By David Brooks
Concord Monitor Columnist
From the geek perspective, growing more and better food looks like a technology optimization problem. We need vertical farms, genetic modification, photosynthesis-tuned LEDs and harvesting robots!
Yeah, that will help. But to be honest, it’s at least as much of an ownership problem.
“Over 60% of farmers nationally don’t own farmland they’re on – it’s a little higher in New Hampshire. … When the farm doesn’t own the land they’re at risk of being kicked off and that makes it hard to consider investments in buildings, soil improvements and other things,” said Ian McSweeney.
McSweeney is the director of Agrarian Trust, a national start-up based in Weare that wants to ease this burden by buying farmland and leasing it long-term to farmers. The idea is to create a sort of supercharged version of that well-established vehicle, the agricultural easement, which prevents land from being developed but does little to keep it in good shape.
Consider Brookford Farm in Canterbury, a model of a modern New Hampshire farm. It’s got organic veggies and greens and meat and eggs sold to customers with a CSA and a farm store, which helps generate higher returns, and it has the sort of culture that produces devoted fans. But co-owner Luke Mahoney says there’s a fiscal reality looming in the background.
“For a first generation farm these days to own land, acquire machinery and livestock, it is really, really challenging. You sacrifice a lot just to own land. … If you can’t invest in improving stuff because you’re strapped down paying the mortgage, it makes for a very challenging situation and not a lot of happiness. The quality of life suffers – for the farmer, and the animals, and the soil,” he said. “It makes it hard to give your employees a living wage.”
Brookford is one of three farms that the New Hampshire Agrarian Commons is looking to oversee, along with Vernon Farm in Newfields and the Monadnock Community Farm in Litchfield. If the money comes through for a purchase they and perhaps other farms would be bought by the commons, which would lease it the farmers who would be aided and overseen by a Commons Board that will have a long-term view for keeping the soil intact, the water supply clean and the farm viable for growing healthy food.
That latter point is one of the major differences between a commons and an easement.
“We could turn this right back into a sod farm if we wanted to under our easement and go back to degrading the land,” said Mahoney, whose land was a sod farm for years. “This is a different model of farmland – it’s more generational.”
Being generational is key because America’s farmers are getting old. This means a lot of farmland is going to change hands in the next decade or so – 400 million acres is the estimate that Agrarian Commons uses – with no guarantee that it will continue to be used to grow the stuff we eat without destroying the planet we live on.
“The private ownership model is not working out for farmers,” said McSweeney. “The reality is farmland is consolidated and values appreciate beyond what is affordable for farmers. That’s why it’s less and less likely for farmers to own the land they’re on.”
“When we own the farmland we can ensure there’s long-term access and affordability for farmers. We can ensure that certain farming practices take place … and proper stewardship takes place, active management of land – how you care and manage assets,” he said.
New Hampshire is one of 10 Agrarian Commons around the country overseen by the organization, including one in Vermont.
Agrarian Trust recently got assistance from Chipotle, the fast-food chain. It was one of eight organizations given help under “an accelerator program designed to support growth-stage ventures … working on solutions to address problems facing today’s young farmers.” Agrarian Trust also has branches that help farmers with legal issues, that help churches and faith-based groups improve the use of their land, and holds symposiums and provides educational materials for farmers.
“We’ve been thinking about this model for many years,” said McSweeney. “This requires a patchwork of funding. It’s a work in progress.”
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)