Accessing Farmland Together: Strategies and Considerations
BY KATHY RUHF AND JIM HABANA HAFNER
Many farmers are exploring ways to farm together. The idea of being and sharing with other farmers is not only appealing but innately human. The impulse to cooperate is as old as agriculture itself when sustaining one’s self and family was a group effort, and individual sustenance was only possible in community. Today this is sometimes referred to as “collaborative farming,” “cooperative farming,” or “collective farming.” When farming as a group, farmers may share resources, assets, knowledge and skills. A group of farmers could share equipment, inputs, marketing and/or labor.
Farmers could also share land
This article focuses on how farmers access land as a group. The focus is on farmers with commercial aims, although the motivations for, and benefits of “group farmland access” extend beyond economic considerations. It is worth noting that an increasing number of private and public landowners are interested in providing group farming opportunities on their land.
Like many visions about farming, “group farmland access” can mean different things. In this article, group farmland access means two or more farmers using a specific property for farming. A group might also consist of farmers and non-farmers on land together. Group farmland access implies some amount of purposeful interaction among the farmers in the group, on a piece of land. So farmers who rent land from the same landlord but do not interact with each other in meaningful ways would not be considered “group farming.” They would just be independent tenants.
Purposeful interaction among farmers on the same piece of land has both advantages and challenges. Group farmland access requires legal arrangements for holding the land along with structures and processes for group “governance.” The legal and social arrangements for holding land and making decisions as a group vary. Each has pros and cons.
A new decision tool developed by Land For Good for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network-Northeast (FRSAN-NE) helps farmers examine group farmland access methods, landforgood.org/accessing-farmland-together. Ten group farmland access methods are described, based on the type of group and choice to rent or own the land.
In this new decision tool, a group could consist of several farmers who are farming together as a single farm business entity or a group might comprise a few farmers who have their own businesses and want to share a parcel of land. A farmer might farm alongside others on land rented from a training incubator. The focus is on how group approaches to land access could meet the vision and situation of a farmer, a group of farmers, a landowner, or other stakeholders. A method that works for one farmer or group or situation might not be appropriate for another.
Why focus on group farmland access?
Groups of farmers farming on land together is not a new concept. Throughout history, farmers have shared land by means of formal or informal arrangements. Many Indigenous peoples have worked the land together without artificial boundaries between them. In the U.S., settler colonialism, genocide and slavery (and their aftermath), Western European concepts of private property (and policies based on its sanctity) have undermined group stewardship of land, including many of the values and informal/non-legal norms and customs supporting it.
In 1969, Black civil rights activists including co-founder Shirley Sherrod formed New Communities Land Trust and purchased 6,000 acres in Georgia. New Communities rented parcels of land to African Americans who farmed and lived there. A decade later, the New England Small Farm Institute began subleasing small parcels of a 400-acre state-owned property to groups of incubating farmer-trainees. Thirty years ago, immigrant farmers from Puerto Rico started Nuestras Raices to grow food on shared urban land in Massachusetts. In 1994, the Wellspring Land Cooperative in VT was incorporated as a community land trust to share the ownership, care and financial responsibility of acquired land among the members residing on that land. These are just four examples of how farmers share land. Farmers and communities continue to experiment with how group farmland access can make farmland more affordable and secure and can foster a spirit of sharing and cooperation.
Group land access can address one of the biggest challenges for farmers—especially new and young farmers, and those from groups that are and were historically and are still marginalized due to their race, class, ethnicity, gender—getting onto land.
Farmland is expensive to buy. Appropriate land for agriculture is hard to find, especially when housing is factored in. Renting land can be expensive relative to farm profit margins and rented land can be insecure, so it is risky for farmers to make permanent or long-term investments in the operation or the land itself. Plus, farming can be isolating. Pooling resources can make land access more affordable. Sharing land can reduce risk. That said, some group methods bring their own sets of risks.
Often, groups of farmers who share access to farmland will also share in other aspects of farming, such as buying seeds, using wash stations and tractors, and delivering farm products to market. In most cases, farmer and farm labor housing are critical pieces of the land access puzzle. The Decision-Making Tool for FRSAN-NE focuses on land, but many of the considerations apply to shared farmer housing as well.
