When I spoke with Callie Walker, she was jogging on her treadmill. The past few weeks have been busy, to say the least. After spending months working with county officials to draft an application for zoning her 70-plus acres of land, Callie has recently succeeded in zoning the land as two agricultural parcels, with permission to build two residences and a gravel access road.
Callie, a Methodist preacher who inherited part of her father’s beef farm in 2014, has donated her land to the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons. Land donations like Callie’s are a key part of Agrarian Trust’s work to decommodify land and increase land access for new and BIPOC farmers.
When donated land is transferred into an Agrarian Commons, farmers are provided with the long-term security and financial support necessary for investing in the long-term ecological health of their land and the well-being of their communities. In return, land donors can ensure that their land continues to be farmed responsibly and equitably. This is because the Agrarian Commons lease is long term and founded upon ecologically responsible and active use.
Like many aging farmers, Callie’s father was concerned with the future of his land. “Probably around the time I was finishing college and moving off to Philadelphia,” said Walker, “my dad started having these conversations with us. ‘What are you going to want to do with this land when I’m gone?’”
In other words, Callie has been thinking about what to do with her family’s land for a long time. As an individual with a deep commitment to social justice, Callie envisioned using her land as a gathering place for like-minded individuals working to combat climate change.
“I wanted to collect the people who care so much about the environment that they will live differently,” said Walker, “and seek out the ways that can be equitable for all earthlings, and all humanity.”
Callie was especially interested in increasing farmland access for BIPOC farmers, who have been historically excluded from land access by centuries of racist policy making and unpaid reparations. The best way to achieve racially equitable and environmentally responsible use of her land, Callie concluded, was to donate.
“When people asked him what’s going to happen to the land when he’s gone,” said Walker, referring to her late father, “he said, ‘my son’s gonna farm it, Annie’s gonna sell it, and Callie’s gonna give it away.’”
With over 400 million acres of land currently in transition, the greatest shift of farmland ownership in the history of the United States or since the Dawes, Reservation, and Homestead acts forced Indigenous people off land, the decision of land donors like Callie to conserve their farmland is more timely and beneficial than ever.
U.S. farmland is endangered by rampant development, systemic racism, and skyrocketing land prices. According to a recent report by the Young Farmers Coalition, agricultural land is being lost at a startling rate of 2,000 acres per day. At the same time, 98 percent of the land that remains in agricultural use is owned by white farmers. Skyrocketing land prices—a 7 percent nationwide increase in 2020 alone—and the fact that a significant portion of land is inherited, mean that new and BIPOC farmers face increasingly high barriers of entry.
Meanwhile, climate change, global health crises, and the war in Ukraine have led the World Bank to project a 37 percent increase in global food prices for 2022. The centralized industrial agricultural system set in place by the neoliberal policies of the 1980s has proven to be highly vulnerable to climate change–related crises. Building a strong local food system, on the other hand, helps increase climate resilience by providing communities with immediate access to food, while the healthy soil generated by small-farming serves as an important means of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and mitigating the effects of climate change.
For Callie, successfully conserving agricultural land with issues of racial equity and environmental sustainability in mind took a lot of time and plenty of careful planning. After inheriting the land in 2015, Callie enrolled in classes at the local college and attended conferences on biological farming in search of farmers who shared her vision. Callie found a number of farmers who were interested in working the land, but only one couple was able to make a long-term commitment. Finally, after years of looking for a good fit, Callie and her husband found the Agrarian Commons model.
“Back again at the Virginia Association for Biological Farmers conference, we ran into a workshop that Ian [McSweeney] and Eliza [Spellman Taylor] were doing, and for my husband and I it just clicked,” said Walker. The Agrarian Commons model gave Walker and her husband confidence that their land would be managed equitably and responsibly.
When land is donated to the Agrarian Commons by folks like Callie Walker, farmers and communities benefit from low-cost, long-term access to farmable land.
Agrarian Commons leases prioritize the needs of BIPOC and marginalized communities, and ensure that the land is actively farmed according to rigorous ecological standards. The rights of nature are specifically enumerated in certain Agrarian Commons leases, including, but not limited to the right “to maintain the naturally occurring water cycle,” and “to be supported by pollinators.” At the same time, the stability provided by the up to 99-year lease gives farmers the stability they need to tailor their operation to the needs of their community and environment.
The Central Virginian Agrarian Commons, for example, is leveraging the Agrarian Commons model to serve the needs of BIPOC farmers. This involves cultivating interdependence between rural and urban farming spaces, and creating a shared infrastructure for processing, distributing, and marketing the produce of BIPOC farmers. While the Commons is still in the process of building relationships, acquiring land, and finding farmers, Walker’s donation is an important step forward.
“We don’t have kids who we’re leaving land to and we had a justice mentality to begin with,” said Walker. “To prioritize land control for people of color—that made sense to us.”
If you or someone you know owns land and wants to contribute to the cause of racial justice and climate resilience, please consider making a land donation to the Agrarian Commons today.