Agrarian Trust’s mission is to support land access for next generation farmers.
Financial speculators, industrial agriculture powerhouses, and wealthy nonfarmers are seizing the moment and snatching up farms across the country. We can’t let their consolidation and commodification of land go unchecked.
To counter these giant forces, we need a different model for farmland ownership, tenure, and equity. Something rooted in community that values people and the planet over profit. We have the tools, the knowledge, and the power to make this transformation together.
The average US farm owner is over 62 years old, and 37 midsize farms permanently close every day across the country. More than 400 million acres of US farmland will change hands during this decade and the next. Meanwhile, the next generation of eager and capable farmers struggle to access farmland.
The gross inequities of farmland access are a big problem. Most farmland is owned by nonfarmers who treat it as just another investment—a vehicle for development, extraction, and speculation instead of for resilience and community. The vast majority (80 percent) of farmworkers are people of color, yet people of color own just a tiny fraction of US farmland—less than 2 percent.
We’re living with a farming system that’s rooted in unjust landownership and destructive practices. A legacy of colonial exploits and extraction. Left unchallenged, this system will smother us all—humans, animals, and plants—and poison the earth.
Imagine a world where every farmer has equitable and affordable land tenure and every community has access to healthy local food produced in ways that regenerate ecosystems and our social bonds. That’s our vision.
Through initiatives like the Agrarian Commons and the Commons Alliance, we are helping communities radically transform farmland ownership and tenure. That means re-centering equity and community, regenerating the earth, and supporting the next generation of farmers with equitable, secure access to farmland. Together, we can make farmland the foundation of a harmonious, mutualistic relationship between the soil, water, and their connected ecosystems—including a well-nourished humanity.
Why Farmland Access Matters
The economics of agriculture are broken.
Market-based farmland prices are totally out of step with what farmers can afford from actually working the land in a sustainable way. Even if the real estate market were reasonable, starting a farm business is already a capital-intensive process—from buying a tractor to building barns and fences to hiring farmhands. Stack on the cost of living, day-to-day operations, market pressures of our cheap-food economy, perishability, and unpredictable weather, and you can see why it takes a brave soul to enter agricultural entrepreneurship.
Local farms are exactly what our rural economy needs. Imagine more producers operating at an appropriate scale—with the ability to create jobs, care for the soil and water, and produce healthy food for the people around them. These kinds of farms are cornerstones of thriving communities. And they need support, both to get off the ground and sustain themselves in the long run.
Each year a new crop of eager apprentices enter the field. They train with experienced mentors in Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (C.R.A.F.T.) programs, incubator programs, extension education, and more. We have seen an explosion of new farm start-ups in the last decade—but older farmers (age 65 and up) still outnumber younger farmers (age 35 and under) by six to one. As a nation, we have an abundance of high-quality agricultural land and simply need the best farmers and farming techniques to sustain our lands—and ourselves.
How Do We Address Farmland Access?
Agrarian Trust protects farmland for sustainable agriculture and preserves its affordability for new and disadvantaged farmers. We do this by buying, holding, and permanently protecting farmland in communities across the country through our unique Commons approach. We offer new tools for landowners and retiring farmers to partner with beginning and under-resourced farmers, strengthening our local food economies.
By owning farmland outright, Agrarian Trust is able to permanently preserve farmland and enter into long-term leases with farmers who can’t afford the increasingly high cost of entry into the agricultural economy. Through lease restrictions and agricultural easements on the land it owns, Agrarian Trust can remove these barriers while requiring organic farming practices, maintaining affordability for future farmers, and ensuring that sensitive ecosystems are protected.
Through a variety of tools, we help landowners ensure an equitable transfer while pursuing long-term conservation and farm-legacy goals.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Agrarian Trust provides landowners with tax benefits for donation or bargain sale transfer. Agrarian Trust then transfers land to its 501(c)(2) title-holding corporation, which gives greater flexibility and community control to the local Commons that will steward the land for decades to come.
Agrarian Trust’s History
Initially launched as a project of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, Agrarian Trust was initiated in January 2013 by a group of stakeholders in sustainable agriculture, many of them farmer service providers and beginning farmers who have witnessed firsthand the formidable obstacles we face.
This group saw that there was great work being done to help farmers access land, but it was not enough to make the large-scale change needed. Working together for three days, they came up with a plan of action to address the needs of service providers and next generation farmers. This plan centered on advancing the cause of land transfer—what Henry George called “the Land Question.” Agrarian Trust’s mission and goals directly support this cause by:
- Supporting stakeholders (landowners, new farmers, investors, farm service providers, farm heirs, farmland owners) to make good decisions for the best interest of the land and its stewards
- Building a farmland commons to hold the land, a gold standard that provokes a powerful conversation about the commons
After another convening at Paicines Ranch in California in January 2014, Agrarian Trust released the organization’s guiding principles, made public at the 2014 OUR LAND Symposium.
Agrarian Trust is modeled after the work of Terre de Liens, a French group that has protected more than 100 organic farms, as well as the principles articulated in collaboration with our stakeholder community during the Paicines sessions. Our work is also inspired by “land gifting” in the tradition of the bhoodan movement, and Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize–winning work on governing the commons.
Since the Paicines sessions, Agrarian Trust has partnered with the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) to develop our organization’s governance model and legal tools to hold land in common. Working together, we intend to create legal models that will allow us to fulfill our mission of creating a farmland commons—preserving access to affordable farmland, in perpetuity, for the purposes of ecologically responsible, community-owned food production.