Working as a Group
The idea of sharing land with others is attractive to some farmers. A spirit of cooperation, sharing resources and connecting around shared values if not a common vision can improve farmers’ chances of production and business success as well as quality of life. Depending on the method, accessing land as a group can be an antidote to the ills of private property ownership and lack of community expressed by some farmers, as well as by some farming and social justice groups. The Greenhorns guidebook Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together by Faith Gilbert provides a useful introduction and framework for exploring multiple aspects of farming as a group.
There are also challenges to group farmland access. Groups of people can be challenging to manage, regardless of how committed and harmonious they are. Those involved may have a lot of history together or maybe create new relationships. Group composition may change over time. Group farmland access involves a lot more than just getting along or sharing resources. It involves trust, communication, accommodation and accountability in very different ways than going “solo” on land.
Group farmland access relies on three equally important kinds of relationships: interpersonal, legal and management. Interpersonal relationships are social. The legal structures alone will not be effective or enduring tools if the underlying social dynamics are dysfunctional or not a good fit with the legal structure. Social relationships can be complicated. Functioning in a group is very different from doing it alone as a farmer and farm business. Relationship basics such as good communications, managing differences and conflict, and effective decision-making are all essential. Diversity in language, culture, gender and socio-economic backgrounds can add to the complexity – and the opportunity. People and circumstances change over time. Shared values and good procedures help a lot, but that doesn’t guarantee success.
Legal relationships are the technical aspects. They focus on the arrangements among the parties and with the land reflected in such documents as deeds, leases, and operating agreements. They are often developed with the guidance of an attorney. While these documents can be very technical, they help make rights and obligations clear. Any arrangement of farmers on the land will involve some type of legal agreement. Even if a group arrangement is based on informal and verbal agreements that are evolving, or a creative combination of methods, the group still needs to get clear about and document in writing the legal arrangements and how it will operate.
Management relationships are the glue between the interpersonal and the legal. They describe how the group is managed and governed. Sometimes these processes are laid out in legal documents. In other situations, group management is less formal but nonetheless needs to be understood and accepted by all. Whatever the arrangement, principles of equity should prevail. This means that all parties should feel assured that the agreements are fair; that each party’s rights and interests are fairly represented. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of the cooperative and co-housing movements, and other fields where group dynamics and cooperative management are central.
The group farmland access decision tool invites farmers to consider these key questions:
Who is in the group?
What are the legal structures and agreements?
What documents are required?
How are social relationships managed?
Then it proposes four steps for farmers, landowners, and other stakeholders to take to explore whether a group approach might work for their goals or situations.
The first focuses on the type of group. The group may already exist, be developing or aspirational. These four group types are presented in Table 1. They are an arbitrary typology as there are variations, combinations, and other options. But thinking about types can help clarify thinking and process. In the one-farm group, a single farm business with multiple farmers buys or rents a property. In the intentional group, separate farm businesses intentionally commit to owning or renting a property together. These farmers may also share equipment, inputs, marketing and/or labor.
In a situational group, separate farm businesses independently rent portions of a property, connected by an overarching mission or framework. An incubator farm run by a nonprofit organization and hosting multiple farmers and farm businesses is an example. Here too, equipment, infrastructure, and labor could be shared among the farmers, with or without the involvement of the host entity that provides the land base. Farmers in a situational group may also share services offered by the landlord organization. A mixed group could be farmers and non-farmers renting or owning (or a combination) a property together. For example, a group of farmers could be members of a community land trust from which they rent land. A mixed group could also describe a situation where some farmers own a property and other farmers rent from them.
The second step is the choice of land tenure: to rent or own the land. Land For Good’s Farm Access Methods Guide focuses on the basics of farmland tenure—meaning how farmers hold their land – and provides a framework for understanding various tenure options. Land tenure is underpinned by law and custom, many of which are problematic due to their historic and contemporary inequities. The concept and legacies of land holding, control and use via property ownership are fraught. Some visionaries and social activists (including farmers and farmland owners) advocate for alternatives to land as private property and to treating land as a commodity. Some of the models refer to “community ownership” or “ownership by the commons”—concepts that partially overlap with (but are not the same as) group farmland access. These should not be confused with common property, and readers interested in “the commons” as a form of natural resource governance are referred to the vast literature on “common property theory.”
