SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA AGRARIAN COMMONS - Coming soon!
Local Agrarian Commons Board
Julie Ristau, Main Street Project
Josie Trople, Main Street Project
Robin Moore, Land Stewardship Project
Sam Grant, MN 350
The Southeast Minnesota Agrarian Commons is organized and shall be operated exclusively for the purpose of holding title to property, collecting income therefrom, and turning the entire amount, less expenses to the AGRARIAN LAND TRUST within the meaning of Section 501(c)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”). Agrarian Land Trust, the parent corporation of Southeast Minnesota Agrarian Commons, is a California nonprofit public benefit corporation exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(a) and described in Section 501(c)(3) of the Code.
The Southeast Minnesota Agrarian Commons will serve the foodshed of Minneapolis-St. Paul and adjacent communities and aims to serve as a leading model for community-owned farmland in the Midwest.
Southeast Minnesota is home to thousands of small and mid-scale farms and is just south of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. As a whole, Minnesota is home to approximately 26 million acres of farmland. Fortunately, that number has not changed much since the last Census of Agriculture in 2012. What has decreased dramatically, however, is the number of farms. More than 10,000 farms have gone out of business in the state since 2002. Increasing consolidation in the grain, hog, and dairy sectors appears to have been a driving force behind this figure. When combined with farm incomes at their lowest in decades, these trends now threaten thousands of farmers across Minnesota with the loss of their farms.
According to the USDA, Minnesota’s agricultural sales topped $18 billion in 2017. The state ranks first in the nation in grain sales, second in hogs, and fourth in dairy. Despite its status as a top ten state for overall agricultural sales, reports from Minnesota State and the University of Minnesota Extension show that net farm income has declined significantly over the past four years. Aging and retirement are major issues facing Minnesota farmers. Nationally, one-third of all farmers are over the age of 65. The same generally holds true in Minnesota, where about 30 percent of farmers are 65 or older. Approximately 2 million acres of Minnesota farmland transferred ownership from 2012-2019, pointing to the dramatic impact that retiring farmers and aging landowners have on the availability of farmland. More farmland on the market and continued population growth in Southern Minnesota present a dual opportunity. With greater access to land, local farmers can increase the acreage of organic and sustainable agriculture and link urban and suburban communities to their region’s farms.
Minnesota Corporate Farm Laws
Minnesota is one of several midwestern states with laws preventing corporate entities, outside investors, trusts, and other entities from owning farmland. The Southern Minnesota Agrarian Commons is working with local partners to secure farmland in perpetuity with democratic stewardship through a locally-managed Agrarian Commons, a 501(c)(2) organization affiliated with Agrarian Trust. Our partner Main Street Project has played a critical role in this process and are helping to ensure that the entity formed in Minnesota is in full compliance with state law.
Southeast Minnesota Agrarian Commons
The Southeast Minnesota Agrarian Commons has formed and is working with local partners to secure farmland in perpetuity with democratic stewardship through a locally-managed Agrarian Commons, a 501(c)(2) organization affiliated with Agrarian Trust. Our team began meeting with Southern MN organizations and farmers in 2019 to discuss forming an Agrarian Commons in the region. Our partner Main Street Project has played a critical role in this process.
The founding Agrarian Commons board includes six members:
- Two farmers or farm support organization members, Julie Ristau and Josie Trople of Main Street Project
- Two community stakeholders, Andrew Ehrmann of Spring Wind Farm in Northfield, and Robin Moore of the Land Stewardship Project
- Two Agrarian Trust staff, Kendra Johnson and David Harper
The board is community-based and will be responsible for identifying and holding title to farms in the Agrarian Commons, administering leases with farmers, and overseeing long-term stewardship of the farms. As additional farms are acquired and added into the Commons, the board will expand proportionately. An advisory committee will form to ensure that food and farming interests from communities across Southeast Minnesota are well represented in the vision and function of the Agrarian Commons.
Minnesota Farm Partners
The Main Street Project is our founding farming partner. (They are planning a name change, so stay tuned!) While they are evolving, the organization has deep roots in the community. In their words, “for more than 10 years, Main Street Project has been working to create pathways out of poverty for the growing numbers of rural Latino immigrants relegated to working in low-wage farm and food industry jobs, with no benefits and no future.” With the realization that “our industrial food system is actually built on a foundation of low-wage work, externalized costs and direct subsidies,” they decided to focus on developing a new system. With a 100-acre demonstration farm, MSP has built a Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agroforestry system to “change the way food is produced around the world and transform the conventional landscapes.”
Main Street Project serves as a model of good stewardship. From biodiversity, human diversity, and community health, to soil and riparian health and diversified agricultural systems (perennial, annual, small grains and animals), MSP has developed a strong framework for strength and resilience. As part of their community-driven mission, they have several acres of land in a “land share,” which is made available to low-income community members for food production and general community sharing, networking, and support. They host many educational workshops, events, and other community-oriented programs (including dance classes to community gatherings) on the farm as well. The MSP is also engaged in research and development on a poultry-centered regenerative agriculture model, and has a training program to promote and facilitate the adoption of this model by local aspiring farmers.
The current Executive Director at MSP, Julie Ristau, says that diversity, climate resilience, and equity are values at the core of MSP’s mission. She describes MSP as an important hub for perennial agriculture, and leader of climate-friendly land solutions. Julie was born and raised on a family farm in Southern MN. She spent her young adult years working in hog farming and breeding and then went on to a career off-farm in publishing, working to launch and then publish Utne Reader. She directed the National League of Rural Voters and currently serves on the board of Shared Capital cooperative. She also co-directed On the Commons and helped chair "Homegrown Minneapolis.”
The Lay of the Land
The land stewarded by MSP is currently made up of three parcels, one parcel of 20 acres, another of 40 acres, and another of 60 acres. The Wasners, neighboring farmers, lease the ‘front’ 20 acres to MSP. The Wasners’s home is on this property, as well as several barns and outbuildings currently used by MSP. An LLC holds title to the 40-acre parcel. Iroquois Valley Farms provided patient financing to support its purchase. The LLC is wholly owned by the Main Street Project, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Minnesota’s anti-corporate farming law allows for nonprofits to own land up to 40 acres, stipulated that any profits earned must be used for educational purposes.
Lastly, an adjoining 60-acre parcel was purchased by Tom Loretto and his late wife Najwa Bukhari to build the Main Street Project. She was passionate about ecological farming and, as a doctor, deeply committed to strengthening community health. She helped Julie find the land and make the joint purchase. Dakota County is completing a conservation easement to preserve all three parcels as an integrated working farm with a focus on restoring surface water quality by protecting and restoring streams and wetlands. Iroquois Valley Farms has agreed to subordinate its first mortgage position to Dakota County as a condition of placing the easement on the land.
The formation of the Southeast Minnesota Agrarian Commons will offer long-term stewardship opportunities for farms such as this, and will seek to acquire additional farms to build a regional land base for farmers to have affordable, secure land on which to grow healthy, fresh foods for the community. Board members, advisors, and supporters of the Commons will work with the national leadership of Agrarian Trust to build a strong foundation to guide and grow the Agrarian Commons in Southeastern Minnesota.