Preamble to Our Principles
At this moment in our history we are faced with an unreasonably high cost of land and an unreasonably low price of food and agricultural labor. We aren’t fully measuring or tracking the costs of environmental harm or the health costs associated with our current farming systems, which are increasingly under threat from a changing climate. We understand that we must shift normative standards that currently define American land use, which reward development over conservation and extraction over stewardship.
In the next 20 years, it is estimated that 400 million acres of American farmland will change hands. Will it become concentrated into the hands of agribusiness corporations and investors, or will it come under the stewardship and care of next-generation farmers producing food in a sustainable, regional economy? Now is the time to grapple with the shift ahead and to articulate a clear set of values about how we undertake the transition of land, wealth, and power.
Our goal at Agrarian Trust is to encourage and assist the transfer of farmland to the next generation of sustainable farmers and ranchers. We proposed to act through internal efforts and external partnerships, and to build the issue, strengthen the network of stakeholders (entering and retiring farmers, farm service providers, and others). We seek to recognize and develop models that meet the needs of the land and its caretakers.
We understand it to be in our collective self-interest to support the kinds of relations, economic and social, that sustain the ecological integrity of farming. More than 60% of American farmland is leased, much of it on a yearly basis, and much of it on a handshake agreement. This does not empower farmers to be the best stewards of the land. Longer-term tenure is the norm in France and England, and from a historical perspective a “commons” approach to land-rights is far more reliable than the ‘fee-simple’ method.
We intend this list of principles to serve as a guide, a metric for evaluating partnerships, lease agreements, and land transfers. It is intended to help us navigate and negotiate a fair deal. By orienting our efforts toward the long term, we can ensure that our communities and families may experience food security, democratic self-determination, and regional resilience. The benefits are clear, the mechanisms are not complex. We hope this list of principles can support future decision making.
Agrarian Trust Principles
Principle 1: Commons
Our land is the foundation of society, our economy, and all humanity, it is also home to all ecosystems and wild creatures. Our management and ownership regimes, our notions of private property and water rights do not override the laws of nature. We acknowledge the limits of fragile systems, and that we are land-users in common with wetlands and wild-lands that must be protected from damage.
Principle 2: Transparency
Land holdings should be described by clear legal documents that describe the rights of all parties and include accountability and justice. Farmers and landowners both benefit from a written lease agreement with provisions for exit, mediation in case of conflict, a defined process and a strong community of professional farm service providers. All stakeholders should be involved in writing agreements and developing holistic goals.
Principle 3: Equity for Farmers
Farmers must be able to build equity in the land, and their business on it. Where ownership is not an option Lease-terms must allow the farmer to invest in infrastructure, soil health and the long term interests of the property. These investments can be translated into cash value, which the farmer can retain at the end of lease term.
Principle 4: Dignity
Farm practices and economic conditions must support the dignity of labor and provide a living wage, and decent housing for farm managers, farm workers, their spouses and children. All parties have rights to dignity and respect, despite differences in economic power: feudal relations are unacceptable.
Principle 5: Opportunity
Agriculture has been a pathway of opportunity and upward mobility for many generations of Americans. Anyone highly motivated, including farmers of color, female farmers, LGBTQ farmers, new immigrants, and socially disadvantaged farmers, should be able to climb the ladder from farm worker to farm manager to farm owner. Efforts to expand access to land, capital, and technical assistance must include those who currently labor in the fields, and create pathways to ownership and co-ownership. Farm service providers are crucial allies in supporting disadvantaged growers, and protecting their interests.
Principle 6: Affordability
Farmland should stay affordable from generation to generation, whether inside the family or outside of it. Often, slowing down the transaction makes transition to a farmer-owner possible. This can be accomplished in many ways, including lease-to-own, contract-sales, state-subsidized land banking mechanisms, affordable lease agreements, conservation easements with affordability clauses. We must increase access to credit, alternatives to credit and more progressive credit for farm purchase and capitalization.
Principle 7: Protected in Perpetuity
Farmland should be protected for production in perpetuity and farmed using sustainable methods that preserve the public trust. Farmers must be able to invest in the health of the land, protect vulnerable areas, and improve wildlife areas, habitat, and water quality. Land that is protected must stay in farming, farming for food, and may not be converted to equine or purely recreational use.
Principle 8: Justice
Colonization, enclosure, dispossession, and land-loss have dislocated generations of people and communities from their connection, stewardship, and ownership of land. In the United States, Indigenous people, Black people, Latino/a and Latinx people, Asian people, and people of color broadly have been at the frontlines of this centuries’ long catastrophic ordeal. Reconnecting and empowering these communities to rejoin the agrarian tradition and build wealth must be at the center of our work, as is resettling many of the depopulated regions with more democratic forms of land ownership. Much of the most affordable land in this country is degraded, rural, or far from urban markets. These are strategic places to reclaim food sovereignty.
Principle 9: Innovation
A wide range of innovative approaches to land access are emerging. These include partnerships, green investment, lease-to-own arrangements, farm incubators, and other strategies. However, we must remember that our agricultural economy is profoundly distorted by energy subsidies, commodity markets, and real estate booms. The value of food and farm labor is arbitrarily low. That calculus is likely to change. Be brave and try out something new, but make sure it is fair, sensible, and not something that could be called “Sharecropping 2.0.”
Principle 10: Food Security
Where ownership is not possible, long-term tenure and lease agreements ensure that farmers are invested in a place, bound by relationships and community. Such farmers can produce healthy foods for direct, local, and regional consumption. Absenteeism, corporate management, speculation, and production for export and agrifuels may be profitable, but does not support food security.