These approaches are gaining traction and new examples appear with increasing frequency. That said, the basic land tenure methods still revolve around ownership, or the alternative, tenancy. For the most part, group farmland access also faces the same fork in the road: to own or rent property. Farmers could own some land and rent additional land. This is common due to the need to secure a farm with housing, and also acquire additional land to ensure an adequate (and flexible) farmland base. Many farmers move from renting land to purchasing that same property or other land. The same can be true for farmers in some group farmland situations.
Buying farmland, which often includes housing and farm infrastructure, is a big commitment under any scenario. But buying land with others has its own set of risks. Can the group afford the initial purchase and ownership costs over time? Who or what entity should be on the deed? How is equity in the real estate divided and adjusted? How does a farmer get out if they don’t want to own anymore? How are differences in investment handled? How do group ownership structures and norms align with other values about, for example, land as private property?
The third step is to explore various methods, based on the type of group and choice of tenure. In the tool, a decision tree graphically lays out ten methods. Real-world examples bring each method to life. For example, a “one-farm group” wishing to own property together has a couple of choices. At Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Maine, four individual farmers formed a farm business, Bumbleroot Farm LLC. They also formed a separate real estate LLC (Limited Liability Company) that owns the land and leases it to the farm business.
Grow Food Northampton in Massachusetts, and Intervale Center in Vermont are nonprofit organizations that own land and rent to multiple (a group of) farmers. In these examples of “situational group” access, the individual farmers have their own businesses and separate leases. The farmers chose this method for the benefits that working and learning alongside others brings to their own businesses. They share infrastructure and abide by overarching requirements from the landlord organization. In these cases, the method is consistent with the mission and goals of the landowning host organizations. A variation on this method is exemplified by Urban Edge Farm in Rhode Island. Here, Southside Community Land Trust rents state-owned land and then subleases portions of that land to several separate farm businesses that cooperate on infrastructure use and marketing.
In Maine, the Somali Bantu Community Association formed a nonprofit organization of farmers, in part to negotiate a long-term lease for land owned by the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons, which receives oversight and support from the Agrarian Trust. In this example of an “intentional group,” the tenant is one entity with multiple farmers, and the landlord is a community land trust.
Practically speaking, the category of method is less important than the structures and agreements among the parties. Some farmers may think it is all too complicated, too formal, with too much “legalese.” They would rather rely on good intentions and good “vibes.” Yes, sometimes informal arrangements can be appropriate and sufficient. But without doing the homework, casual agreements and assumptions often result in failure. The point is that good relationships alone can’t do the job of sound, well-thought-out, agreed upon and documented structures and agreements. Conversely, all the legalese in the world will not realize a given method if it is not based on strong relationships. The authors know of one group of farmers that was enthusiastic about forming a cooperative to rent land from a state agency. After many hours of meetings and document drafting, it fell apart because no one wanted to take responsibility for the details. In another case, a well-intentioned farm support organization ran into trouble when one of the farmer-tenants on its land exposed the organization to liability from land mismanagement.
That is where a list of guiding questions, step four in the decision tool, can help farmers make choices and stimulate more research.
What names are on a deed or lease, who is the landlord, how can an individual farmer exit from the arrangement and who makes what decisions are factors that can make or break any group farming on land together. For most farmers, considerations about equity, fairness and security are as important as affordability, liability and control.
Farming together is as old as agriculture itself, and has been central to the business of farming for centuries. Contemporary norms and policies have eroded much of agriculture’s cooperative, community-oriented foundations. There are many reasons why interest in group farming—and group farmland access in particular—has increased. We have witnessed this trend over Land For Good’s nearly 20 years of work with farmers, landowners, non-profits, other farm service providers and policymakers. It is our hope that teasing out the dimensions and goals of this growing interest will contribute to more thinking, dialogue and successful decision making around group farming more broadly. We encourage farmers, landowners and others to explore group land access and to share their stories.
Resources and Links: youngfarmers.org/frsan-ne/ newcommunitiesinc.com/ The Greenhorns guidebook Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together by Faith Gilbert, greenhorns.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Greenhorns_Cooperative_Farming_Guidebook.pdf Land For Good’s Farm Access Methods Guide, landforgood.org/options-for-farm-access/ Bumbleroot Organic Farm, bumblerootorganicfarm.com
Kathy Ruhf is Senior Advisor and Jim Habana Hafner is Executive Director at Land For Good.