Agrarian Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about the Agrarian Commons

General questions about the Agrarian Commons model

The Agrarian Commons is a transformative land-holding model which can be used to cultivate just, resilient, and healthy food systems and economies. The Agrarian Commons hold land in community-centered entities that are 501(c)(2) or 501(c)(25) subsidiaries of the national 501(c)(3) Agrarian Trust. All decision making within an Agrarian Commons takes place in the local 501(c)(2) or 501(c)(25) governance structures. These Agrarian Commons hold land to convey affordable and equitable leases for the purpose of regenerative farming for secure local food access, ecological sustainability, and community benefit. Each Agrarian Commons is supported in various ways by the national 501(c)(3) Agrarian Trust.

Agriculture is in a crisis. Land is being transferred out of the hands of farmers for development, speculation, and consolidation into industrial-scale operations that pollute drinking water and rivers, erode soil, degrade ecosystems, emit greenhouse gas, and impose exploitative labor conditions. Eighty percent of farmworkers are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color¹ yet as a direct result of colonial and racist acts of dispossession, Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian American, and other farmers of color own less than two percent of United States farmland. As the farmer population in the US ages, more than 400 million acres of farmland are expected to change hands during this decade and the next. The Agrarian Commons model is an important tool that can be used at the local level to interrupt patterns of consolidation and dispossession and ensure that this farmland is passed on to next-generation farmers with secure and affordable land tenure.

While escalating land values make it nearly impossible for next-generation farmers to compete in the market and buy farmland, Agrarian Commons permanently remove agricultural land from the commodity market, so it never risks being sold to the highest bidder. Affordable long-term leases help farmers cultivate the security and financial viability to invest in farm infrastructure and long-term stewardship. Agrarian Commons are structured in a way that ensures local ownership and governance of land and keeps land in the hands of the community closest to it, including those farming. 

The Agrarian Commons model is a unique network for holding land in trust for community- based agriculture in the United States. Agrarian Trust has been inspired by and guided by many organizations including:

  • Community Land Trusts
  • Sustainable Economies Law Center
  • New Communities Farm
  • Bhoodan land gift movement, India
  • Terre de Liens, France
  • Access to Land Movement, Europe

Learn more about the influence models such as France’s Terre de Liens have had on guiding Agrarian Trust’s principles and work in an article written by Agrarian Trust Director Ian McSweeney, Struggles and Strategies of the Farmland Trust Movement Across Europe.

Agrarian Trust offers some of the same types of traditional land protection that many land trusts do, but the Agrarian Commons model uses lease agreements to also offer protection of whole farms for land access, equity, and affordability for farmers; health of soils, water, and biodiverse systems; and agrarian enterprises interconnected to community.  

The following .PDF (Comparing Structures) offers a side-by-side comparison of how our model extends beyond protection of ecosystems to also support land affordability, equity building, and housing security for next generation farmers.

Agrarian Trust works with many farms that are protected with conservation easements. Conservation easements help to reduce the cost of land for farmers, and they also ensure that land will never be a housing development and that the soil will never be extracted from. Conservation easements in general do not address farming practices and typically do not address specific agricultural uses of the land. The Agrarian Commons model builds upon the conservation easement by ensuring that farmland is held for ecologically diversified farming, and that farmers are supported in building the soil and infrastructure for that. Agrarian Commons can help take farmland conservation a step further for farmers and landowners who want to ensure these farming practices are carried forward into the future, through community connection and stewardship.

The Agrarian Commons partner with land trusts and other conservation organizations. Hear from Hermina Harold of Trust Montana or Kim Kirkbride of New River Land Trust on why they joined the Agrarian Commons.

Because decision making power in the Agrarian Commons model lies with a community board, Commons’ name, geography, and farm sizes vary across contexts. For examples see individual Agrarian Commons:

Central Virginia

Confluence

Little Jubba Central Maine

Middle Tennessee

Minnesota

Montana

New Hampshire

Puget Sound

Southwest Virginia

Vermont

West Virginia

Agrarian Trust believes there is a fundamental need for widespread “land return” in the United States. We take inspiration from Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Rightful Return, and others in defining land return as the transfer of land to Indigenous, Black, and other people of color, primarily by European-descended white people and institutions, toward healing and repair from historic and current violent theft of land and labor, settler colonialism, and white supremacy.
Agrarian Trust has developed this Land Return Practice Guide in order to:
  1. Acknowledge land privatization, theft and injustice across the country, and our positionality as a white-, settler-led nonprofit land trust
  2. Express our solidarity with movements for rematriation, reparations, and land return
  3. Articulate the ways that Agrarian Trust is committed to allyship and support of land return and BIPOC land tenure
  4. Define current limits to Agrarian Trust’s ability to effect land return

Relationship between Agrarian Trust and Agrarian Commons

Agrarian Trust supports fundraising for new land projects by implementing crowdsourcing campaigns, together with the Agrarian Commons board. These campaigns deeply engage the local community, supporters, businesses, advocates, and customers, while simultaneously engaging Agrarian Trust’s national audience.

