By Lindsay Rebhan
The agricultural landscape in the U.S. is at another turning point in history. The number of people who lived on farms peaked in 1935, 54% of the nation’s citizens lived on 6.8 million farms. Today, farmers make up less than 1% of the population. Despite this historical move away from farming, we have seen a revival recently as young people choose to reclaim their agrarian roots.
According to the USDA, since 2002 the percentage of farmers under 35 has doubled (New Ag census figures are expected in February 2014). While the average age of the American farmer is 57, the average farmland owner is over 70. (USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture) As a result of this aging population of owners, an estimated 70% of farmland will change ownership in the next 20 years! Land access remains a key component in helping people get back on farms. We are at a crossroads–a time in history that young people can reclaim a connection to the land.
The new agrarian movement is vibrant with energy, and the latest mover and shaker is Agrarian Trust. Agrarian Trust is a resource that helps sustainable, next-generation farmers access land. The Trust has a mission to highlight projects from across the country, offering diverse tactics for land access, transition, and legal and financial frameworks. The first order of business for Agrarian Trust is to showcase models that demonstrate creative land access strategies. The Trust’s website offers a profusion of innovative strategies. Anyone with an interesting land access story is encouraged to share it on the website.
Co-founder and Agrarian Trust Advisory Board Member Severine von Tscharner Fleming explains, “With our next publication, we’ll be looking to history to look at models, to contextualize this issue. Four hundred million acres are changing hands and we can’t afford it, this is an issue of homeland security.”
Severine also quotes Joel Salatin’s latest book, Field of Farmers, which states, “If young people can’t get in, old people can’t get out.” Severine adds, “It’s acknowledging that it’s a reciprocal dilemma. It’s not just that we want in. Our generation’s commitment to farming is a part of a lineage of commitment, both cultural and economic. For everyone’s sake, our country needs continuity of family farming. That’s the best framework for this discussion. How do we conceive of an inter-generationally respectful relationship around land transfer?”
Agrarian Trust plans to convene a kind of “young farmers’ congress” to collectively draft and set down a list of land agreement principles. “Imagine if we had a set of principles for land access deals, focused on long-term agreements, with baseline soil health as a part of the equation; long-term stewardship transparent and clear; a mediation process written down for leases or lease-to-own; a clear agreement for how equity is to be managed,” she proposes. “Can the replacement value of investments be captured by the farmer should roads diverge–is it fair and sensible?” Despite regional differences and personal preferences, many of the land access experiences and challenges new farmers face have commonalities. A collective set of principles as a guide for land agreements will absolutely be a boon to new farmers and landowners.
Agrarian Trust will move forward in providing toolkits, legal and financial documents, trainings for service providers, mini-readers and other communication tools. The first publication, Affording Ourland: A Finance Literacy Guidebook for Young Farmers is a useful resource available to read online. The introduction notes, “Consider this a primer on ways to approach finance for your farm, and an invitation to do more research on your own time once you have an idea of which trajectory makes sense for your business. Congratulations on making it this far in your agricultural career, for being serious and thoughtful, and doing your homework. We wish you success, and if you wish for it, hope that you come to own the land that you farm and steward.”
The guidebook begins with the history of land access in the U.S.–a context worth knowing. Then describes a variety of ways to lease land, buy land, access conservation land, and work with public trusts. It covers financing basics and credit from traditional sources. Last but not least, Affording Ourland delves into examples of alternative and community-based financing, including non-loan options. Don’t miss the comprehensive resource section at the end. Read this, discuss it at your farmer gatherings, in your farmer chapters and with your farm service providers, neighbors, friends and family.
Severine points out that four hundred million acres of farm land will soon be changing hands. This is about the size of the Louisiana Purchase back in 1803; at about 42 cents an acre this purchase caused quite a controversy. It is now time to start talking about a same-size shift in land ownership, land management, and land stewardship–let’s shift the new agrarian economy together.
Check out the Agrarian Trust website.
Lindsay Rebhan works with Renewing the Countryside in partnership with MOSES on the New Organic Stewards project.