Agrarian Trust’s mission is to support land access for next generation farmers.

The Context

In the next two decades, it is predicted that 400 million acres of U.S. farmland will change hands. What happens to that land when it reaches the market is crucial to the future of our food system, and current trends point in the wrong direction. The price of land in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past decade, driven by an unregulated, speculative marketplace, international investment, a distorted subsidy system, and by unrestrained development pressure.

In this crucial moment of land transition, a new generation of farmers has emerged. The demand for organic food is strong and growing, and with a changing climate, the urgency for restoration, ecological stewardship, and conservation is becoming more evident. Yet the majority of young farmers and beginning farmers of all ages struggle with land access, affordability, and tenure. The price of farmland is not justified by the profitability of the farming business, stacking the odds against today’s incoming agrarians.

The Vision

We need to chart the way forward. We need to hold our precious farmland in a trust for its best uses: sustainable food production and collective, ecological stewardship. We must also help the incoming organic leadership build on the legacy of our organic elders, many who have been farming for more than 30 years, and keep organic land in production. We need to support the stakeholders engaged in complex land succession, with all the accounting, estate planning, retirement planning and legal and technical assistance that is necessary. We need a national conversation that leads to action and traction for sustainable farming at the foundation of a new, just and equitable economy. Finally, we need policy reform to strengthen democratic ownership and control of our nation’s farmland.

Agrarian Trust’s Goals:

  1. Build the issue (of land access) and reframe the solution through public symposia, collaborative advocacy campaigns, and stakeholder meetings.
  2. Support the network of stakeholders and service providers through collection and documentation of innovative models for land access. Create a comprehensive resource portal to pool the useful tools already developed.
  3. Build the Agrarian Land Trust local agrarian commons to hold farmland to ensure its sustainable and productive stewardship for generations to come.

We hope that you will join us in this effort.

Why Address Farmland Access?

Farmland Access remains a keystone issue for the next generation of farmers in the country and for farming as a whole.  In historical terms, the ‘agricultural use value’ and ‘real-estate value’  have never been more polarized. In other words, the value that you can earn from production on the land is far below the value of the land in the marketplace. As a consequence financing of land adds to the the high capital needs of a start-up farm business (restoring barn, cooling, greenhouses, fencing, pasture upgrades, equipment, etc) along with inevitable life and operations costs: healthcare, gasoline, housing. In a cheap-food economy earning enough to pay for land, infrastructure, working capital, and living expenses presents a major challenge for new farm operators. Add on to this high perishability, high labor costs, un-predictable weather and a perishable product, you can see why it takes a brave soul to enter agricultural entrepreneurship.

And yet this is exactly what our rural economy needs, more producers operating at an appropriate scale, with the ability to create jobs, care for the soil and water, and produce healthy food for markets, schools, hospitals and distribution networks. We must also rebuild regional infrastructure: cold storage, juice presses, creameries, co-packers, aggregators. These farms produce goods of community value, and as a result to ensure that these farmers can operate we must employ tools which allow the producers both economic opportunity, and the ability to make decisions that are good for the land over the long run.

Each year, a new crop of eager apprentices enter the field, training with experienced mentors, in CRAFT programs, incubator programs, Extension-based farmer training,  HMI based business trainings and as farm managers. We have seen an explosion of new farm startups in the last 8 years, but still farmers 65 and older outnumber farmers 35 and younger by a factor of 6: 1. (USDA census). As a nation, we have an abundance of high quality agricultural land and simply need the best farmers and farming techniques to sustain our lands, and ourselves.

How Do We Address Farmland Access?

Agrarian Trust protects farmland for sustainable agriculture and preserves its affordability for new and disadvantaged farmers, by buying, holding and permanently protecting farmland in communities across the country through our unique “commons-based” approach. We offer new tools for landowners and retiring farmers to partner with beginning and under-resourced farmers and further our mission to strengthen our local and regional food and farm economies. 

By owning farmland outright, Agrarian Trust is able to permanently preserve farmland and enter into long-term leases with farmers who can’t afford the increasingly high cost of entry into the agricultural economy. Through lease restrictions and agricultural easements on the land it owns, Agrarian Trust can remove these barriers while requiring organic farming practices, maintaining affordability for future farmers, and ensuring that sensitive ecosystems are protected.

By use of a variety of tools, we can work with landowners to assure a fair value for their transfer while identifying the strategies to achieve long-term conservation goals of the landowner and Trust. While Agrarian Trust will raise capital to purchase land, the most common method of obtaining and conserving land will be through donations or charitably discounted sales. Charitable sales or donations of land to Agrarian Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, can also provide landowners with significant tax benefits. Agrarian Trust intends to transfer donations of land to its 501(c)(2) title holding corporation, which gives it greater flexibility in who the Trust can lease land to. The 501(c)(3) can additionally retain perpetual easements on land transferred to the 501(c)(2), providing an additional layer of protection to Agrarian Trust land.

Additionally, Agrarian Trust builds the issue of land access by convening  thought leaders, giving talks, organizing and collaborating on conferences, producing films on land transition, and publishing articles.

Lastly, we support stakeholders by providing information, online resources, access stories, networks, land and job listings, and the Agrarian Commons Alliance which is a network of professional and experienced service providers.

Agrarian Trust’s History

Initially launched as a project of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, Agrarian Trust was initiated in January 2013 by a group of stakeholders in sustainable agriculture, many of them farmer service providers and beginning farmers who have witnessed firsthand the formidable obstacles we face. There is great work being done to help farmers access land, but it is not enough to make the change needed. Working together for three days, this group came up with a plan of action to address the needs of service providers and next generation farmers, including Agrarian Trust’s mission and goals to build the issue of land transfer, or what Henry George called “The Land Question”; to support stakeholders (landowners, new farmers, investors, farm service providers, farm heirs, farmland owners) to make good decisions for the best interest of the land and its stewards; and to build a farmland commons to hold the land, a gold standard that provokes a powerful conversation about the commons.

After another convening at Paicines Ranch in January 2014, we released Agrarian Trust’s principles, which we made public at the 2014, OUR LAND Symposium.

Agrarian Trust is modeled after the work of Terre De Liens, a French group that has protected more than 100 organic farms, as well as the principles gathered from our stakeholder community during the Paicines sessions, and is inspired by ” land gifting” in the tradition of the Bhoodan movement, and Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work on governing the commons.

Since the Paicines sessions, Agrarian Trust has partnered with the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) to develop our organization’s governance model and legal tools to hold land in common. Working together, we intend to create legal models that will allow us to fulfill our mission of creating a farmland commons — preserving access to affordable farmland, in perpetuity, for the purposes of ecologically responsible, community-owned food production.

Our thanks to the Sustainable Economies Economies Law Center (SELC) for supporting our work as a collaborator and partner.


Agrarian Trust is a Participating Member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

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