Could Putting Farmland in the Commons Support Land Justice and Sustainability?


The Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine (SBCA) wanted land. This 12 months, one in every of the farms run by the Lewiston, Maine-based group, was in hazard of getting kicked off yet one more in a sequence of rented tons.

It would have meant the fourth farm transfer. And for the group of Somali Bantu refugees who farm there, that will have added insult to damage, after years spent going through racism and anti-refugee sentiment. “The myth in town is that people who are from refugee and immigrant populations came here to the Lewiston area just to get welfare benefits,” mentioned SBCA’s co-founder and govt director Muhidin Libah.

Ninety percent of the farmers at SBCA’s Liberty Farm are ladies; they develop all the things from Molokhia (Egyptian spinach), amaranth, African eggplants, cucumbers, and watermelons, and varied bean varietals from Africa for their very own households and to supply wholesale to establishments in the space. For this largely low-income and food-insecure group, dropping their farmland would have been a major blow.

“I was worried because I had about 180 farmers trying to farm this land,” recollects Libah.

Now, the farm is hoping to maneuver to a brand new, 107-acre parcel with a 99-year lease. And it has develop into one in every of the founding farms in a bigger effort known as Agrarian Commons.

The experiences of the Somali Bantu group are an excellent instance of the limitations to land entry many farmers and would-be farmers face throughout the U.S. The common age of the American farmer is nearing 60, and an estimated 400 million acres of farmland are anticipated to alter palms by 2030. Much of that land is in hazard of being developed or purchased up by a financial institution, or very massive farm, as the value of farmland has reached historic highs in many components of the U.S. As a end result, many younger and new farmers can’t discover reasonably priced land. Furthermore, most landowners are white and male, whereas most farmworkers are folks of colour.

The Agrarian Commons mission goals to assist retiring farmers and ranchers financially whereas transferring land to the subsequent technology.

The Agrarian Commons mission, from the New Hampshire-based nonprofit Agrarian Trust, is designed to assist farmers bridge these difficulties by serving to retiring farmers and ranchers financially whereas transferring land to the subsequent technology. By doing so, it hopes to deal with land injustice and farmers’ monetary insecurity whereas fostering a system of group supported, environmentally sustainable agriculture. There are presently 12 founding Agrarian Commons farms in 10 states, masking 2,400 whole acres.

Community Solutions

SBCA’s new farm is a part of the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons—named after the Jubba River Valley in Somalia—and is one in every of 10 founding commons, or community-based farms and ranches, nationwide. Beyond the farming itself, the house may even permit the group to rejoice its heritage, mentioned Libah. “Now we have a space where we can exercise our culture, a space where you can do a lot of programming because it’s outside of town and it has a lot of potential.”

One of the farmers at Little Jubba Farm in central Maine holding a fennel bulb.

Some of the SBCA farms run on a conventional Somali ishkashito mannequin, a cooperative sharing system the place small teams of farmers type their very own teams and work plots of land collectively and are accountable to one another. They promote their crops as a bunch and divide the income. “It’s a cultural cooperative method that we use back home in Africa,” mentioned Libah. “We are trying to retain our African farming methods.”

The uniqueness of the Agrarian Commons mannequin, mentioned Agrarian Trust director Ian McSweeney, is the native–nationwide authorized construction. It’s the solely agriculture land belief in the U.S. with its explicit possession and lease mannequin, with the umbrella nationwide land belief. Each commons is comprised of farmers, group stakeholders, and a board. The farmland is acquired by the native commons, financed by non-public donations from philanthropies and people, and then leased to an area farmer for 99 years.

The land is just not essentially designed to be farmed collectively, however that’s actually an possibility, as is the case at SBCA. The native commons negotiates with landowners, corresponding to farmers who must finance their retirement but need their farms to stay farms and sustainable. It can also be designed to alleviate new farmers of land-based debt as a result of they don’t should tackle a mortgage or loans to finance the land buy (for a lot of, getting typical financing may be very troublesome anyway).

Agrarian Trust describes the commons mannequin as an adaptation of the community-supported agriculture (CSA) mannequin, whereby clients make investments in a farm by pre-paying for produce. “The same needs to be true for farmland,” McSweeney mentioned. “The communities that are connected and depend upon those farms need to give philanthropic and investment money to secure the land base for the farms they count on.” The construction was modeled on the French farming co-operative Terre de Liens, which was based in 2003.

In California’s Capay Valley, 120 miles north of San Francisco, a bunch of group stakeholders that comprise the Capay Valley California Agrarian Commons are presently negotiating the valley’s first potential Agrarian Commons farm.

The farm has the help of Full Belly Farm, a pioneer natural farm in the space based by Paul Miller and Dru Rivers in 1984, and presently run with their kids and companions Judith Redmond and Andrew Brait. In the ensuing years, Miller says he has seen land costs in the valley enhance due, in half, to demand from metropolis dwellers for second properties and, lately, hashish growers. Land now prices $15,000 to $35,000 an acre. That makes it troublesome for brand spanking new farmers to each afford land and to begin up a farm enterprise.

“To be able to do all of that at the same time is increasingly difficult and it’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of new young farmers around at a time when we need to think about having more farmers who are learning the trade and providing for the regional food economy,” Muller mentioned.


Farmers working with the Agrarian Commons in southeast Minnesota.

A 245-acre farm the place a leasehold farmer has labored for 25 years to create an natural system is on the market, however he can’t afford to purchase it. (The negotiations are ongoing, so the group most popular to maintain the farm nameless). If the Capay Valley Agrarian Commons acquires the land, it is going to be leased again to the identical farmer, who in return will provide different farmers coaching and rising alternatives on the land.

In Montana’s Northern Great Plains area, the state of affairs is totally different. The area may be very rural with a lot of land and only a few takers. Anna Jones-Crabtree and her husband Doug Crabtree personal the 9,600-acre natural Vilicus Farms, the place they develop small grains, together with broadleaves, legumes, cowl crops, and pollinator habitat. They self-financed their farm as a second profession, and they understand that almost all new farmers can’t try this.

As one other of Agrarian Commons’ founding organizations, their current natural farming coaching program, Vilicus Training Institute, and formal apprenticeship program will broaden to coach extra new farmers, and the native Agrarian Commons will assist trainees discover land.

“Where we are, we have huge amounts of opportunity for access to additional land,” Jones-Crabtree mentioned. “We want more investors … because we also want to help support a different way of agriculture that we think can be both environmentally and economically better.”

Land Access Builds Communities

While there are a number of frameworks meant to assist present entry to reasonably priced land, the U.S. has a patchwork of options to a nationwide downside. According to a recent paper, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has funded land entry packages to the tune of $210 million over the final decade. And but there was little or no evaluation of their effectiveness. The researchers discovered that one program, the Conservation Reserve Program-Transition Incentive Program, which is ostensibly geared toward serving to “socially disadvantaged” farmers, has thus far helped the 480 farmers and none match that standards.


Planting seedlings in southeast Minnesota.

This echoes the historical past of New Communities, the first group land belief. Its Black organizers have been the victims of racial discrimination by USDA officers, who wouldn’t lend the belief cash, however later lent a white purchaser 95 % of the buy value. Racist disparities in land possession stay, with a extreme imbalance in phrases of each race and gender.

Neva Hassanein, professor of environmental research at the University of Montana, and an professional in meals democracy, describes the Agrarian Trust and Commons as “a fabulous concept.” But she additionally thinks that none of the many present land conservation fashions, together with land trusts and the Agrarian Commons mannequin, substitute land-use planning, “I see these other strategies as complimentary, but they are not a replacement for governance, and planning for a community’s future and the resources it’s going to need, especially in the face of climate change,” mentioned Hassanein.

Helping new farmers discover land to run natural, regenerative agriculture is important to meals safety, notably in an occasion like the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the case of Maine’s Somali Bantu group, the group’s relationship with Agrarian Trust will assist make their work identified to a bigger viewers. “[It’s] exposing our name and effort outside the community so that every person will know the cool job we are doing, how we are helping the people, how we stick together, how we are hardworking, donating food to different kinds of churches and mosques,” mentioned Libah.

Helping new farmers discover land to run natural, regenerative agriculture is important to meals safety, notably in an occasion like the COVID-19 pandemic. While the meals provide chain skilled interruptions, many local-focused smaller farmers and ranchers have been nimble sufficient to proceed producing and promoting at native markets and CSAs whereas abiding by well being protocols, mentioned Full Belly Farm’s Muller. “It’s important that we have small, regional farms that supply urban areas,” he mentioned. “They’re not going to supply all, but they provide a level of resilience in the food system.”

The Agrarian Trust has raised an preliminary $2 million to fund the first commons mission, and it hopes to lift one other $eight million by 2022 to purchase extra land, amongst different targets. Director Ian McSweeney seeks to create a mannequin that may be tailored in communities round the nation, and change the tradition round land acquisition. “If we shift the priority of communities and people, we can really make a difference,” he mentioned.