You can visit our active crowdsourcing campaigns by visiting our homepage where all active campaigns are available. Each crowdsourcing campaign demonstrates the uniquely aligned interests specific to each region and land project.

The Agrarian Commons model establishes 501(c)(2) and 501(c)(25) Commons Land Trusts to own title to the land. Under this model, Agrarian Trust does not intend to own any property except as necessary as a vehicle to convey land title to the Agrarian Commons. For example, a land owner seeking tax relief or wishing to make a charitable donation may choose to make a land donation to Agrarian Trust, but that land will be conveyed to an Agrarian Commons entity as soon as possible.

There are no specific fees that the Agrarian Trust charges the Agrarian Commons. Legally, the model is bound by the structure of United States law, and the IRS requires that net annual proceeds from all 501(c)(2) organizations flow back to the parent 501(c)(3) organization. Agrarian Trust supports each Agrarian Commons in creating an annual budget that expends all funds in a given year so that there are no net proceeds that must flow back to the Trust. An Agrarian Commons can choose to expend funds for property taxes and insurance, property management, land acquisition, and all things related to the property holdings it has. Additionally, and contrary to collecting fees from Agrarian Commons, the first couple of years for any Agrarian Commons will likely require support from the national 501(c)(3) Agrarian Trust until they grow in ability and size to support and sustain themselves.

Self-sustainability is Agrarian Trust’s long-term goal for each Agrarian Commons and this goal has influenced the structure of the model:

  • Each Agrarian Commons will grow to a maximum of twelve farms, and limiting this is important to ensure these structures remain at the human scale. Having at least four farms in each Agrarian Commons soon after formation is also an important goal to ensure opportunities for collaboration and a lower cost burden.
  • We see this as a philanthropic model that needs capital to be raised, land to be donated, and land purchases to be made at bargain sale prices. Lowering costs upfront when establishing an Agrarian Commons enables a quicker path to economic sustainability. 

The Agrarian Commons launched in 2020 so it is still a new model and the long term sustainability is not yet proven. With that in mind, each Agrarian Commons starts from a foundation of sound financials, legal support, and a national network of advisors who support the long-term sustainability of the Commons. The Agrarian Commons model supports financial viability in a number of ways:

  • Agrarian Trust utilizes philanthropic dollars and land donations, not loans, to acquire land.
  • Financial risk is reduced by the fact that Agrarian Commons land is limited in its ability to raise debt to just 20 percent of the land value to prevent risky leveraging.
  • The Agrarian Commons revenue and cost-sharing model is structured so that as more farms enter the Commons, the Agrarian Commons budget grows from collective lease revenue to reinvest in farms and/or cover any administrative needs.
  • As per their bylaws and IRS rules, Agrarian Commons 501(c)(2) and 501(c)(25) entities are structured to be limited-scope land-holding subsidiaries of 501(c)(3) entities. This structure limits the scope, responsibility, and cost of operations of each Agrarian Commons – they can only own, manage, and invest in properties, convey leases, and receive rental revenue. This limited scope ensures that Agrarian Commons entities operate with very little overhead costs.

Agrarian Trust provides template lease documents intended to be a starting point for all Agrarian Commons leases. The IRS requires that bylaws be the same for each Agrarian Commons and Agrarian Trust asks that each lease and/or bylaws include the following to uphold our principles:

  • Long-term tenure: Agrarian Trust requires the maximum legal lease term. In most states this is a 99-year lease, and in some states it is a 15-year lease. This ensures farmers can farm as long as they desire, with the ability to pass the farm on to the next generation.
  • Equity building: It is essential that farmers with an Agrarian Commons can accrue financial equity. Because the farmer does not individually own the land, there are many ways that equity can be accrued under the model. See the FAQ question: “If the farmer does not own the land, how does the farmer acquire equity?
  • Community connection: Agrarian Trust does not specify a particular way that a farm must connect with the community, so long as it does in some way. Examples of community connections include CSAs, incorporating voluntary land taxes or similar reparative payments to Indigenous nations, creating cultural easements or cultural respect and access agreements with Indigenous nations, educational workshops and programs, and engagement with local schools.
  • Maintenance of property: The leaseholder is responsible for various activities related to maintaining the property which might also include property taxes and insurance as well as meeting ecological stewardship requirements.
  • Board structure: Agrarian Trust will appoint ⅔ of governing board seats, with actual decision-making being in deference to local Agrarian Commons board.
  • Regenerative land stewardship practices: stewardship practices are specified in a board packet between Agrarian Trust and the Commons in forming the Agrarian Commons Board and structure.
  • The size of each Agrarian Commons board, its focus area, how large the Commons is, and its priority and work are all localized to place.
  • Agrarian Trust staff who are involved on boards will make decisions that support the local Agrarian Commons.

Agrarian Trust wants to go beyond creating a handful of Agrarian Commons across the nation to provide a model that others can replicate and expand on. By choosing to open up general membership, Agrarian Commons can open up participation to a broader community of people in ways that traditional governance structures do not. In addition, general membership benefits farms who come into Agrarian Commons with extensive CSA memberships and broad retail and market customer lists as it allows farms to retain and deepen those relationships. While the IRS requires Agrarian Trust to maintain certain control of each Commons, it is our intention to cede as much control as possible under the law to local communities Agrarian Commons for shared learning, which we hope will inform conflict resolution strategies.

