Our land is the foundation of society, our economy, and all humanity. It is also home to all ecosystems and wild creatures. Our management and ownership regimes, our notions of private property and water rights do not override the laws of nature. We acknowledge the limits of fragile systems, and that we are land users in common with wetlands and wildlands that must be protected from damage.
Land holdings should be described by clear legal documents that respect the rights of all parties and include accountability and justice. Farmers and landowners both benefit from a written lease agreement with provisions for exit, mediation in case of conflict, a defined process and structures of agreement, and a strong community of professional farm service providers. All stakeholders should be involved in writing agreements and developing holistic goals.
Farmers must be able to build equity in the land, and their business on it. Where ownership is not an option, lease terms must allow the farmer to invest in infrastructure, soil health, and the long-term interests of the property. These investments can be translated into cash value, which the farmer can retain at the end of lease term.
Farm practices and economic conditions must support the dignity of labor and provide a living wage as well as decent housing for farm managers, farmworkers, and their spouses and children. All parties have rights to dignity and respect, despite differences in economic power. Feudal relations are unacceptable.
Agriculture has been a pathway of opportunity and upward mobility for many generations of Americans. Anyone highly motivated—including farmers of color, female farmers, LGBTQ+ farmers, new immigrants, and socially disadvantaged farmers—should be able to climb the ladder from farmworker to farm manager to farm owner. Efforts to expand access to land, capital, and technical assistance must include those who currently labor in the fields, and create pathways to ownership and co-ownership. Farm service providers are crucial allies in supporting disadvantaged growers and protecting their interests.
Farmland should stay affordable from generation to generation, whether inside the family or outside of it. Often, slowing down the transaction makes transition to a farmer-owner possible. This can be accomplished in many ways, including lease-to-own, contract sales, state-subsidized land banking mechanisms, affordable lease agreements, and conservation easements with affordability clauses. We must increase access to credit, alternatives to credit, and more progressive credit for farm purchase and capitalization.
Farmland should be protected for production in perpetuity and farmed using sustainable methods that preserve the public trust. Farmers must be able to invest in the health of the land, protect vulnerable areas, and improve wildlife habitat and water quality. Land that is protected must stay in farming for food and may not be converted to equine or purely recreational use.
Colonization, enclosure, dispossession, and land loss have dislocated generations of people and communities from their connection to, stewardship of, and ownership of land. In the United States, Indigenous people, Black people, Latino/a and Latinx people, Asian people, and people of color broadly have been at the front lines of this centuries-long catastrophic ordeal. Empowering these communities to rejoin the agrarian tradition and build wealth must be at the center of our work, as is resettling many of the depopulated regions with more democratic forms of landownership. Much of the most affordable land in this country is degraded, rural, or far from urban markets. These are strategic places to reclaim food sovereignty.
A wide range of innovative approaches to land access are emerging. These include partnerships, green investment, lease-to-own arrangements, farm incubators, and other strategies. However, we must remember that our agricultural economy is profoundly distorted by energy subsidies, commodity markets, and real estate booms. The value of food and farm labor is arbitrarily low. That calculus is likely to change. Be brave and try out something new, but make sure it is fair, sensible, and not something that could be called “Sharecropping 2.0.”
Where ownership is not possible, long-term tenure and lease agreements ensure that farmers are invested in a place, bound by relationships and community. Such farmers can produce healthy foods for direct, local, and regional consumption. Absenteeism, corporate management, speculation, and production for export and agrifuels may be profitable, but they do not support food security.