Notes from OUR LAND: A symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century – Part I

Posted by dennisjdennis on May 07, 2014

“If there is a fight of our times it is a struggle over land.” – Anuradha Mittal

OurLandSymposiumPosterFinalThis quote comes from the opening talk by Anuradha Mittal at OUR LAND: A Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century. I had the opportunity to attend this two day symposium which brought scholars and community organizers together to create dialogue and advance solutions for addressing farmland access. The symposium was hosted by the Agrarian Trust, an organization initiated in 2013 in response to the growing land access challenges faced by beginning farmers across the United States. The mission of the Agrarian Trust is “to support land access for next generation farmers,” and they aim to do this through building an organization that can itself hold and transfer farmland as well as through advocacy. The working principles of the Agrarian Trust were introduced at the symposium by Severine von Tscharner Fleming, an organizer in the US Greenhorns movement, and attendees were encouraged to provide feedback through an online process, which you can view here. 

Anuradha Mittal, the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, opened the symposium with a talk that contextualized the farmland challenges being faced in the United States within the larger context of global land grabs and conflict over agricultural land in other parts of the world. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘land grabs’ it refers to the acquisition – buying or leasing – by a diversity of actors including domestic or foreign corporations, government, or individual investors for profit. At the heart of land grabs is the loss of farmer or community control over farmland, natural resources and food production. While there are links between farmland challenges in North America and other regions of the world, Eric Holt-Giménez, the director of Food First, reminded the participants that the discussions occurring at this symposium are occurring in a privileged and safe space. In many parts of the world, land grabs and free market encroachment are driving a heightened and deeply violent process of land dispossession and disenfranchisement.

If you are interested in learning more about land grabs, the Oakland Institute has a report available focused on Africa and another one focused on the United States. For a Canadian perspective the National Farmers Union published a report in 2010 called Losing Our Grip: How a Corporate Farmland Buy-up, Rising Debt and Agribusiness Financing of Inputs Threaten Family Farms and Food Sovereignty.

An overarching issue and question framed the presentations and contributing answers to this question was at the heart of the symposium. The issue is that over the next 10 – 20 years it is estimated than more than 50% of the agricultural land in the United States will change hands. We are facing this same issue in BC and Canada. In BC 54% of farm operators are over 55 years old and 5% are under 35 years old. This issue of outgoing farmers without incoming farmers is coupled with rising cost of farmland and inputs without any increase in profit margins. The graphs in the image below illustrate these trends.

Declining young farmer, rising cost of land, lack of profitability

The issue of an impending land transition in the next decade or two raises the question, ‘how is that transition going to happen?’  Joel Salatin painted two scenarios; one being the land is captured by investors and the finance sector and the other is that the land is captured by a growing movement of enthusiastic young farmers. As Eric Holt- Giménez put it, we are at a ‘critical juncture.’ It was emphasized by many of the speakers that this issue we are facing is multi-generational. Farmland transition involves both the exiting farmers and the entering farmers and the development of strategies must involve and meet both the needs of young and beginning farmers and retiring and exiting farmers.

The enthusiastic young farmers, as well as the retiring farmers, are up against some serious obstacles and it is going to require a broad base of actors and a diversity of strategies to address the challenges ahead. Appropriately, the symposium itself brought together an array of actors who presented a diversity of strategies for supporting farmland access. The programs presented were all US based however parallel programs are emerging across Canada.

The strategies for approaching farmland access in the 21st century discussed at the symposium included non-ownership models of land tenure and access, models of land sharing, low capital models of farming, land-linking programs, support for drafting access agreements, succession coaching, community financing models to access capital, community land trusts, and land trust organizations that can hold land or hold an affirmative agricultural covenant.

I am going to follow up with a Part 2 to this post exploring in more detail some of the programs presented at the Symposium and how they relate to the farmland access research I have been carrying here in British Columbia.

If you are interested in delving deeper into the ideas presented at the Symposium on your own there are recordings of the presentations available here.

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