Agrarian Trust

How Do We Trust?

As the Agrarian Trust project forges forward, it seems important to check back and define what this trust idea is really about. I remember my first reflections on mishearing our name as a growing trust, and all the connotations that came along with my understanding of what a trust is.

In current language, as applied to land, a trust is “a property interest held by one person (the trustee) at the request of another (the settlor) for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary).”

The classification applied to a trust is based primarily upon its mode of creation, in which it may be created either by act of a party or by operation of the law.

Many of the cases we have been unearthing through our land access stories are created “by the act of a party”, generally between land owner, land trusts and farmers. In these cases, trusts are divided into two types: express or implied.

The basic difference between one created by express act of a party and one created by implied act of a party is that the express acts are stated fully in language (oral or written), while implied acts are inferred solely from the conduct of the parties.

In the general legal, political and historical context of land access it is evident that going forward, trusts that are stated fully in written language will have the most staying power, although even they must be reinforced by our constant attention.

Let’s go back for a minute. Way back. The 18th century or so. Often when we look back at the founding fathers one of at least two things happen.

One. We are sidetracked by the negative. The loss of Native American life and sovereignty. Slavery. The lack of rights for women. The economic advantage enjoyed by those who set flame to the American Revolution.

Two. We miss the point all together. We see the American Revolution as over and successful. We thank our forefathers for their work and praise the liberty that they have given us. We compare ourselves to oppressed states and give thanks for the freedoms left to us.

Both of these do a disservice to the positive aspects of what our nation “and any nation so conceived” was built on.

Jefferson’s ideal Agrarian Democracy offered individuals the independence of farming their own land. This ideal has been largely replaced, as he himself anticipated, by individual debt and employment roughly equivalent to the factory work of his time. These and other modern factors often remove the economic autonomy necessary for a citizen to have true freedom and liberty.

Thomas Jefferson warned, even as the American Revolution raged on:

The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless . . .From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort . . . to the people for support.  They will be forgotten . . . their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves . . . in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights . . . The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”

I don’t know if even Jefferson could have anticipated the types of power that exist in our society today. Land, which once seemed so plentiful a resource is now a financial asset. Farmland is being purchased by corporate and private entities with no interest in working the land or being responsible stewards for responsible farmers.

This is where the trust comes in. Every one of us has an interest in securing the land that will produce food for our generations and our future. The more I talk to people about land and land access for farmers, the more hopeful I become. There are so many people who care about securing land for farmers, and many of them are already working on innovative solutions.

Making a point of putting community, agricultural and human value above financial value is crucial in our time when so much land is at stake. Taking the time to entrust farmland, with specific written language, in perpetuity for sustainable agricultural use is a simple, individual act that will leave an invaluable legacy.

In some ways, it’s almost the opposite of our understanding of the word “trust”, which we know to mean confidence in, or reliance on the integrity, justice, etc. of a person (or society). By writing down what we mean to happen to our land almost says that we don’t trust that our society will protect our farmland.

It is more like William Penn spoke about the charter of my home state of Pennsylvania: “I want to put it out of my power, or that of my successors, to do mischief.”

It reaffirms that great vision that founded our great nation, and contradicts the Jeffersonian prediction that we “will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for our rights.”

Instead, it will write our destiny to be the former of his dichotomous prediction that “our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”


written by Brooke Werley


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