Perennial Agriculture and Land Tenure

My friend and I were talking about the challenges facing beginning farmers yesterday.  And one big topic that came up was land access and tenure.  On the access side, land in most high-density parts of the US is priced for housing, rather than for agriculture.  And those high-density areas are where the best markets usually are for beginning farmers!  So there’s quite a devil’s-bargain situation at work, where the already-high initial capital and infrastructure requirements for enterprise-scale production get a LOT more expensive if you want your farm to be anywhere close to major population centers.

And so a lot of beginning farmers, especially young beginning farmers who don’t usually have access to financial capital, end up entering into deeply unsound agreements with wealthy landowners in order to live the life that they want to be living.  And guess what?  They get burned left and right, because unsound agreements are, well, unsound.  This in turn illustrates the challenge on the tenure side – without solid financial and legal agreements in a can’t-afford-to-buy-land context, farmers’ ability to stay on their farms long-term can be very tenuous.  Severine Fleming of the Greenhorns made this point at an “Educating Beginning Farmers” panel at the NOFA-Vermont winter conference a few years ago, saying that educating new farmers has to include training in how to enter into business/financial and legal agreements.  Big yes!

But it’s also helpful to understand a little more deeply why stable, long-term land tenure matters.  Now, you might think, annual farmers can easily pick up and move if they need to – after all, they’re growing annuals!  But it turns out that there’s a huge opportunity cost to moving locations.  And beyond that, the real value of long-term tenure is not just not needing to spend time and money moving, but also being able to build soil fertility and knowledge of the place and the farm over time, as well as long-term market and customer development.  Bottom line, 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.

But all of that is true manyfold for perennial agriculture.  Because where annual farmers can earn something close to their potential yield after a few years of site development, perennial farmers may not even receive a harvest of their most valuable crops for 5 years or more, depending on the crop*.  So the enterprise budget is stretched out over 15-20 years to recoup the initial investment (especially think nut crops and long-term agroforestry systems), not just a 4-5 year growing cycle on an annual farm.

This has serious implications for the development of working enterprise-scale perennial agriculture systems, especially in climates (like the temperate East) where there aren’t many existing examples.  Because integrated perennial farming systems aren’t simple – they require significant design work and ongoing experimentation.  And that plus the big, big land access and tenure issue means that there’s a huge structural disincentive to invest, both for financial backers like banks and for the start-up farmers themselves.  So THAT means that there continue to be few working examples, which means that when one of the few examples fails, it adds up in many peoples’ minds to some version of “well, I guess food forestry/permaculture/perennial ag just doesn’t work.”  When, in fact, lots of startup enterprises fail!  And early failures in a we’re-still-learning-how field for our climate are not surprising – but nor do they indicate that the concept or process is unsound.

Because, as Eric Toensmeier will be keynote speaking about at the NOFA summer conference, perennial agriculture is one of the most important strategies available for healing the planet via sequestering carbon, restoring damaged land, and creating resilient local economies.  I’ll go out on a limb here: we need to figure out reliable, consistent strategies for the land access and tenure problem, so that all the juicy experimentation, action research, and enterprise development around regenerative perennial farming can take place, and can help shift the current extractive, death-spiral agricultural paradigm towards the principles embodied in ecosystems.  In other words, this isn’t just about beginning farmers – land access is a bottleneck, and therefore leverage point, for this larger ecological and economic transition.

As such, I’ll explore existing land access and tenure strategies, and possibilities for new emerging leverage points, in a future post.

For now, one prominent temperate tree crop enterprise – Mark Shepard’s working example of enterprise-scale food forestry in Wisconsin.  One example of commons-based land tenure – Land’s Sake in Weston, MA doing community agriculture and forestry with high school students on town-owned common land.  And a holistic model of wealth and capital with many applications for eco-social enterprise design – Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua’s 8 Forms of Capital.

*This, by the way, is a big reason to design and direct succession in perennial crop planning, so that you’re obtaining a yield from year 1.  Think strawberries, raspberries, currants, and fast-growing perennial vegetables as the early-succession stage of the farm while the slower-growing tree crops establish their root systems and their canopy.  The tree crops eventually “shade out” the early sun-loving producers, which get moved elsewhere on the farm to keep producing once the canopy fruit and nut crops kick in.  Yay forest gardening!  Now we just need a consistent process for getting stable 15-30 year leases on agroforestry-prime landscapes.  Anyone??

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5 Responses to Perennial Agriculture and Land Tenure

  1. I’m game. We’re doing it baby step by baby step.

  2. grousedrum says:

    Right on Mark! Any cool, clear examples of baby steps from your region?

  3. seanmichaelbutler says:

    Hey Conner – this is D’arcy’s friend, from the permaculture convergence this past weekend. I’d suggest reading this article, especially the “Land Access” section: http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-12/mark-shepherds-106-acre-permaculture-farm-viola-wisconsin

  4. Pingback: More on Regenerative Ag and Beginning Farmers | Renewing the Commons

  5. Pingback: The Designer Has Not Yet Become the Recliner | Renewing the Commons

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