Land Tenure and Perennial Agriculture

by Connor Stedman

It’s harvest time in New England.  Farmer’s markets are filled with apples, winter squash, root vegetables, and the final weeks of greens before the hard killing frosts arrive.  For people who enjoy local food, it’s worth thinking about the needs and challenges of farmers while enjoying the bounty of the season.  There’s a significant generational shift taking place in agriculture right now; as older farmers retire, more and more young farmers are taking their place.  And one of the biggest challenges for young, beginning farmers, is finding and retaining access to land.

Because of the local food movement that’s developed in the U.S. in the past decade, many regions of the country have excellent markets for beginning farmers.  Urban and suburban farmers’ markets, grocery stores that carry local food, and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs all can provide reliable income to beginning farms.  But many of those markets are near major metropolitan regions or are in wealthier semi-rural areas.  In both of these types of regions, land is priced for housing development rather than for agriculture.   So there’s a devil’s-bargain situation for farmers here, where the already-high initial capital and infrastructure requirements for agriculture get much more expensive for farms located close to their ideal markets.

Because of this, young beginning farmers (who usually lack access to significant financial resources) often enter into semiformal or informal arrangements with wealthy landowners in order to run the farm businesses they want to be running.  Many of those arrangements end up being unworkable, leading to those farmers losing land access in just a few years.  Without solid financial and legal agreements, farmers’ ability to stay on their rented or leased farms long-term can be very tenuous.  So educating new farmers should include training in how to enter into those financial and legal agreements, as well as just training in farming practices.

But it’s also helpful to think a little more deeply why stable, long-term land tenure matters.  One might think, annual farmers can easily pick up and move in between growing seasons if they need to.  After all, they replant their crops every year anyway!  But there’s a huge opportunity cost to moving locations – the time, energy and money spent moving could all be spent in other ways if the farmer didn’t need to move.  Beyond that, the real value of long-term tenure is being able to build soil fertility and knowledge of the farm over time, as well as long-term market and customer development.  Most farmers would like to stay in one place for a long time if they could, and many young beginning farmers aren’t able to because of the issues discussed above.

All of that, though, is doubly true for farmers growing perennial cut flowers, fruit and nut trees, or certain medicinal plants like ginseng.  These long-term perennial crops produce for many years without replanting.  This reduces the negative ecological consequences of annual agriculture (such as soil erosion and ongoing heavy pest insect pressure) while also reducing the economic costs of re-tilling and replanting every year.  Furthermore, since perennial crops don’t fully die back at the end of each growing season, they hold and sequester carbon from the atmosphere over time and help to mitigate global climate change.  On the other hand, these crops can take years to develop their full yielding potential.  It can take over a decade to recoup an initial investment in a perennial crop planting, especially for slow-growing crops like nut trees or certain medicinal plants.

This has particular implications for the development of diverse, ecologically sustainable perennial farms, rather than just single-crop monocultures.  Because diverse perennial agriculture systems often aren’t simple – they require significant planning, observation, and adjustment over time.  That, plus the land access and tenure issues, means that there are major disincentives to invest, both for financial backers (like banks) and for the start-up farmers themselves.  So that, in turn, means there continue to be few good working examples of diverse perennial farms!  Then, when one of the few existing examples fails, it adds up in many peoples’ minds to some version of “I guess perennial agriculture just doesn’t work.”  But of course, many startup businesses fail.  And early failures in a “still-learning-how” field are not surprising – but nor do they indicate that the concept or process is unsound.

Because, perennial agriculture is one of the most important strategies available for healing the planet through sequestering carbon, restoring damaged land, and creating resilient local economies.  Figuring out reliable, consistent strategies for the land access and tenure problem would open the doors much wider for experimentation, research, and enterprise development around perennial farming, which would help shift agriculture from extractive to regenerative practices on a larger scale.  In other words, this isn’t just about beginning farmers – land access is a bottleneck, and therefore leverage point, for the larger ecological and economic transition towards sustainability.


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