At the 2011 Farming Commons Gathering, On the Commons brought together farmers, investors, and sustainable agriculture and land trust leaders from an array of cultural, historic, geographic, and economic realities in order to contextualize our individual efforts within a collective body of work and to learn from one another’s endeavors. This gathering initiated a deeper and more extensive conversation than many of us have had about the future of farmland.
Our goal for the gathering was to host a conversation that would contribute to all of our work by fostering new ideas, tools, strategies, and partnerships to liberate farmland from the market, convert more land to ecological forms of production, increase farmer access to the land, and transform our thinking about the nature of land ownership. Our specific objectives were to:
- Develop connections among participants and establish a collective relationship to the food and farmland movements.
- Establish a network of individuals working and thinking about preserving and stewarding farmland.
- Spark a bold and pioneering conversation about expanding what’s possible in terms of land ownership, retention, and acquisition for farming.
- Connect the food movement to the emerging farmland movement.
- Apply commons-based principles and the associative economics framework to inspire innovative thinking.
At the heart of the gathering was this proposition: In order for a restorative economy to emerge, in order for local economies to flourish, we must gradually transform our thought and behavior toward land.
Even privately-owned land could be treated as a commons—a gift of nature that we can use and must pass on undiminished, tended with the best interests of the earth and the community in mind. Shifting to this approach can only happen gradually, but we must start now to ensure that we have the farmland we need in the future.
During the course of the gathering, we wrestled with the following set of underlying questions:
- What are the present day ideas or assumptions that shape how land, farming, and land investment are understood?
- Where do these ideas show up in the realities we face? How might they at times limit our own thinking?
- As different as our realities are, what obstacles, problematic legal frameworks, cultural assumptions, and belief systems do we share?
Land as commodity, land lost
We listened to stories of different types of land loss, including African American heir property, Native American reservation land, European-settled family farms, and present-day land grabs in both urban and rural areas. We connected these stories to each other and to the consequences of treating farmland as a commodity rather than a shared commons.
These stories shape the way land is understood today: The value of land is no longer tied to what a farmer can afford, but rather to what an investor can make. This, in turn, leads to the rampant conversion of farmland into subdivisions, strip malls, and other development—the results of which we witness every day in the loss of beauty, productivity, and biodiversity from our landscape.
Surfacing our own beliefs and value system
A commons lens suggests that communities have a fundamental and equitable claim to our common inheritance of natural and created abundance, and that they must play a critical role in the stewardship of those resources.
We focused on exploring new thinking and models about land, land ownership, and land investment:
- Land valued as more than a commodity—as a place, livelihood, community, and food source.
- Land Ownership as a set of rights and responsibilities for inter-generational communities.
- Land Investment redefined to encompass a new set of ecological, social, and economic objectives that are mutually beneficial for farmers. We also discussed a related definition of a return on investment (ROI).
Corresponding beliefs that helped shape our conversation
When we buy and sell land we are really buying and selling certain rights of use to the land, rather than the land itself. And these rights are always balanced by responsibilities. Therefore, having the right to a certain piece of land should always come with an obligation to practice social, economic, and environmental stewardship.
- Land should not be treated as a commodity or speculative asset.
- We need to restore a context to land use that is relational, long term, and responsible.
- Farmland should be liberated from industrial production and large scale consolidation.
- Land should be reconnected to livelihood and community and provide a sense of place.
- We can work from an understanding of “right relationship” among animals, nature, and people with the understanding that nature is the ultimate steward, a source of guidance and knowledge.
In other words, land is a form of commons—something we all share the same as we do air, water, scientific knowledge, and the Internet. People can use these commons for their own livelihood, but cannot diminish them.
At the gathering, we began to articulate our assumptions about pursuing our goals and achieving our vision:
- Leaving the design of a new food and land system to existing bureaucracies and power structures will not lead to the new vision.
- We need a range of strategies and new models to create change, including legal structures, contracts, policy, public support, investor models, etc.
- We need to pay attention to both land retention and land availability for new farmers.
- There is a need to create a culture that allows us to foster and operate out of a different land paradigm.
- We need to activate what is not being used, what is laying fallow as unseen potential. We are in abundance, under-using, and not reusing.
- We need to cultivate a different investment mentality and practice with regard to land. Slow money is not only about return, but also about maximum community benefit.
- Mission investing is a profound paradigm shift. We need to dispel the mythology of wealth—what we create as a community—as only money and capital.
- The rethinking happening around food—the focus on local, natural, sustainable, organic, and fair trade—creates an opening for a conversation about farming and land.
Key questions that emerged
During our conversation, the following key questions emerged:
- We all feel like islands in our work. How do we create bridges between these islands?
- We can’t use measures of an old paradigm to lead toward a new one! What are the new measures and metrics we can use to help us determine whether we are making a difference, rather than perpetuating the old paradigm?
- A commons needs a community. How do we define community in this work?
- How do we creatively address the challenge of holding land in a community context when, particularly in most non-Native communities, there is not a shared moral framework for how to manage land? What are we learning about creating a “we” that holds a common framework?
- We may want to move toward more community ownership, yet we lack trust in legal arrangements and government to protect and use land appropriately. How can we protect land in perpetuity?
- How do we deal with the power relationship between the investor, farmer, and community. Are there “rules” and “understandings”?
- How can we fully understand cultural conditioning around what it means to get a “return”?
- How do we make this all work, especially as it relates to succession? How will we consider social equity, security, and eco-system services/eco-system health?
- How is farmer-added value recognized. How is the farmer treated?
- How do contract “values” get assigned?
- How can we create together while accounting for differences of geography and culture?
- What might be the role of philanthropic dollars? Can people who work in finance, if charged with these complexities and a need for solutions, come up with a role?
- How do we teach the commons?
- How do we engage our youth more fully with the land and with farming?
Possible next steps
Together we arrived at a set of possible next steps toward advancing our shared vision:
- Continue this conversation, and bring others to a future gathering. Start to think of ourselves as a movement?
- Build a schematic, or matrix, showing different ownership models, investment models, tenancy, exit options, return options, regional differences, key questions, etc.
- Craft a document that details what slow money investment looks like.
- Define alternative measurements for investments that go beyond financial return. Look at other values being added. Ask ourselves: What is the living return for our work?
- Concretely address an exit strategy, such as a charitable remainder trust, easement, cap return, or revolving loan pool CDFI.
- Continue the discussion of innovative investment strategies, including those that allow investors of all levels to connect to farmland and enable stewardship farming.
- Share models and example leases with each other.
- Draft standards or principles (e.g., What does commons land look like? What does an investment look like?, etc.). Is there a set of definitional/bottom line principles and operating instructions?
- Create a new land narrative that strives to enliven the following ideas from our discussion. Use this to offer context and build public discussion about land and farming in our communities.
- Repopulate the countryside with people in a way that is connected to livelihood and community.
- Dismantle industrial agriculture. Liberate the land.
- Value land as a livelihood, food source, and place.
- Partner with nature/living beings to restore and care for the land. Learn to understand farming as part of a larger living organism.
It is our hope that all participants will use this list of next steps as a source of inspiration for action.