this next generation of farmers, and is especially difficult for young people of color who continue to have greater barriers to participation. Along with groups such as The National Young Farmers Coalition, The Farmers Land Trust is working to ensure equitable access to land as well as build the capacity of farmers and local communities for greater autonomy in creating a vibrant and resilient food system.

    The new paradigm that we are committed to means imagining a different model of land ownership. Building upon the conservation land trust and community land trust models that have been around for 100+ years, The Farmers land Trust is going beyond solely conserving land, and is helping to push forward a new way of protecting land that addresses ownership, access, use, and tenure. Land that is a part of the FarmlandCommons is no longer a commodity, but is instead held in perpetuity in a way that guarantees its use for agriculture for generations to come. Farmers can access the land with the certainty of long term tenure through a 99-year, equitable lease, allowing them to securely invest in its ecological and economical viability. The Farmland Commons model connects local and national nonprofit structures through 501(c)(2), 501(c)(25), 501(c)(3), and other aligned entities. Nesting these multiple entities, partnerships, and relationships in the land-holding entity is needed to bring about commoning, resilience, and a durable framework to support the individual farm, the local community, and the national network. 

    The work of The Farmers Land Trust is about building equity into our food system through creating land access for young, diverse and historically marginalized farmers, while simultaneously strengthening climate resilience through expanding community led regenerative agriculture practices. By creating a new way forward for the land trust movement, The Farmers Land Trust is diversifying participation in our food system and helping to create stronger communities that can not only survive the land, climate, and social injustices of the world, but can thrive while helping to heal them. Learn more about the work of The Farmers Land Trust and the Farmland Commons at thefarmerslandtrust.org.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Dave October 2nd, 2023


      How much land have you bought and made accessible to potential farmers. Numbers please. Have you bought 50 farms thats split into 800 small farms in two years?

      We are not the USA so more facts on UK please

      people are ill and dying due to awful agricultural methods that do not grow nutritious food

      I disagree about just young farmers. Your missing a sector that has huge experience.

    • 2Mandi October 4th, 2023

      Interested, as coming from an agricultural background very passionate about farmers remaining and in their own sovereignty of `the land` with no ownership or dictatorship, is this a trust that can be trusted?!!

    • 3Kristina Villa October 4th, 2023

      We just founded this organization two months ago, so right now we are in initial stages of conversations and building to Farmland Commons with farmland owners, farmers, and organizations around the country, but are not ready to go public with any of them yet.

      The Farmland Commons model builds upon work Co-Executive Director, Ian McSweeney, and I have both done in our careers, and it brings together best practices of both conservation land trusts and community land trusts to a new model that places power and control in local communities while protecting and preserving farmland while also giving farmers secure, affordable land tenure. 

      There is a huge focus on land access for young and new farmers right now, but YES, you are so right Dave! We are very focused on supporting aging out and retiring farmers who have spent their entire lives building a farm, soil, infrastructure, markets, community, and more, and who now have no way to exit or retire with dignity other than to sell their land on the open market. We are committed to supporting those farmers and those farms in transitioning their business and land and knowledge and legacy's with the care it deserves!

      The Farmland Commons structure requires chemical-free, regenerative, biodynamic, or organic food, fiber, and medicine agriculture. Production that heals the Earth and feeds communities instead of causing harm to people and planet.

      To address your comment, Mandi, the structure uses limited land holding entities that are either 501(c)(25)'s or 501(c)(2)'s. These entities - by law - are limited to simply holding title to land. Through the 99-year lease that the farmers get full independence and autonomy on the land to run their farm business, and the commons board of the 501(c)(25) or 501(c)(2) is not allowed - by law- to interfere with their day to day operations, business, or farm life.

    • 4Dave Darby October 8th, 2023

      Very interesting. There's a budding commons movement in the UK - https://www.lowimpact.org/posts/replacing-capitalism-the-why-what-how-and-who-of-growing-the-commons-economy

      and we're working with people in N America (a network of 21 farmers and their suppliers, in Vermont), India, Europe, Africa and Pacific Islands).

      We have new tools that you might find interesting, around obtaining investment without debt, asset locks and federation.

      Happy to chat.

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