Financial considerations of Agrarian Commons

While the Agrarian Commons model removes individual land ownership, which makes it difficult to access traditional forms of financing, the model is designed to open new pathways for equity generation. Ensuring that farmers are able to build equity is particularly important considering the ways that the racial wealth gap and racist land dispossession are interconnected in the United States. Indigenous, Black, Latino, and other farmers of color in particular have been excluded from access to land and capital needed to establish and maintain farms, which has further entrenched structural racism across our society.  

Here’s how the Agrarian Commons model ensures that farmers are able to build equity:

  • The ground lease is the most commonly utilized tool through which the Commons introduces equity building for farmers. Under a ground lease, farmers retain ownership of buildings and infrastructure they construct and invest in on the land. So, while the farmer does not own the land, the absence of a mortgage payment frees them up to invest in critical infrastructure which they retain ownership of and which represents built equity.
  • Farmers enter into 99-year (or the maximum as per state law) renewable leases with Agrarian Commons, and farmers may be able to sell the value of their leasehold interest.

In addition, many farmers who operate under traditional forms of land ownership and access to capital find themselves overburdened with debt and struggling to maintain even basic quality of life standards. Under traditional agricultural economic models, many farmers work their whole lives to build equity in a farm only to have to sell it off, and at a price next generation farmers cannot afford, just so they can retire. The simple act of lowering debt, land costs, and overhead costs for farmers allows them to invest and build equity in other areas of their lives.This transformation also has a big impact on a local community. Traditional debt service on land is paid by a farmer to a national bank and that money leaves the farm and community forever. Under the Agrarian Commons model, the farmer pays an affordable lease rate to the community-centered Agrarian Commons they are part of, ensuring the money is reinvested in the Agrarian Commons and its farms, and recirculating the money locally in the surrounding community.

In the same ways the Agrarian Commons is moving land values out of a speculative market, we are also manifesting the same transition with lease rates. The Agrarian Commons model determines lease rates through direct engagement and collective work between potential lessee and lessor to first understand what is affordable within the context of that specific farm’s business model and financial viability. A lease rate is then structured around that.

Agrarian Commons leaseholders can be on the Board of the Agrarian Commons that owns the farmland they lease. Thus, the Agrarian Commons leaseholder is paying any lease fees to something they are part of as opposed to paying lease payment to a landlord that may not be connected to them or the community. Lease revenue collected by the Agrarian Commons can  then be used to invest in soils, buildings, and infrastructure needs in ways that will benefit the community and future farmers.

Agrarian Trust understands that barriers to accessing capital are unjust in the United States presently and the situation is only getting more difficult, and the Agrarian Commons model makes it more complicated to borrow using land as collateral. Part of the philanthropic and investment money being raised to support the model is going towards the creation of a revolving capital fund which lessees will be able to utilize directly for farm viability, renewable energy production and efficiencies, and soil and ecological health investment. More information can be learned through contacting Foodshed Capital which Agrarian Trust has developed this fund with.

Transferring land into an Agrarian Commons creates multiple opportunities to reduce financial burdens:

  • For the landowner: Agrarian Trust is a 501(c)(3) public charity, and there are tax benefits for anyone who transfers property into the Trust for less than the full market value. Land that is transferred to Agrarian Trust is conveyed as soon as possible to a localized 501(c)(2) Agrarian Commons for the benefit of the local agrarian community and economy, and it is utilized for the health of people and the earth.
  • For the farmer: Land transferred to an Agrarian Commons is then leased to farmers who experience major financial benefits in the form of 99-year lease tenure that is affordable and provides opportunity for equity building. The cost to the farmer under an Agrarian Commons lease is quite different from the debt service that would be incurred to pay a corporate bank for market-based land access and ownership.
  • For the community: these affordable lease rates are paid to the local Agrarian Commons entity that then reinvests the revenue back into the farms and the Agrarian Commons itself. In this model, money is kept within the local economy rather than being sent off to a corporate bank somewhere disconnected from the local community. By revinesting this revenue back into the farms and the land, an Agrarian Commons is supporting diversified healthy food production for the surrounding community while also healing the land that the community depends on.

We want to form an Agrarian Commons, now what?

Our website offers information on how to form an Agrarian Commons with Agrarian Trust, and includes the ability to apply on-line. For more information, please visit Starting an Agrarian Commons.

The Center for Agriculture & Food Systems (CAFS) also created the following legal guide for anyone interested in establishing an Agrarian Commons. The guide outlines bylaws, land stewardship standards, equitable lease-building, and more.

There are other land commons models that exist outside of Agrarian Trust. To view these other aligned models, and to explore forming a similar model, we invite you to visit the Commons Alliance

 

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Footnotes

¹ In this page, we intend to honor and prioritize Indigenous and Black land justice specifically; land justice for people of color generally, and land justice for all. To honor the different experiences of each of these groups, albeit imperfectly, we use the acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) throughout this page.

More information about the Agrarian Commons: