In the past twenty years, habitat loss, pests, pathogens, a lack of genetic diversity among pollinator species, and the reckless use of pesticides has caused a drastic drop in the United State’s pollinator population. Between April 2020 and April 2021 alone, beekeepers report losing 45.1 percent of managed honey bee colonies. This loss of pollinators impedes the function of successful ecosystems and poses a direct threat to farmers’ ability to successfully grow food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), about “one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.”
An ecologically responsible, regenerative approach to land management is at the center of Agrarian Trust’s effort to conserve and increase access to farmland across the United States. When a farmer signs on an Agrarian Commons lease, they agree to adhere to a high standard of ecological land management, and to respect specifically defined “Rights of Nature,” which are included explicitly in the lease. Listed here, the Rights of Nature in the Agrarian Commons lease include, but are not limited to:
The Agrarian Commons is part of a long history of innovative commoning practices that have been formed in opposition to the commodification of land. Yet the dominant narrative in history textbooks frames the commons as a relic of the past, rendered obsolete by the “enclosures,” or widespread land grabbing that lasted from the 15th to 17th century. This narrative has been challenged by thinkers and activists who recognize that around the world, commoners are still actively fighting against efforts to grab their land and overturn traditional land rights. Agrarian Trust stands with these commoners as they seek to articulate a new, just vision of land tenure.
The first major entity to begin investing in farmland as an asset was Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA)—one of the largest pension firms in the United States, with $1,375 billion in assets. In 2007, the TIAA began purchasing enormous tracts of land. By 2017, the TIAA owned more than 1.9 million acres of farmland worldwide— an area significantly larger than the state of Maryland—including over 490,000 acres in Brazil alone. TIAA’s purchases in Brazil led to the consolidation of power in the hands of a small number of agribusinesses specializing in soy monoculture, driving farmers off their traditional land in record numbers, and leading to widespread deforestation, wildfires, and loss of biodiversity.
The Agrarian Commons model, now in its implementation phase, is being studied by researchers, professors, and students throughout higher education and law school institutions.
There is little doubt that over the next 5-10 years upwards of 400 million acres of land in the U.S. will change hands as farmers and ranchers retire. What will happen with that land is of great concern to me and to Agrarian Trust.
The high cost of land, racial inequity and land grabbing that underpins agriculture in the United States is part of a global trend of expropriative land practice, founded upon centuries of corporate greed and colonial violence. Agrarian Trust is an active member of a global movement that seeks to heal from these destructive forces, while charting a new path forward—beginning with Indigenous knowledge, local control of the land and agroecological growing practices. Since its founding in 2010, the United States Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) has worked “to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system” as a partner organization of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty.
The Gund Institute for Environment, based out of the University of Vermont (UVM), recently announced their inaugural Equity and Justice research grant, which supports projects that aim to address inequities and injustices underlying environmental crises. I was honored to receive one of these grants to support my collaboration with Agrarian Trust exploring how creative approaches improve equitable farmland access and sustainable on-farm practices. To date, land access policy initiatives in the United States have focused exclusively on expanding private property ownership. Recent research, however, indicates that such efforts may not fully address the systemic and structural barriers to equitable farmland access.
Such historical examples of commoning practices and resistance to land enclosures not only provide ample opportunity to learn from past struggles, but also serve as proof that, rather than being a static relic of the past, the commons are continuously defended and transformed in the struggle against the exploitative and dehumanizing forces of enclosure. Agrarian Trust and similar grassroots organizations are part of this long lineage of commoners fighting for a more equitable and ecologically oriented relationship with the land. Over three hundred years before the founding of Agrarian Trust, Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers championed a compelling alternative to the early capitalism of the seventeenth century. Their platform centered on the democratic control of land and the restorative power of a simple but often overlooked fertilizing agent—manure.
In April 1651, the political theorist Thomas Hobbes published his most well-known literary work, Leviathan. An ardent royalist writing primarily in response to the discord of the English Civil War, […]