Opinion: Let's Talk: Land Access for Beginning Farmers
By Sarah Greenberg
In a speech delivered in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discussed the distortion our government imposes when asking Black farmers to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. Access to land was at the heart of his remarks and is at the core of human survival yesterday, today and into the future. Farmer access to a secure land base is fundamental to not just the food security of our society but also to our national security. We are in a time of unprecedented land transition. 10% of all farmland, or 93 million acres, was transferred from 2015 to 2019. At the same time, access to land is the number one challenge beginning farmers face. Despite these challenges, there are transformative and substantive solutions. There are many elements that contribute to the difficulty farmers face in accessing land. In qualitative interviews with Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) beginning farmers, three themes emerged:
1. current systems of land ownership are failing new and aspiring farmers
2. current systems of access to capital are failing new and aspiring farmers
3. new and aspiring farmers have urgent calls to action - sustainably supporting their communities and families.
“Owning the land is the issue of farming,” says Alex Ball of Old City Acres. “Farming is hard, but that initial push to own the land is the hardest part of the business.” His words align with many other farmers. Frequently, beginning farmers start by renting land and spend considerable time rebuilding soil health and building infrastructure only to lose access to that land down the road. Access to secure and affordable land, where a farmer is able to make a deep connection, stability and confidence is the foundation of a successful farm operation for many young farmers. While renting or leasing land may be appealing in the short term, there is less security and often more money and labor input required, making land ownership a more enticing long-term investment. The historical disenfranchisement and systemic challenges of land ownership for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color make the call for pulling oneself up by your bootstraps even more ludicrous. Land ownership in America is rooted in dispossession. From Indigenous land removal to slavery to sharecropping and tenant farming, the settler colonial construct that land is a commodity that can be bought and sold remains true today. This is “not a good option” says Alex. It prevents people from building equity and strips them of fundamental human rights. Restructuring our perception of land ownership towards a path for mutual flourishing and care for stewardship will allow farmers to regenerate their community's food system. An alternative land management system may include accessible and secure opportunities for community cooperatives, land trusts, and conservation easements, where the health and care of the community and land are central to the farmer’s success (check out the New Communities Land Trust).
Land ownership provides the base to build financial equity, but access to capital is what is needed to open the door to that opportunity. Jonathan Greer, the owner of Eden’s Blessings, emphasized the importance of accessing land grants rather than loans because it provides the opportunity to acquire more capital. Unfortunately, most government agencies do not serve smaller and specialty crop producers very well. Jonathan would like to see the distribution of these grants by organizations like OEFFA, so smaller farms have the ability to expand and thrive. For him and other BIPOC farmers, economic mobility is the key to success after being stripped of generational wealth and ownership for centuries. “Systemic racism is not a farce,” and the nepotism and resource advantage white farmers have is a dependability BIPOC farmers don’t have the comfort of relying on. This is why, for Jonathan, taking the penalty on his 401k was his only way to buy farmland.
It is not uncommon for beginning farmers to have a source of off-farm income. In fact, it is the norm. It could be in the form of another full-time job, part-time job, or donating plasma twice a week. Dana Hilfinger, from Roots, Fruits, and Shoots, feels this larger discussion of a standard of living for farmers is often suppressed and stigmatized, which does not benefit the mental and physical health of overworked farmers. With market uncertainty and high production and investment costs, beginning farmers require more monetary support to strengthen their operations and futures. It’s also necessary to expand the parameters of access to capital for beginning farmers to address affordable housing, paying off student loan debt, access to healthcare, and maintaining a livable wage.
Land access is the key for beginning farmers to answer their calls for action. Their motivation to be a part of the farming community should not be neglected. They are often rooted in addressing the climate crisis and building a more socially just future for generations to come. Farming provides a tangible way for them to connect with the fruits of their labor, empower their communities and increase local food access. Farmland can be utilized as a classroom to educate community members on food sovereignty, which can, in turn lead to more economic mobility and empowerment. Confidence and security in land tenure are imperative for their individual and communal long-term sustainability. To make the profession lucrative to young people, there must be a goal toward addressing barriers that limit these motivations.
In an agricultural system in need of more beginning farmers, I often wonder how viable and inviting a future in farming is. Why should young farmers continue down a career path that is set up for their failure?
To allow the growth of collective young farmer visions, we hope that the systems upholding the limitations of beginning farmers are not static. We must be bold in envisioning a different farming reality. After listening to other beginning farmers, there is a collective vision that a better, more just and resilient system is possible. The policy should match this vision. Beginning farmers should be supported by society so that we can thrive and, in turn, support our communities and not be in conflict with the system’s design. If I were to ask a legislator to consider being a farmer with the current passion, urgency, and resources of a young Black farmer, would they want in? Why are they likely to decline such an offer? What do we need our food system to be in order for this farmer’s standard of living to be worthy of a legislator's consideration? In the time leading up to the Farm Bill's reauthorization, it is imperative that we give attention to what beginning farmers are facing and empower their future with meaningful change. Structural transformation is paramount for beginning and BIPOC farmers. Current structures for land ownership, access to capital, crop insurance and consolidation need to be reestablished to reflect farmer’s needs. We must listen and redirect toward resilience if we hope to maintain a right to nourishing food. In a system demanding fortitude from an individual, I am asking for justice… for the collective.
Sarah Greenberg, she/her, is a Policy Intern for OEFFA and a current farmer in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org